History of U.S. Navy [Enlisted] Uniforms

Navy Department
Office of the Chief of Naval Operations
Washington, D.C. 20350

11 May 1981



The history of the development of the naval uniform traces the uniforms through significant changes from 1776 to 1977. These changes are related to naval history in order that the reader can match uniform development with changes in the Navy itself. The study has been compiled utilizing research data available in the Washington area. Uniform Regulations, provided by the Navy Department Library have been reviewed. The historical, personal and official correspondence regarding uniforms on file at the National Archives has been researched. Information has been obtained from Navy Uniform Board historical directives and selected commercial histories of Navy uniforms. A bibliography is included at the completion of the History Section.

In any historical narrative of Navy uniforms the dichotomy between officer and enlisted dress requires separate treatment of the evolutionary developments of these traditionally distinctive modes of dress. Officer and enlisted have historically been, for the most part, comprised of individuals from separate social, educational and economic classes. Their garb has reflected these differences, as well as conforming to the type of duties each group was expected to perform.

The following index separates uniform development into cogent periods of time in which definite clothing prescriptions evolved as a result of distinct historical influences:


1. The First Uniforms; Revolutionary War to 1812
2. Limited Uniform Development; 1812 to 1841
3. Early Uniform Standardization; 1841 to the Civil War
4. A Major Influence on Uniforms; The Civil War (1861-1865)
5. Technical Expansion Influencing Uniforms; Post Civil War to 1894
6. World-wide Navy Influences Uniforms; 1894-WWI
7. Women in the Navy; WWI
9. The Decision to Change; 1970's


1. The First Uniforms; Revolutionary War to 1798
2. Early Uniform Prescriptions; 1798-1830
3. Initial Uniform Standardization; 1830 to Civil War
4. Major Influence on Uniforms; The Civil War
5. Technical Expansion Effects Uniforms; Civil War to 1897
6. Development of Work Uniforms; 1900 to WWI
7. Modernization of Uniforms to Environment; WWI to WWII
8. Expansion of Uniform Types; WWII
9. Re-evaluation of Uniform Items; Post WWII to Present

*The Officer version on the "History of U.S. Navy Uniforms" will be in the June OPNAV Bulletin.


The enlisted man's uniform was developed largely as a product of his surroundings, both geographically and technically. Unlike the officer's uniform which began as a reflection of his social status and evolved into one reflecting his environment, his garb reflected practicality and was devoid of superfluity. Each item originally represented either a need for protection against the elements or to create distinctions among specialists in a growing Navy. Throughout, a simplicity was sought which would not interfere with the sailors' everyday tasks.

1. The First Uniforms; Revolutionary War to 1812

The military seaman of the 18th century was hardly a volunteer of high integrity. In the Royal Navy he was an impressed prisoner, a former inhabitant of merchantmen or waterfront bars and bordellos. His lot was considered less than human, and, in accordance with naval tactics of that age, he was used as cannon fodder in savage sea battles. Consequently, there was a high turnover in personnel, due not only to occupational risks, but also to large scale desertions to escape the horrid environmental conditions. Therefore, little effort was taken to properly clothe the seaman in anything resembling a uniform. It was considered a superfluous expense as the bulk of sailors did not have a long operational existence.

The American Revolutionary sailor fared little better. He participated in a Navy that was built from scratch. Meager funds and the scarcity of a manufacturing complex concentrated attention on procuring ships and ammunition. There was no money for uniforms. The peak strength of the Continental Navy during these times consisted of about 30 ships and 3,000 men. (Most sailors, on the other hand, preferred the life of the privateer. It was lucrative and appealing enough to attract over 2,000 ships). Thus, naval uniforms under these parsimonious conditions were non-descript, consisting of pantaloons often tied at the knee or knee breeches, a jumper or shirt, neckerchief, short waisted jacket and low crowned hats. The short trousers were practical so as not to interfere with a man's work in the rigging of his ship. Most sailors went barefoot. A kerchief or bandana was worn either as a sweat band or as a simple closure for the collar. Unfortunately there are no records that support the persistent myth that the black kerchief represents a sign of mourning for Nelson's demise. The sailor's kerchief predates his death by hundreds of years and evolved as a functional piece of garb. Nelsonian legends had nothing to do with accoutrements which developed out of necessity, rank identification or fashion embellishments.

