Naval Uniform Questions and Answers

 Q.   How did the Navy get "Navy Blue?"

A.    British naval officers meeting at their favorite watering hole, "Will's Coffee House," Scotland Yard, decided in 1745 that they would petition the Admiralty for an official uniform in order to standardize as did other navies of the day.  As a result, the Admiralty asked certain officers to appear in what they considered a good design.  Some liked gray with red facings and Captain Philip Saumerez is reported, by tradition, to have worn a blue uniform with while facings.

    Blue and white was chosen by the Admiralty.  The story goes that since King George II had to make the final decision, he selected the colors from the riding habit of the First Lord's wife, the Duchess of Bedford, who was riding in the park.  But it is said that to gain his Majesty's consent, the Duchess wore the colors already selected by her husband.

    United States Navy uniforms have essentially followed the British traditions.


Artists rendition of a bluejacket at the ship's helm and a lieutenant.  These are dress uniforms for formal occasions that date to the early 1800's.   The uniform of the day for bluejackets at sea would be "slops," the course clothing of the day, in a mix that seldom matched that of their shipmates. 

The lieutenants full dress uniform is according to Uniform Regulations of 1802,

       "COAT of blue cloth, with long lappels, and lining of the same, with nine buttons on each lappel; a standing collar, and three buttons on the cuffs and on the pockets, the button-holes laced with such lace as is directed for the captain's; one apaulet on the left shoulder, except when acting as commanding officer, and then to be changed to the right shoulder. VEST AND BREECHES--The same as the captain's, except three buttons and button-holes on the pockets of the vest."

The officer holds his cock hat that was part of the dress uniform for another century.  In the right hand he holds a speaking trumpet to shout orders to sailors on deck and aloft.

Q.   Why are oak leaves used as an insignia for various Navy corps and ranks?

A.   Oak leaves have been worn since the earliest days as an insignia.  An oak leave was probably adopted originally as a symbol of the excellent oaken ships of the United States.  In those days the government had live oak logs cached underwater for years at the Boston Naval Yard and other navy yards.


Rope Yarn!  Sailors circa 1899 with mascots and portable sewing machine in the midst of uniform upkeep.

Shipboard tattoo artist plies his trade with art critics in white uniform.  Circa 1915.

Q.  Why does a sailor's jumper have a flap in back?

A.  Jumper flaps originated as a protective cover for the uniform jacket. Sailors greased their hair to hold it in place. Showers and bathing were not frequent.

Q.   Why are bell bottomed trouser worn by bluejackets?

A.  Bell bottomed trouser are large at the bottom because in days past sailors rolled up their pants legs for scrubbing decks.  A larger leg at the bottom made it easier to roll the legs above the knees.  Also, when landing a small boat, a bluejacket would jump into the surf to pull the boat onto the beach.  Rolling up the trouser legs was an attempt to keep dry.

Q.   Why do sailors wear a black neckerchief?

A.  The black silk neckerchief was originally a "sweat rag."  Black didn't show dirt.  It was worn around the forehead and the neck.  Some men used the neckerchief in the days when pigtails were fashionable to protect their jackets.  Black neckerchiefs were used long before Nelson's death.


Sailor in his best warrior pose
with saber and pistol. 
Post civil war.

Navy Airman
 Q. What is the significance of the three white stripes on a sailor's jumper?

A.  The three rows of tape on the collar of the British bluejackets' jumper was authorized in 1857.  Originally, it was suggested two rows of white, but for unknown reasons the Admiralty decided on three.  The idea of commemorating Nelson's three victories was never mentioned at the time.  Therefore, the three lines on the collar of a bluejacket blouse are selected for decorative effect and have no special significance.  Sea stories hold to Nelson's victories.

Q.  Why do sailors wear blue denim? 

A. The blue denim uniform, dungarees, is the Bluejacket's working uniform.  In 1901 regulations authorized the first use of denim jumpers and trousers, and the 1913 regulations permitted the dungaree outfit to be used by both officers and enlisted with the prescribed hat of the day.  Officer's engaged in aviation introduced the khaki uniform and eventually it was the accepted working uniform for officers.  Chief Petty Officers were in time allowed to don the khaki work uniform.   The use of coveralls appears to be a creeping replacement for the blue denim pants and shirt.


Navy work party
(smoke break) in
denim work uniform at
NAS Pensacola,
 Florida, circa 1917.

Q.  What happened to the sailor's blue flat hat?

A.  The flat hat was in the Bluejackets' seabag for over one hundred years from 1852 until April 1, 1963.   Cost and availability of materials led to its demise as a uniform item. The hat band, called a "talley" originally displayed a sailor's unit. Prior to World War II, in January 1941, the unit name was replaced with U.S. Navy (or U.S. Coast Guard) for security of ship movements.


Navy Petty Officers and Chief Petty Officers on liberty in Pensacola, Florida, circa 1917.  Chief on the right is in a casual jacket unbuttoned mood.

Q. Where did the sailor's white hat originate?

A. In 1852 a white cover was added to the soft visor less blue hat worn by Navy enlisted.   In 1866 a white sennet straw hat was authorized as an additional item. The white hat worn today originated in the 1880's as a low, rolled brim, high domed item made of wedge shaped pieces of canvas. Canvas material was replaced by cotton as a cheaper, more comfortable material. Over the ensuing years suggestions and complains concerning the hat led to modifications that ended in the current white hat.


