Skip to main content

The Navy Department Library

Related Content
Document Type
Wars & Conflicts
File Formats
Location of Archival Materials

History of US Navy Uniforms, 1776-1981


The history of the development of the naval uniform traces the uniforms through significant changes from 1776-1981. 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 Naval 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; War of 1812 to1841

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 to World War I

7. Women in the Navy; World War I

8. World War II

9. The Decision to Change; 1970’s

10. Return to Tradition; 1980’s


1. The First Uniforms; Revolutionary War to 1798

2. Early Uniform Prescriptions; 1798 to 1830

3. Initial Uniform Prescriptions; 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 World War I

7. Modernization of Uniforms to Environment; World War I to World War II

8. Expansion of Uniform Types; World War II

9. Reevaluation of Uniform Items; Post World War II to Present


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 sailor’s 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 sing 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 the 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 give 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 men received a low priority and subsequently suffered in non-descript, homemade garments. Not even the Barbary Coast in the early 1800s 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, cause 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 have 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 kickoff 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 1820s and 1830s 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. The uniform was a blue woolen frock with white collars and cuffs, blue trousers, blue vests, 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 1840s. 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 insignia. Although there were no specialty marks, distinction of ratings being 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 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 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 in the number of naval personnel and ships necessitated further distinctions in uniform appearance. In 1862, master-at-arms, yeomen, 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 master 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 s 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) 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 inches 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 beginning 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 letters 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 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

In the early 1870’s, Secretary of the Navy Robeson called attention to the antiquated condition of the Navy compared to Europe. US 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 knew it came into use about the time for foul weather wear. 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 sennet 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 to World War I

Continuing expansion of the Navy brought about by the acceptance of then Captain Alfred Mahan’s 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 officer rank.

1897 saw the Incorporation of a chief’s cap device similar to the present design, a gilt fouled anchor with U.S.N. superimposed 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 problem 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 comfort’s 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 sailor’s 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 cause 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 office, unrest in Europe dispelled any efforts to reduce military might to any large degree.

7. Women in the Navy; World War I

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 gull bottomed skirts and 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 US 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 a 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 were 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 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 uniform appearance and present enlisted men in a uniform which was thought to 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 tie 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 the 1980’s.

10. Return to Tradition; 1980’s

The break with tradition, when coupled with unforeseen inconveniences of the suit and tie uniform, were unacceptable. Therefore, in 1980, the Navy again began to issue the jumper style uniform as a dress uniform to recruits. Women’s uniforms also underwent a sweeping change to increase their practicality and to make them more parallel to the men’s uniform.


1. The First Uniforms; Revolutionary War to 1798

From its inception, the United States Navy utilized as officers men who were generally a product of a higher social order. By becoming a naval officer, a man merely transferred the condition and aspects of his background into a different profession. He would not foresake his code of conduct, educational level, mannerisms, or least of all his dress by adopting a new means of livelihood. Thus the earliest officer uniforms identified the wearer as a gentleman of the maritime profession. His clothes closely paralleled the cut of civilian garments with color and accoutrements representing his nautical affiliation.

The initial attempt at a uniform for naval personnel was addressed by the Continental Congress in 1776 and exclusively dealt with the officer community. The dress prescribed was extremely somber and reflected the attitude of the Congress to eliminate the ornate trappings evidenced in the Royal Navy and move towards a democratic society. The naval officers quickly rebelled and demanded a more ornate uniform with dark blue coat and tricorner hat, colored facings, and cuffs with gold buttons and lace, a uniform which in fact was strikingly similar to that of the Royal Navy. General guidance was provided for distinctive garments which reflected the high position and authority felt necessary for the naval officer.

After the revolution had ended in 1783, the services were disbanded and the ordeals of privation and strife caused a reluctance to keep any standing forces in the fiercely independent colonies. Also, those who had served as officers were mostly happy to depart and return to merchant activities. Trade would be lucrative and few wanted to remain in the service where pay was infrequent and benefits nil. They had fought for a cause and it had been secured, there was no longer any reason for a professional military.

2. Early Uniform Prescriptions; 1798 to 1830

This naïve optimism began to deteriorate as mercantile interests were interfered with on the high seas. Disruption of trade and impressment of seamen by British, French, and North African powers caused a reassessment of the need for a protective military and in 1798 the Navy Department was reinstituted. The Adams administration tried to create a professional force and the fledgling Navy adopted the earlier uniform regulations in 1797. In order to present a somewhat unified and coherent appearance, officers were directed to wear blue jackets with tails, a double row of gold buttons, white breeches, shoes and a cocked hat. Rank was displayed by gold epaulets, two for captain, one for lieutenant.