The end of the Revolution brought about not only the close of the strife but the demise of the Navy as well. For almost 20 years, there was no Navy. It was not until 1797 that the service was reinstituted, as the fledgling republic realized the need for a Navy to protect its political and commercial interests. The Adams administration tried to create a volunteer Navy by offering high wages, plentiful food and decent accommodations. Attention was also given to uniforms and government procured clothing was made available in "slop shops". But descriptions are vague as many sailors continued to make their own non-standard clothing and the Adams administration was in power for only one term, scarcely long enough to create a standardized uniform.

In 1801 Jefferson came to power and embarked upon a policy of military cutbacks. The fleet was limited to 14 ships with commensurate reductions in funding and personnel. Again, due to cheeseparing economics, uniform development for enlisted received a low priority and subsequently suffered in non-descript, homemade garments. Not even the Barbary Coast in the early 1800's caused the nation to concentrate importance on naval matters and the Navy largely became a coastal array of single-gun barges.

2. Limited Uniform Development; War of 1812 to 1841

The War of 1812 caught America in a dilapidated state of military readiness. However, the courage and tenacity of the Navy was impressive and their victories, especially in view of the massive land defeats, caused a new surge of pride in naval matters. There was little overall progress on uniforms during the war due to the haste in which crews were assembled and lack of adequate funding. However, the postwar years saw a resurgence of interest in naval matters and the government began to pay more of an interest in its development. Not only had the Navy earned a fine reputation but it was beginning to build a cadre of professionals both officer and enlisted who elected to remain in service. These positive feelings resulted in the first attempt at a prescribed uniform in 1817. Through government procurement, winter and summer uniforms were provided. The winter uniform consisted of a blue jacket and trousers, red vest with yellow buttons and a black hat.

As a result of wartime operations in tropical waters and spurred by increased relations with South America, the formerly cold water Navy prescribed appropriate warm weather gear consisting of a white duck outfit with a black varnished hat.

At this time bell bottoms began to appear. There is no substantive factual reason for their adoption, i.e., easier to roll up or kick off in the water, but rather appear to be a tailored version of the pantaloon, designed for a bit of flair which set the sailor apart from his civilian counterpart. However, as federal funding began to ebb, enlisted dress was rarely standardized or enforced and sailors added their own accoutrements, such as buttons and striping as they wished.

During the 1820's and 1830's the maritime trade expanded greatly to the Far East and with it came demands for naval protection. The Navy was occupied with full time support missions, and not merely sudden mobilization in times of war. In time, this operational activity would precipitate progressive definition in enlisted dress to meet various demands encountered by a maturing Navy.

3. Early Uniform Standardization; 1841 to the Civil War

Continuation and expansion of naval operations and the Navy's growth finally prodded activity towards a definitive uniform. The growing ranks of enlisteds created a need for a means of distinguishing senior and capable sailors. At the same time, showing the flag was creating a need for uniformity through the many ships.

The regulations of 1841 not only set forth the first description of an enlisted uniform, but also the first grooming regulations. [also see Articles 600 and 601 in the 1833 edition]. The uniform was a blue woolen frock with white collars and cuffs, blue trousers, blue vests, black handkerchiefs and hat, and shoes. In warmer weather a white jumper, black or white hat (at the captain's discretion), black handkerchief and shoes. The collars and breasts of the frock coats were lined in blue. For the first time commanding officers were required to insure personnel had the prescribed clothing. The grooming regulations for all hands specified that hair and beards must be kept short, except whiskers might descend to one inch below the ear and in line with corners of the mouth. Thus the basis for "mutton chop" whiskers so prevalent in paintings of the period. The regulations of 1841 also provided another "first" for enlisted, a distinctive mark for petty officers. The device consisted of an eagle atop an anchor, which was a common theme in the early American maritime history, not more than three inches high with a star above the eagle. It also specified that the insignia was to be blue on a white uniform and white on blue uniforms. The eagle was probably chosen for several reasons. As the national symbol, the eagle first appeared on the national seal in 1782 and was displayed on officers buttons positioned over an anchor since 1802. It was a prevalent design on Army uniforms and was a common insignia during the 1840's. Thus it can be assumed that the frequent usage during the early years of the nation made the eagle the most logical choice in the Navy. Also the use of the eagle on officers buttons might have influenced its adoption on petty officer insignias. Although there were no specialty marks, distinction of ratings was accomplished by delineating on which arm the device was to be worn, and it created the "left arm", "right arm" ratings which continued for over one hundred years. It was an important step in distinguishing between petty officers and junior enlisted, thus enhancing and recognizing the career personnel among their peers and superiors.

