Dress of the Royal Navy

For several years now the Society of King George the Third has been working to bring to life various aspects of life in the Royal Navy during the period of the French Revolutionary Wars; this of course being the conflicts which would eventually lead into the Napoleonic Wars. To those who know the period well, the 18th century is often characterised by its clothing; from the flamboyancy of the aristocracy to the elegance of the middling classes. 

As with all of the Society’s impressions, accuracy and authenticity were of the upmost importance when trying to capture the image of the common Jack Tar in the 1790s. On closer inspection we found that there was actually far less than one would expect with regards to official uniform for the Royal Navy at this time. It was not until 1748 that the first attempts at establishing a uniform dress for officers was introduced to the service. Traditionally, officers wore clothing according to their own taste, generally red or blue and cut in the current style worn in town that season. It is argued then by many, that the initial conception of the characteristic blue coats, face white with gold lace, were originally inspired by Captain Philip Saumarez in the 1740s. This would become regulation thereafter. 

Now by the 1790s, the elaborate laced frock coats had been dispensed with in return for the adoption of a plainer coat style. Still faced white but with some of the cosmetic details removed (much to the joy of SKG3’s Tailor). The new style of coat became an all purpose uniform for the officers onboard ship to wear for various duties; that said from about 1774 captains and commanders were ordered to convert their universal coats into a more traditional styled full dress uniform, saved for special occasions. 

They would then have a second uniform that would become an underdress; with white unlaced waistcoats and white breeches. What is interesting to note is that SKG3’s impression falls in between two very distinct uniform changes. Officially the society conforms to the 1787 uniform in it’s portrayal, which in essence is the collection of many of the existing fashions and conventions of those in the service. The second is the 1795, which came into effect in June of that year. The major distinction after this period being the suspension of the wearing of white lapels for all ranks above lieutenant. 

This is all well and good, but what about the common man I hear you cry? Well interestingly enough the British Rating as they were known, did not actually have so much as a uniform to speak of. When new landsmen were brought onboard often they came wearing their own personal clothing. As the vast majority were already maritime fellows, much of their dress was not at all different to that of the existing crew. When on voyage for months at a time the only source of material to hand, would come from the ships purser. This is where the blues, reds and whites traditionally associated with the dress of the Royal Navy sailor comes from. By the end of a voyage the crew would come ashore dressed in a similar fashion simply because they had all purchased the same cloth. Hence the adoption of blue wool jackets and canvas breeches or slops. 

In the 1790s red doubled breasted waistcoats appear to have been very popular amongst the ratings in service, as well as slops and skilts. The former being a pair of long breeches that come down to just above the foot. The latter again was a essentially an apron worn on top of a pair of breeches when performing daily tasks, you will note that pair of skilts was painstakingly reproduced by society tailor, Lucas Radford to be worn at our Greenwich event, they can be seen in the accompany photographs. 

The central purpose of naval clothing was to be functional. As opposed to the relative pageantry and excess worn by the British Soldier at this time, the naval rating and even to an extent his superiors, were not what some at the time would refer too as macaronis. However, this distinctive fashion would later become a focal part of the later uniforms of the Royal Navy, from Trafalgar to the present day. As a society we have always prided ourselves in the attention to detail that goes into the construction of our clothing and accoutrements, we are constantly adding to our research and in many ways these blog entries, represent and attempt to record the development of our impressions.

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