Conflicts with France and the Barbary Pirates added some prestige to the Navy and as interaction with foreign powers increased, the uniform became a bit more decorative to reflect these events. In 1802, a basic “blue and gold” scheme was adopted in which gold lace was liberally applied at various positions of the jacket for captains and at some fewer positions for lieutenants. Throughout the uniform history, buttons and epaulets have been interchanged as means of rank identification, since epaulets were expensive and hard to maintain at sea.

In line with civilian usage, trousers were authorized in 1813 replacing breeches, because officers were not scurrying in rigging and therefore appearance rather than utility was considered paramount.

3. Initial Uniform Standardization; 1830 to Civil War

Although early regulations prescribed only full dress uniforms it must be assumed that most officers modified these uniforms in some way to make them more durable and adaptable to shipboard life. Gold lace was expensive, as were full dress coats, and few officers could afford to abuse them. But it was not until 1830 that an authorized “service” dress uniform that was convenient and comfortable was prescribed. The great trade expansion in the 1820’s and 30’s had caused an increase in naval activity for support purpose and thus a more suitable garb was required. The regulations of 1830 were the first attempt at specifying details of uniforms in an effort at standardization of color and style. The coat prescribed was of dark blue cloth, rolling collar and “made according to the prevailing fashion of citizens for the time.” Shoulder straps of gold lace which held epaulets in place were officially recognized as a means of identifying an officer’s status. When devoid of epaulets the uniform was termed “undress” or most casual.

As the scope of naval operations increased and the Navy began to appear often in foreign ports the necessity for practical apparel and standardized appearances was becoming more apparent. The cocked hat may have been fashionable in Napoleonic times, but it was not a practical cover. In 1841 a visored undress blue cloth cap for all officers was authorized. The lace edging on the cocked hat was transferred as a band around the cover and a chin strap was provided. This hat proved so popular that it remained, and with modifications evolved into today’s combination cap. As the naval service was increasingly staffed with professional career personnel, the polychromatic accoutrements affected by certain officers were considered inappropriate. The regulations of 1841 mandated that blue and white would be the only colors of clothing allowed. The varied climates of activity were also taken into account, with blue trousers prescribed for cold weather and white pants and socks for warm climates. The coat remained blue and it can only be surmised that the appearance of the traditional coat was most important for recognition. And since officers didn’t perform laborious tasks, there was not need for a cooler color of apparel. However, provisions were made for lighter weight materials to more accurately approximate climatic conditions.

Grooming regulations also appeared for the first time in these regulations. All naval personnel were required to have short hair and beards were prohibited.

The subsequent Mexican War of 1846 with its vital naval engagements revealed certain inadequacies in various areas of uniform design. The annexation of California and the resultant need for an expanded permanent Pacific fleet presented a growth of specialized skills, in recognition of which uniform changes, rank identification, tropical weather and staff corps insignia were problems to be dealt with.

The uniform regulations of 1850 were a move towards solving these problems. An easier system of rank identification than loops of gold on epaulets was implemented by specifying distinctive devices for each grade. As the Navy began to increase operations in semitropical and tropical climates, more concessions in fabric were made to permit lightweight materials, and straw hats were authorized. Staff corps devices began to be standard. Dress for warrant officers originated which was similar, but less embellished with trappings, than commissioned officers.

Further expansion and experience with foreign navies revealed that mere insignia to display rank, as was prevalent in the Army, was not sufficient for naval officers. Great Britain began to use sleeve lace and this system was adopted by the American Navy in 1852. The advent of steam powered vessels prompted recognition of a specialized branch of officers to operate the machinery and a staff device for engineering officers was implemented.

4. Major Influence on Uniforms; The Civil War

The Civil War was the first major influence on Navy uniforms. The rapid and vast increase in ships and personnel necessitated a system of practical and identifiable uniforms. Due to the great influx of personnel into officer grades for temporary service, the regulations for possession of full dress uniforms were suspended. The war took priority over ceremonial and social functions. It was realized that it would be discouraging to require mobilized officers to expend additional funds for what was hoped to be a short conflict. This increase in officers and billets also prompted a reorganization of the rank structure to appropriately reflect the needs of the Navy. 1862 saw the creation of the additional ranks of rear admiral, commodore, lieutenant commander and ensign, which required a more definitive method of visual identification. Practical considerations over garment types continued and the full dress coat was abolished to be replaced by a frock coat which would serve all purposes – full dress, service, and undress. This closely parallels the versatility afforded by today’s present service dress blue uniforms. Staff officers utilized the same frock coat and gold lace rank arrangement as line officers.