During this period, paintings revealed that sailors began to use stars and piping on their collars. Although the three strands of collar piping were not standardized until much later, piping began as an embellishment to break up the color of the uniform. Again the legend of the three collar rows to commemorate Nelson's sea victories is a myth and has no basis of fact in any learned history of uniforms. It evolved merely as a decorative device and much later served to distinguish between rates.

Activity in the Gulf of Mexico and the ensuing Mexican War of 1846 with its blockades and amphibious operations changed various accoutrements of naval garb for comfort and practicality. The acquisition of California and the creation of a standing Pacific fleet produced additional demands for modifying the uniforms. In the regulations of 1852, a new hat was authorized for sea which was made of thick blue material and visorless. This forerunner of the flat hat was deemed more appropriate in windy weather, gave a better appearance and was more comfortable than the varnished black hats which suffered from cracking and crushing in cramped stowage. It could be transformed into summer wear by the addition of a white cover to help reflect heat, which was thought at the time to be a chief cause of tropical diseases. As shipboard mechanization increased, the practical considerations of maintaining a neat appearance within a work environment resulted in the deletion of white decorative cuffs and collars from the blue uniform in 1859. The sailor was now in a winter uniform of basically all blue which was much less susceptible to soilage.

4. A Major Influence on Uniforms; The Civil War

The Civil War, as with officer's clothing, increased standardization in enlisted clothing and created the beginnings of rate and specialty distinction. The dramatic growth of naval personnel and ships necessitated further distinctions in uniform appearance. In 1862, master-at-arms, yeoman, stewards and paymaster stewards, who were important and valuable leading petty officers, were authorized the wear of the double breasted officer type coat. This move to clothe principal petty officers in a more authoritarian garment was the first step towards the identification of future chief petty officers. Other enlisted dress was standardized into a style which was representative of the jumper/bell bottom uniform. It was practical, easy to work in, resisted soilage and provided protection against the elements. The jumper collar had changed from a roll collar to a flap and was standardized and extended to 6 ½ inches. This was probably to differentiate between the rolled collar of masters and senior petty officer coats. The British had developed a similar collar and as the main maritime power their uniforms were often emulated. The kerchief appears to have been used as a closure device, from the photographs that are available of the period. White and blue flat hats were worn and the trousers had either a fly front or seven button broadfall depending upon manufacturers. The scope of wartime procurement permitted many small deviations from a standard appearance and a government fighting for its survival was not about to argue details.

When peace finally came the Navy began to sort out its experiences and apply them to uniform development. The rapid growth of personnel showed that a system for rank identification was needed among all enlisteds. In the Regulations of 1866 a specialty mark was adopted for petty officers in master-at-arms, quartermaster, coxswain, gunners, carpenters, captain of the foc'sle, captain of the top and sailmaker ratings. White piping on the collar was standardized to distinguish petty officers (three rows), ordinary seaman (two rows) and landsmen and boys (one row). Corresponding rows were displayed on the cuffs. White stars were standardized on the collar. The collar was extended to 9" to accommodate these additions and remained that size until 1973.

Now that the business of war was over and the Navy shrunk in size, attention was directed to reducing the annoying proliferation of garment shapes and styles that had run rampant during the Civil War years. The years of blockades in warm climates also caused concern over clothing comfort.

The 1866 Regulations allowed a white sennet straw hat in addition to the white cover which was tied to the blue flat hat. It was found that the addition of a white cover did not provide coolness but rather added to the discomfort of the woolen hat in warm weather. This was the beginnings of a distinct white hat which would evolve through canvas and eventually the white cotton hat of recent times. To provide unit identification, which was so difficult in the myriad of ships that were commissioned, a hat ribbon specified to be 1 ¼" wide with the command's name in letter was prescribed. Commanding officers were required to insure that all lettering was the same size on all hats. Standardization was also carried through in size dimensions of the white hat and the mandate that all blue flat hats be uniform in shape and color.