The low rolled brim of the white hat is evident
 in this 1898 photo from the battleship Iowa (BB-4).


Q.  What is the history of the petty officer rating badge?

A. In 1833, insignia called distinguishing marks, were first prescribed as part of the official uniform. The first distinguishing mark was an eagle and anchor.  In 1886 rating badges were established and some 15 specialty marks were provided to cover the various ratings.  It wasn't until April 1, 1893 that the rating of chief petty officer was established. 

     Until 1949 rating badges were worn on either the left or right sleeve.  From 1833 to 1885 Petty Officers of the Line (Seaman Branch) wore the Petty Officer Device on the right sleeve, and all others on the left sleeve except officers' stewards.  Petty Officers of the Line (Seaman Branch) included deck ratings of boatswains mate,  signalman and quartermaster, and ordnance ratings of turret captain, gunners mate, fire controlman, mineman and torpedoman. 
From 1885 to 1913 the rating badge was worn according to the watch. The port section wore their badges on the left arm. From 1913 to 1949 the rating badge was again worn on the right by the Seaman Branch and the left for all others.

     The eagle on the petty officer rating badge is derived from the Napoleonic eagle. This eagle was usually embroidered facing left. Why the Napoleonic eagle faces left is unknown.  In 1941, the Navy changed the eagle's facing direction to follow the heraldic rules which face right toward the wearer's sword arm. This rule continues to apply and the eagle now faces to the front or the wearer's right.  Bluejacket slang for the eagle is "crow." 

     See also, Navy Rating and 1876 Petty Officer Division

Q.  Why does the Navy use a fouled anchor insignia? 

A.  An anchor that is foul of the cable or chain is a symbol found in various Navy crests.  The device is on the cap of American naval officers, the distinguishing device of a Chief Petty Officer, the collar device of midshipman, and on the cap badges of the British naval officers.  Many sailors regard the device a sign of poor seamanship.  Although, artistic to a civilian, it has been called a sailor's disgrace by some. The badge has been traced back to 1601 and Lord Howard of Effingham, the Lord High Admiral, who used it first as a seal of his office, but the device was used previous even to that time. 


The Navy officer's crest, or hat device, illustrates the cable or chain passing over and around the anchor, an anchor that is foul, and very unprofessional to a seaman's eye.

Q.  Why does the eagle face right?

A.  From 1860 to 1940 the eagle in the officer's crest faces left.  A 1941 change in uniform regulations is made to conform to heraldic tradition. The right side is the honor side of the shield and the left side indicates dishonor. 
Q.  When did Navy officers start wearing stars on the sleeve of the blue coat?

A. Officer stars were first approved on January 28, 1864.  All uniform regulations since 1873 have specified that one ray of the star should would downward toward the gold stripe on the sleeve.  The reason for this is unknown.

Q.  When did chief petty officers get stars?

A.  Chief petty officer stars were introduced with the creation of Senior Chief Petty Officer and Master Chief Petty Officer. The reason for the stars with one ray pointed down is unknown, however, it is likely the CPO stars were modeled after the officer's star.

Q.  Why were different uniforms worn by some aviation officers and chiefs?

A. Early pilots generally wore civilian clothes as they were more practical around the grease and dirt of flying machines. In those days the standard workday uniform for officers was either service dress blues or service dress whites. As early as the winter of 1912-1913, naval aviators adopted the khaki uniform of the Marine flyers, wearing Marine Corps breeches, leather puttees and dying their service whites and white hat covers to match. This uniform was worn during the Veracruz excursion of 1914 and is the beginnings of the Navy khaki uniform.

     In 1917, this unofficial uniform became official and as with the Marine custom, brown shoes were worn. Thus aviators became "Brown Shoes" and everybody else in the Navy is a lowly "Black Shoe." It quickly was recognized the khaki uniform was best for summer, and inappropriate for winter wear. Thus the "Aviation Greens" came into existence. The color was defined as Marine Corps Forest Green and the design the same as the Navy blue uniform.

     The 1922 Uniform Regulations abolished special uniforms for aviators effective 1 July 1923, leaving the aviators mere mortals with service blues and service whites. Two years later, the "working" aviation uniforms were reinstated. As pictured below they were now single breasted, four pocket, and roll collared; a khaki shirt with black tie was required for both khakis and greens. The buttons were black. Breeches with leather puttees were authorized as were trousers. Rank was denoted by black mohair sleeve stripes as on the service dress blues. Khaki's were authorized for submariners in 1931 and pin on rank devices were authorized for both uniforms at the same time. In 1941 the khaki uniform was authorized for all officers as a summer uniform.


First class of naval aviators at Pensacola.

Lieutenant Commander
 in distinctive
khaki aviation uniform
circa 1925.
Q.  What is a clothes stop?

A.  A clothes stop is a small diameter cord about 12 inches long with metal ends to keep the cord from fraying.  This short cord was used to tie laundry to a clothes line or other convenient object for drying.  Every recruit was issued a length of clothes stops in boot camp instead of clothes pins.  They ceased to be issued in 1973.