Since staff corps officers had distinctive devices to mark their specialties, a similar recognition was deemed necessary for line officers. In May of 1863 the sleeve star above the gold rank lace was authorized for officers of the line. The star was probably chosen because it was the central feature of naval officers’ cap devices.

The Civil War evolved the officer’s uniform into a practical reflection of wartime conditions; a navy blue frock coat with two rows of gilt buttons, navy blue trousers and cap. Blockade conditions and operations in the hot southern climates created the need for appropriate garments to allow comfort in the heat. Straw hats and white coats were authorized, the beginning of tropical uniforms.

The difficulties in procuring naval uniforms during wartime forced a provision for the optional wear of a sack coat for service dress wear. It was a single breasted loose fitting garment and is another example of the Navy utilizing current civilian styles which were much easier to obtain than a distinctive military cut. However, such easing of restrictions on styles and dimensions resulted in an 1864 circular from Secretary of the Navy Welles cautioning officers to beware of variances in caps, shoulder straps, and ornaments by manufacturers, and advising them to insure that these accoutrements adhered to the designs illustrated in the uniform regulations.

The Civil War period laid the foundation for uniformity among officers both in dress and rank identification. With such a large force of men with varied backgrounds much of the pomp and ceremony of the peacetime uniforms was discarded. Uniforms and their options appeared which were practical for everyday use in varied climates yet which could be transformed into outfits for other uses by superficial accoutrement change. Therein lies the basis of today’s officer uniform. Although, as will be seen, peace again caused a minor proliferation of specialized and gaudy uniforms, the major thrust towards pragmatic standardization was accomplished.

5. Technical Expansion Effects Uniforms; Civil War to 1897

With peace, the Navy had the opportunity to solidify and standardize the uniform evolution caused by the civil strife. The difficulties and expense in buying the wrap around gold lace for caps was realized and in 1866 officers were directed to utilize a gold chin strap and small gold retaining buttons. A cap device was prescribed which closely resembles the modern device. It replaced the wreath and star previously worn and incorporated the eagle symbolizing the Union with crossed anchors to denote the maritime service. Uniform Circular #3 of 1866 required that caps for officers be uniform in dimensions, with inspections to be held and the Navy Department to be informed of discrepancies. The scaling down of the naval force permitted individual punitive attention for nonconformists.

The return to normalcy, with its commensurate increase in social activities brought about reinstatement of the full dress coat of 1852. Conversely the sack coat received attention as a garment which did not properly reflect a military appearance. Secretary Welles downgraded it as a service dress not to be worn ashore or in foreign ports. In 1869 SecNav for a time refused to allow sack coats to be worn on duty. Officers were to utilize the frock coats instead.

The Navy’s position as a powerful force, however, had deteriorated greatly in the immediate post war years. Funding was scarce and the United States began to slip well behind the progress of other nations.

6. Development of Work Uniforms; 1900 to World War I

In 1873 a dress coat for social wear, the forerunner of dinner dress was authorized to be made of “blue cloth after the prevailing style of a civilian coat.” A white cap was also prescribed to replace the less than professional appearing straw hat.

The 1870’s were times of great European military activity. Sweeping victories of emerging imperial powers both on land and sea captured the imagination of the public. Not only were tactics copied but uniforms as well. A new service coat was introduced in 1877 and was unique in that it was the first time officers’ coats utilized a military style rather than a civilian cut. It was a single breasted, tight fitting coat with a fly front and standing collar. It remained in effect until after WW I.

The increase of naval involvement, with Spain over Cuba and Korean Incidents over the next decade stimulated uniform evolution. The regulations of 1881 reduced sleeve lace designations into a format which covered all ranks and positions and has remained the same to the present day. Acquisition of Pacific interests and activity in the Far East, and especially fraternization with the Royal Navy in China, brought about demands for an appropriate service dress white uniform which more closely paralleled the service dress blue. In 1886 this white version was instituted with a fly front. White shoes were added, as the boot black tended to rub off on white trousers causing an unsightly appearance. Since the coats received an undue amount of washing, removable buttons and rank devices, (eliminating the fly front) and shoulder boards were introduced, similar to those presently in use. These devices could be easily removed for laundering and provided the rank identification needed. Further distinctions were made for senior officers in 1897 by authorizing commanders and above to wear gold braid on their visors. As the United States emerged as a naval power its officers’ uniforms reflected growth and professionalism and were representative of deep water sailors. The experiences of the Spanish American War and the occupation of Spain’s former territories necessitated an evening garment appropriate for the social life which occurred in the wake of the victorious war in the tropics. The white mess jacket was authorized and was cut along the lines of the blue dinner dress except without tails.