The Civil War also brought about the Navy's entry into the steam age and its associated machinery and weaponry. New demands were placed upon the service not only to train a distinct group of men to handle these new devices, but also to provide suitable clothing for this new type of dirty work which could be easily washed on board ships. In 1869, two new ratings were authorized, the machinist and seaman gunner. In order to protect clothing from the dirty, sooty spaces, an overall and white jumper was authorized as a work uniform. White was chosen as dyeing of fabrics for mass production was often crude and was not very durable. Therefore a fabric which could be laundered easily without running was utilized. Appearance was restricted to work spaces where exposure was limited and considered secondary to utility. Also white was considered the best reflector for heat in engine room spaces at that time.

5. Technical Expansion Influencing Uniforms; Post Civil War to 1894

In the early 1870's, Secretary of the Navy Robeson called attention to the antiquated condition of the Navy compared to Europe. U.S. inability to keep abreast of foreign navies prompted a modernization program in which the Navy desperately tried to close the gap with up-to-date ships.

As the Navy further expanded, the importance of specialized leading petty officers became more pronounced and, as their skills increased, they became more identified with the management communities. A sailor was becoming more than just a body to handle lines or scramble around rigging. He was entering an age where a good level of education was needed to function in an increasingly complex Navy. Thus, as he was becoming a technician in both mechanical and logistical areas, a revision of uniform regulations in 1874 further modified the dress of principal petty officers to emulate that of commissioned officers. Senior petty officers of various ratings, now greatly increased from previous directives, were authorized to wear the sack coat with rating insignia on both sleeves.

The difficulties of adding piping by hand to collars by sailors onboard ships was realized, and in 1876 the white tape on the collar was standardized to three rows for all enlisted wearing the jumper, with rank to be determined by the petty officer insignia and cuff stripes.

Continuing troubles, primarily with Spain over Cuba, and Korean incidents over the next decade, helped to keep alive the country's concern about its relative naval weakness. The reconstruction of the Navy received favorable appropriations during President Garfield's term beginning in 1881. South American internal strife had shown that these small republics possessed better navies than the United States. Operations of the French de Lesseps Company in Panama threatened to put an Isthmian canal under European control. The United States had already acquired some territorial interests in the Pacific. Most important of all, the strong financial condition of the country made payment for a naval building program painless. Emphasis was placed on steam powered vessels with modern armament and shore establishments were consolidated and placed under the Bureau of Provisions and Clothing (eventually NAVSUP). This growth of ships and personnel in modern vessels required distinctions among personnel not previously necessary. In 1885 the first separation occurred among petty officers into principal, first, second and third class. The Regulations of 1886 provided a set of rating badges for each group. First class had three red downward pointing chevrons, in the manner of the Royal Navy, topped by an eagle with specialty mark imposed on a red lozenge between the chevrons and eagle. Principal petty officers wore the same except an arch was added to the top chevron, the same basic design as CPO's today. Second class had the same three chevrons as the first class but without the lozenge, and third class had two chevrons and no lozenge. Also in 1886, principal petty officers were directed to wear double breasted blue coats and a white sack coat in summer. Visored hats were worn. Other petty officers continued to wear the jumper and bell bottoms. The peacoat as we know it came into use about this time for foul weather use. It was warm and its shortness made it more practical for movement than a greatcoat. The white "sailor hat" appeared during this time as a low rolled brim, high domed item made of canvas to replace the white sennit straw hat. The canvas hat was easier to wear, could be washed and thus presented a neater appearance. By being built of wedges it was easy and cheap to construct, and its distinctive shape differentiated the American sailor from that period on.

6. World-wide Navy Influences Uniforms: 1894-WWI

Continuing expansion of the Navy brought about by the acceptance of then Captain Alfred Mahans' theories of seapower saw the construction of battle fleets not only to ward off the enemy, but to create havoc on his coasts. The increased responsibilities and diversity of specialized skills made it impossible for officers to handle all the supervisory and management tasks necessary in a modern warship. Nor were there enough warrants to handle the job. Therefore a finer and more permanent distinction among petty officers would have to be made in creating a class of supervisory personnel among enlisteds.

