DRESSED TO KILL: BRITISH NAVAL UNIFORM, MASCULINITY AND CONTEMPORARY FASHIONS, 1748-1857

Reviewed by: ROBERT MUDDYSLEY

This is a curious book, it is really a museum guide or part catalogue of the National Maritime Museum’s large collection of Naval Officer’s uniforms up to 1857, at which an official ratings uniform and, though it is hard to believe, the final iteration of the full dress officer’s uniform (though now only worn by Sea Lords) were introduced. It draws on over 7,000 items of uniform held in the collection of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.

The first half of the book comprises three essays; the first describing how a uniform was introduced following a meeting of the ‘Navy Club’ in a tavern when it was “Agreed by the whole Navy Club – That a Uniform is necessary”. The Admiralty agreed, and a number of officers were invited to design their own uniform to wear at court for the King’s approval.  The resulting fashion parade at Court is described, with the Duke of Bedford presiding, including the story that the king had been rather taken with the colours (dark blue with white facings) of the Duchess’ riding habit and had decided that these should be those of naval officers’ uniform. The result was the uniform set out in Admiralty regulations in 1748.

A large portion of the essays is taken up with descriptions of the various uniform – dress, undress etc. – and also looks at naval officers as they were seen in contemporary society. It shows that the basic form of a high collared frock coat, knee breeches and stockings was very much the then current fashion with embellishments to reflect varying ranks, and, of course, the owner’s pocket – officers had to purchase their own uniform. A significant part of the text is taken up comparing the uniform with the civilian dress, from which it was derived, and the accompanying illustrations include cartoons of exaggerated forms of both excesses of civilian dress and of some uniforms. The copious illustrations include, somewhat incongruously, a picture of a somewhat battered WRNS officer’s tricorn hat from 1917, used to illustrate radical societal change, in this case the creation of a woman’s military service.

The second half of the book is entitled ‘Catalogue’. It comprises extremely high quality colour pictures of uniforms throughout the period, including shirts, shoulder straps, buttons, hats and a sprinkling of ratings garments, accepting that there was no official uniform for the lower deck prior to 1857, the book’s closing date. Illustrated in the next section are the official patterns for the uniforms that an officer would take to the tailor of his choice (no Gieves and Hawkes then!). Even then there was a lot of latitude, as can be seen from the illustrations, the cut was often modified to reflect current civilian patterns, as well as the cloth used and even the amount of decorative braid varied, reflecting the funds available to the officer.

That this book is in a second edition suggests reasonable sales. Nonetheless it is difficult to see who would buy what is a reference work to a limited area of naval history.