The twentieth century brought a new element to naval warfare – the airplane. Aviation created anew set of requirements for clothing where the wear of whites or blues was considered impractical while flying aircraft. Specialized work clothing that was comfortable and more durable was needed. Prior to 1917 naval aviators dress was unrecognizable and generally imitated that of their civilian counterparts. However, fliers began to utilize the Marine Corps’ khakis (introduced in 1900) as a work garment more appropriate than the dungarees afforded other naval officers.

Entry into WW I expanded the air arm. The regulations of 1917 allowed naval aviators a summer uniform of khaki (designed parallelling the service dress blue and white uniforms), as well as a khaki shirt. In September 1917 the forestry green of the Marines was authorized as a winter uniform for naval aviators as an alternative to the cotton khaki of summer. The need for rank identification while wearing a flight jacket over a shirt eventually evolved into metal shirt collar devices, rather than the bulky hard shoulder boards.

7. Modernization of Uniforms to Environment; World War I to World War II

In World War I dress uniforms were suspended and only service dress was required. Liaison with the Royal Navy introduced the Americans to a new type of garment, the double breasted blazer. It was more comfortable and better suited to shipboard life than the tight fitting tunic. The blazer was also a popular civilian style and looked as good on young men as on senior officers. In March of 1919 the Navy adopted the British style double breasted blue coat for officers to replace the tunic previously worn. It is the present coat still in use. The full dress coat, so long a tradition, was abolished in 1922. The Navy officers’ dress had clearly left the trappings of the early 19th century “gentleman” and its uniform now reflected the civilian fashion for business managers.

In 1922 the distinctive aviation uniforms were abolished as the Navy reduced its size and sought uniformity among its thinning ranks. However, naval aviation continued to grow, and the unique needs had to be recognized. By 1925 the pressure for a specialized uniform where blue or white was not appropriate was realized in the reauthorization of distinct uniforms for officers involved with naval aviation. An updated version of the earlier khaki coat was introduced, single breasted but sporting a roll collar vice the original standing one. This style was deemed more appropriate and allowed more freedom of movement for the cockpit gyrations needed to fly in those days. Forestry green material, extremely durable and warm, was used for winter wear. Breeches or puttees were worn following the tradition established by fliers of the other services. Many military fliers during the War had been former cavalrymen and they merely used the same dress for flying as for riding, as well as instituting the tradition of mounting an aircraft from port side as one would mount a horse. Black mohair sleeve rank stripes were utilized as they were tarnish resistant.

As officers became more involved with the intricate working of their ship’s machinery, requirements arose for suitable work clothing. No longer did all officers stroll about the deck directing work, many were involved in tasks themselves. As submarines were cramped and required much work of all hands, the need for appropriate distinctive work uniforms appeared for officers. The khakis of the aviation community were adopted for submariners in 1931. Pin on rank devices for collars were also worn. From these beginnings the standard work uniform for all officers developed. Demands arose from the fleet as officers in dirty work environments wanted a work uniform other than dungarees. This was finally realized in ALNAV of February 1941 which permitted the wear of khakis for all officers subject to the discretion of the commanding officer. Shoulder boards replaced sleeve stripes on the khaki service jacket in April, 1941.

Prior to 1941, nurses’ uniforms were developed by the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery and were distinct from male uniform regulations. Early nurse uniforms consisted of white ward garb identical to civilian nurses, except for a small distinctive pin-on device alluding to naval affiliation. Although information on outdoor uniforms is scarce, Navy nurses appear to have worn a male style standing collar jacket and a “sailor” hat for a nautical flair. Collar devices were vaguely similar to doctors. Rank insignia was created in 1924 as a band for nurses’ white cap. Provisions were made for blue and white outdoor uniforms which were double breasted sack types with rolling collars. Sleeve braid was the same color as the uniform. Hats were wide brimmed with a flat top and in colors which corresponded to the uniform worn. A tight fitting cloche hat similar to existing civilian fashion was introduced in 1929. The cut of dress continued to reflect civilian nursing trends. In 1941 the first publication truly regulating the dress of the Navy nurse corps was published. Since that time nursing uniforms have been in accordance with uniform regulations.