This differentiation between principal and regular petty officers of the first class rate came in the regulations of 1894 when the rank of chief petty officer was established. This new rate utilized the former principal petty officer badge with three red chevrons joined by an arch at the top and spread eagle above. The other devices were reorganized corresponding exactly to present day classifications.

With the new modern Navy, length of service was considered a source of pride among sailors and service stripes were introduced during this year, being similar to the Army in concept but distinctly nautical in appearance. They have remained basically unchanged to this day.

The Regulations of 1894 also printed the first specifications for uniforms by size. Previous to this, specifications were maintained either by the Bureau of Provisions and Clothing for manufacturers or Paymasters onboard ships for sailors who wished to make their own clothes, and there are no records available of these previous dimensions. However, it is interesting to note that the uniform specifications, except for the length of the jumper, did not drastically change from 1894 through 1973. Garments were originally loose fitting since the cloth shrunk greatly when washed. The trousers were moderately flared, there being a one inch increase in width between the knee and cuff, not truly a "bell bottom" as is so popularly recalled.

Since 1886 principal petty officers and then chief petty officers wore a bronze disk on their caps comprised of a spread eagle perched on a horizontal anchor. Since officers wore the same coats and utilized black braid rather than gold there was much confusion. Therefore, a need arose to provide a distinctive cap device for chief petty officers which would not utilize the eagle which was considered the symbol of officers' rank.

1897 saw the incorporation of a chief's cap device similar to the present design, a gilt fouled anchor with U.S.N. in silver.

If any single event could be selected to mark the emergence of the United States as a major power, perhaps no better choice could be made than the Spanish American War of 1898. This brief, one sided conflict involved the United States in the complex problems of the Far East and served notice to Europe that henceforth American military power would have to be considered. For the Americans themselves it marked a turning point toward greater participation in world affairs and a more adventurous foreign policy.

The operational experience of the Navy in this first major war since 1865 brought about some refinements and additions to enlisted clothing. As the war was fought primarily in tropical climates, some modifications for comforts sake were made by enlarging the broadfall on enlisted trousers in 1897. This necessitated increasing the number of buttons to eleven.

A further increase in depth of the flap sides would add two buttons for a total of thirteen. Although myth prevails that the number of buttons represented the original colonies, thirteen buttons happened to be the final number that provided adequate closure on the enlarged fall.

The Navy Uniform Board received various complaints about the shape and durability of the sailors white hat, which was worn so frequently in these hot climates. The brim in particular was found to droop and cause an unsightly appearance. The resultant corrective actions caused more stitching to be placed in the brim which caused the sides to be stiffer and stand upright. This practice of reinforced stitching continued to evolve the hat into the shape known until the hat was discontinued in 1975.

As the fleet increased its steaming time, a more suitable work garment was needed. Although white had been worn since 1869, sailing in tropical waters precluded the luxury of frequent laundering as a waste of precious water. Thus, the regulations of 1901 authorized the first use of denim jumpers and trousers to be utilized as a working uniform in areas which would normally soil blue or white uniforms. The 1913 regulations permitted the dungaree outfit to be used by both officers and enlisted men as a complete outfit, replete with the hat of the day. In general its use was limited to submarine, engine room, gun turret, and machinery space personnel.

An undress white uniform had existed since 1866. However, it was not until 1913 that an undress blue uniform appeared since piping was added to the blue uniform after the Civil War.

The Post Spanish American War period was most favorable to naval appropriations under the influence of President Roosevelt. By the time Wilson assumed power, unrest in Europe dispelled any efforts to reduce military might to any large degree.

7. World War I; Women in the Navy

When Europe exploded into War in 1914 its importance was not lost on the United States. Although Americans wanted to remain free of foreign entanglements, some preparations were considered prudent.

The mobilization of 1917 for the impending war brought about a new element into enlisted uniforms - women. Females were organized into reserve groups and a uniform which paralleled civilian fashion was designed. It is interesting to note that while the male enlisted uniform was distinctly nautical and evolved in relation to maritime needs, female enlisted clothing more closely followed civilian trends.

