Navy Blue: Uniforms of the Royal Navy

Why do we wear uniforms? It’s not just a naval thing. Wearing uniform is something all organised bodies have in common. It serves to identify our place and our rank – which organisation we belong to, and where we belong in that organisation. Donning a uniform also shows that we are playing a role or performing a function; we put on a suit to go to the office, or a high viz vest to work on a construction site, but when we are off duty we probably wear something rather different. In short, uniforms show where we belong, in a body and in a hierarchy, and identify who we are and what our role is on any given occasion. For these reasons, the clergy, hospital, the armed forces, and a host of others all wear uniforms.

But why do navies wear uniforms, and why do they wear the uniforms that they do? For a long time, navies did not in fact use particular uniforms, and distinguished themselves by ensigns and flags instead. Although in Britain elements of uniform started to be introduced during the 18th century, it was not until after the Napoleonic Wars, when the Royal Navy started to become more modern and professionalised, that the naval uniforms as we know them today started to come into being.

Uniforms from the 17th to 19th Century

In 1856, a report on naval uniform led to major alterations, which regulations for uniform dress laid down. This came as part of the process of making the Royal Navy more structured. It now offered better terms and conditions, and more of a ‘career path;’ the press gang (whereby sailors were kidnapped for naval service) could no longer be enforced by this time, and other means now had to be used to entice men into naval service. In 1860 the Royal Naval Reserve was founded, to draft mariners into the navy on a reserve basis. This meant that sailors trained regularly when not at sea on commercial or civilian voyages, and in return received a wage and a ‘bounty’ at the end of their service, which acted as a sort of pension scheme. In return, they were expected to join the navy in time of war. In 1903, given that naval service increasingly required technical abilities (such as knowing how to operate machinery), the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve was founded. HMS Unicorn served as the RNR/RNVR HQ from the time she came to Dundee in 1873 until she was decommissioned in 1968.

Royal Navy Uniforms, 1907

By the early 20th century, there were very strict and detailed regulations for naval uniforms, according to rank and to what function the sailor was performing at any given time (for instance, different uniforms are worn on parade compared to battle at sea). The naval reserves uniforms mirrored these distinctions, albeit with subtle distinctions. Whereas in the 18th century sailors had a reputation for slovenliness, now sailors were famous for their neat, trim appearance. Indeed, the smart uniforms were part of the appeal for potential seamen, and key recruitment tool for the Royal Navy.

WRENS recruitment poster, WWII

HMS Unicorn has a very broad and varied collection of uniforms, with around 60 articles of various descriptions. The ship’s collections encompass dress, working, and ceremonial uniforms, both from Royal Navy and RNR/RNVR servicemen, and even sailors and submariners from allied nations during the Second World War. We also have a number of items relating to the Women’s Royal Naval Service (popularly known as Wrens), including clothing and accessories. Other highlights include weaponry, medal, musical instruments, and even vestments!

Royal Navy Captain’s Uniform Cuff, from HMS Unicorn Collection

The uniforms constitute a major part of the ship’s collection, and are a key means to access the many stories that run through HMS Unicorn and her history.

Blog post by Henry Harding; Volunteer & Federica Papiccio; Collections Intern