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Navy Uniforms

United States Navy uniforms must now adhere to strict standards.

Navy Uniforms include dress uniforms, worn on formal occasions such as funerals. [©Shutterstock, 2010]
©Shutterstock, 2010
Navy Uniforms include dress uniforms, worn on formal occasions such as funerals.

Navy Uniforms

Since the establishment of the U.S. naval forces more than 200 years ago, Navy uniforms have undergone numerous style changes. Each change has been designed to accommodate needs such as personal comfort, protection against the elements and distinction among naval ranks. Although each country's Navy has its own unique uniform design, the aim of every uniform is to fulfill these needs, a purpose that can be illustrated by examining the evolution of the U.S. Navy's and United Kingdom's Royal Navy's uniforms -- two of the world's powerful naval forces.

Clothing of Early Naval Personnel

The 18th century marked the establishment of country navies in many parts of the world. However, these early naval forces did not have regulated uniforms. This was largely due to both a lack of available funding and an extremely high turnover rate of naval personnel, which made spending money on uniforms a waste. For example, being a member of the United Kingdom's Royal Navy was considered a low position, as men were forced into the Royal Navy and had to endure poor conditions and high levels of danger. Royal Navy sailors frequently abandoned service and, consequently, little attention was paid to uniforms.

In the United States, on the other hand, the lack of focus on naval uniforms was initially a direct result of depleted funding rather than of negligible interest. The U.S. Navy was first established during the American Revolutionary War, which took place between 1775 and 1783, and available funds were spent on obtaining ships and ammunition rather than on clothing seamen. Unlike the United Kingdom, however, U.S. naval personnel did have vague uniforms during this time. According to the Naval History and Heritage Command, this early naval uniform consisted of pantaloons, a jumper or a shirt, a handkerchief tied around the neck, a short-waisted jacket and a low-crowned hat. American sailors also often wore bandanas as sweatbands and usually went barefoot during this period.

The end of the American Revolutionary War marked the end of the U.S. Navy for almost 20 years. In the years closely following its reinstatement in 1798, there was very little focus on naval uniforms, and enlisted men simply wore homemade outfits.

First Regulated Uniforms

The year 1817 marked the first time that U.S. Navy personnel were provided with standardized uniforms. The winter uniform consisted of a blue jacket and trousers, a black hat and a red vest adorned with yellow buttons. The warm-weather uniform consisted of a similar white outfit with a black hat. Sailors also began to wear bell-bottom style pantaloons in order to distinguish themselves from civilians. Although the government did provide these wardrobe guidelines, uniform standards were not strictly enforced, and sailors were free to add their own personal touches.

The lax dress code changed in 1841 when the U.S. government issued and enforced an official description of uniforms, as well as grooming requirements, in order to make sailors appear more respectable. Those in the Royal Navy did not have to adhere to strict uniform rules until the early 20th century, according to the Royal Navy Museum's Sea Your History project. Prior to that time, enlisted men in the United Kingdom made their own uniforms out of whatever materials they could get their hands on.

Uniform Adaptations to Meet Functional Needs

Several changes were made to the U.S. naval uniform as new experiences brought to light practicality issues with the garb. As early as 1852, officials realized that the prescribed black varnished hats were not suitable for seamen because of the material's tendency to crack. As a result, blue, flat hats were developed, and sailors were permitted to add white covers in warm weather to protect their heads from heat. Later, according to regulations created in 1866, Navy hats were further adapted to be more functional. Personnel were permitted to wear white straw hats instead of adding a white cover, as officials realized that the covers did not provide sufficient heat protection. In 1886, white straw hats were switched for white canvas hats to allow for easier laundering. The U.S. Navy currently wears white cotton hats.

In terms of apparel, several adaptations were made to naval uniforms throughout history to satisfy functional needs. In 1897, trousers were enlarged to allow for added comfort, and in 1901, workmen were permitted to wear denim trousers and jumpers instead of white uniforms to avoid the need for frequent washing. More recently, in 1940, blue collars and cuffs on white uniforms were eliminated because of issues with the blue dye running during laundering.

Uniform Adornments to Distinguish Ranks

An expanding naval force was another factor that necessitated changes in Navy uniforms. As the U.S. Navy increased in size, new ranks and divisions were established, generating the need to distinguish among personnel by way of identifying uniform adornments. The first time uniform additions were enforced to distinguish men of different ranks was in 1841. In order to differentiate between junior enlisted seamen and petty officers, petty officers wore a symbol of an eagle on top of an anchor on their uniforms, which was blue on white uniforms and white on blue uniforms.

By the end of the American Civil War, the U.S. Navy had expanded considerably. In addition to petty officers, personnel of other ranks needed to be readily identifiable. In 1866, a system was developed in which white piping on uniform's collars served as identifiers of rank. For example, the presence of three rows of white piping on a uniform's collar and cuffs meant that the individual wearing the uniform was a petty officer, while the presence of one row of white piping meant that the individual was a landsman. This system of identifying rank was discontinued in 1876, as it was too time-consuming to hand sew specialized piping. Instead, various symbols, or insignia, in the form of badges were added to uniforms to identify varying ranks.

Current U.S. Navy Uniforms

In strong contrast to the early leniency in enforcing Navy uniforms, seamen today must adhere to strict rules regarding clothing. An extensive document of Navy uniform regulations, put forth by the Bureau of Naval Personnel, outlines current uniform requirements. There are a number of versions of Navy uniforms assigned to the various naval ranks, including regular enlisted personnel, officers and chief petty officers.

According to the Navy Personnel Command, the current summer uniform for enlisted males is comprised of a white shirt, trousers, a hat, black shoes and socks, a white belt with a silver buckle, and a rating badge and ribbons. The winter uniform is similar to the summer version, but the shirt and trousers are blue, the socks are white and the belt is black.

U.S. ranks today are identified by gold stripes around the sleeves of uniform jackets, a standard that is also used by the Royal Navy. The number and width of these gold stripes serve as signs of various ranks, such as admirals, captains and warrant officers. Embroidered gold symbols added to jacket sleeves identify those in specialized roles, such as medical corps, supply corps and dental corps.

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