The first enlisted women's uniform was a single breasted coat, blue in winter and white in summer, long full bottomed skirts and a straight-brimmed sailor hat, blue felt in winter and white straw for warm weather. Black shoes and stockings were worn with summer whites. Rating badges were the same as male yeomen. Some pictures of the period show the neckerchief being utilized to provide some identity with the men.

Upon cessation of hostilities and its resultant scaling down of military activities, all women except for nurses, were released from active duty.

It was not until the advent of World War II, that a new WAVE uniform was designed and continues to the present day. Details of this uniform are the same as for women officers and are defined in the subsequent officer section.

The male enlisted uniform came through World War I unchanged. It may be surmised that since there was no modification or change, that it was felt the sailor had all he needed to function. This trend continued through the twenties and thirties.

8. World War II

The mobilization for and sudden entry of the U.S. into WWII had no major impact on Navy dress uniform styles. The millions of citizen sailors wore the same uniform popularized in the twenties and thirties. The expansion of the Navy into amphibious warfare required a Marine type working uniform for boat crews and SeaBees. Specialized clothing was required for carrier personnel. But for the majority the bell bottom, and jumper remained unchanged.

In October of 1940 the blue collar and cuffs were deleted from the dress whites as there were continuing problems with the blue dye running. This change left the sailor with dress and undress blues and undress whites which could fill the functions of dress as well.

January of 1941 saw the passing of another old tradition with the abolishment of the hat band ribbon which bore the unit's name on the flat hat. Security appears to be the factor for its demise and it was eventually replaced by the shoulder unit identification mark. This practice continued until July 1973, when it was discontinued as damaging to the suit material and construction.

The aftermath of World War II reinstated the trend of refining the sailor's uniform succeeding a military conflict. An attempt in 1947 to clothe sailors in a suit and tie met with fleet rejection.

In large part due to the rapid acceleration of personnel through the wartime rate structure, it became obvious that rating badges and added piping to denote rank was repetitious. Therefore, in 1947, cuff piping was standardized at three rows for all hands. The Uniform Regulations of 1949 abolished the left/right arm ratings. With the largest standing Navy in the world, there was confusion due to the non-uniform appearance of personnel in different ratings. The tremendous expansion of wartime ratings made determination of which arm the rating belonged to a full time nightmare. It was decided that henceforth all enlisted would wear their badges on the left arm.

The uniform continued through the fifties without change and the Korean conflict appears to have had no effect on enlisted garment development.

In 1962 the flat hat ceased issue. It had been supplanted by the more popular white hat and since there appeared no need for two hats it was abolished.

9. The Decision to Change - 1970's

In 1973 the most sweeping change in the history of enlisted dress occurred. Based on a survey conducted in 1970 it appeared that there was some fleet desire, principally among the more senior petty officers, for a different, more distinguished garb. Based on these findings, the sailor was removed from his traditional uniform and placed in a suit and tie which corresponded to the officer/CPO style. The intention was to create a single uniformed appearance and present the enlisted male in a uniform which was thought to better reflect the increasing complexity of the modern Navy.

The action to utilize a suit style for all enlisted has been one of the most controversial changes to effect the Navy in its uniform history. From a practical standpoint, the adoption of a different uniform for dress wear was not the result of a requirement. The jumper/bell bottom style had evolved in a work environment where each piece of the garment originally satisfied a need. With the absence of fully rigged sailing ships and the advent of more comfortable work uniforms, what a sailor wears for dress occasions is now a matter of style.

The most obvious impasse to acceptance of the suit and its outfit to the enlisted and general public is that it breaks with tradition. While the components of the jumper style uniform serve no nautical purpose today and are not related to anything worn in the civilian world, it has served to identify sailors all over the globe for too long a period of time. Most navies of the world have utilized a similar outfit and most still retain it for non-rated personnel. Throughout the course of uniform history there has continued a strong resistance to changing traditional garments. Sailors prefer to be distinctively dressed. It was the same in 1830 as it is in 1977.

Source: United States. Chief of Naval Operations. "History of U.S. Navy [Enlisted] Uniforms." OPNAV Information Bulletin. 11 May 1981.