8. Expansion of Uniform Types; World War II

The global requirements of World War II increased the variety of uniforms available, as well as color proliferations. Shorts, with helmets and open necked shirts were adopted for use in the warm climates of the combat theater. The color of the primary working uniform was officially changed from khaki to slate gray in 1943. Gray was found to be a non-distinctive color better suited for camouflage at sea than khaki. Black lace replaced gold. However, this decision was not favorably received, and gold lace was permitted a few months later. But the officer corps was still not satisfied and ALNAV No. 406 reversed the decision of 1943 and reinstated khakis as the working uniform.

Women officer uniforms were upgraded during the war years. There had been little precedent for women’s wear in the Navy since World War I; therefore a panel of civlian experts in the design and fashion field was called upon to create a set of uniforms which when devoid of buttons and braid would correspond to a smart businesswoman’s suit. Their efforts resulted in the present single breasted blues and whites worn by women naval officers. The Nurse’s hat continued as a visorless duplicate of the males during this period and the Nurses retained a double breasted blue jacket. (It is interesting to note, however, that women’s regulations were published separately from their male counterparts. It was considered that the great influx of women into the service was only a wartime oddity and would recede when hostilities ceased.)

Women’s uniforms were the same for officer, chief, and other enlisted, differing only in rank identification. Work uniforms included a coverall and slacks for use when the skirt was inappropriate.

9. Reevaluation of Uniform Items; Post WW II to Present

The conclusion of hostilities brought about reflections on the uniform development that had occurred. It was found that the uniform did appropriately reflect the needs of the modern naval officer to function in his sophisticated environs, although there was a great proliferation in colors of outfits. The Uniform Regulations of 1947 retained the wartime dress of the Navy. “Service” uniforms continue to be the mainstay; the formal dress of 1941, the frock coat, gold laced trousers, cocked hats and epaulets all disappeared. The white mess jacket was also dropped and the blue service coat with bow tie was used for evening social dress. The officer’s wardrobe consisted of blue, white and khaki service; khaki and gray working uniforms; and forestry green for aviators. Cap covers matched the uniforms and garrison caps and tropical helmets were also prescribed. Women followed suit in most colors. In 1948 all women officers wore the single breasted coat thus aligning the Nurses with their non-medical counterparts. Gray uniforms were dropped for male and female in that year.

Since World War II, dress for formal occasion has been reinstated, tracing the pattern that followed the Civil War and World War I. Service uniforms have now been reduced to correspond to the original nautical colors, except for the aviation community. Blue covers were abolished in 1956 as being unnecessary. Efforts have continued to alleviate the financial and physical burdens of uniform wardrobes by reducing and consolidating existing uniforms into components which can be interchanged with each other.

Naval officer dress, like its civilian counterpart, has run the gamut from the very garish worn by a privileged few to the pragmatic style of today’s professional. The Navy has become a serious business for thousands of people from diverse backgrounds. The uniform reflects this in a powerful but distinctive garb. The uniform, which had first reflected social class has evolved into a dress which is more closely attuned to the work environment while still retaining its symbolism of authority.


Beyer, Thomas. The American Battleship in Commisssion. New York: Braunworth and Co., 1906.

Engle, Eloise and Arnold S. Lott. America’s Maritime Heritage. Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute, 1975.

Lovette, Leland P. Naval Customs, Traditions and Usage. Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute, 1939.

Potter, E. B. and J.R. Fredland. The United States and World Sea Power. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1955.

Rankin, Robert H. Uniforms of the Sea Services. Annapolis, MD: United States Naval Institute, 1962.

Roscoe, Theodore and Fred Freeman. Picture History of the US Navy. New York: Bonanza Books, 1956.

Tily, James C. The Uniforms of the United States Navy. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1964.

United States Navy Uniform Correspondence. 1860-1900. National Archives [and Records Administration, Washington, DC.].

United States Navy Uniform Regulations. 1798-1978.

Source: United States. Department of the Navy. Bureau of Naval Personnel. "History of U.S. Navy Uniforms." Appendix 2. United States Navy Uniform Regulations. NavPers 15665D. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1981.

Published: Mon Jan 23 14:13:05 EST 2017