Sailor's Dress of 1775

by Meryl Rutz

Master's Mate, HBMS Richmond

Despite the fact that seamen had no regular uniform issuance until the mid-1800s, interpreting the uniform of the 18th century seaman is surprisingly easy due to the wide variety of clothing that they wore. In some ways, there is evidence that there was some uniformity among sailors, at least on the same ship, but in other ways, there seems to have been little to no uniformity.

While officers received a uniform in the 1600s, with midshipmen receiving theirs sometime later, warrant officers and petty officers apparently dressed to their station in the late 18th century. Illustrations depict gunners, boatswains, and master’s mates dressed as sailors while the purser, basically a civilian contractor afloat, wore gentleman’s clothes. It wasn’t until 1787 that warrants were given a uniform for the first time and in the same year master’s mates wore coats without lapels, as did midshipmen. In 1857 seamen and petty officers were officially dressed in what had been the unofficial uniform of the Royal Yacht.

There were two types of men on board ship: seamen, further broken down between ordinary and able, and landsmen. The latter, being the easiest to describe, will be discussed first.

Those men who had little or no experience at sea comprised the group known as landsmen. Seamen subjected landsmen, also known as ‘Long Toggies’ for their long coat tails, to severe hazing for the simple reason that being a seaman meant being part of an informal brotherhood of men who endured hardship and calamity on the high seas. They had earned the right to wear their distinctive clothing, as they saw it, and no one could just be a part of that clique without sharing in that hardship.

Landsmen generally wore those clothes associated with land bound civilians, from which class they had just been impressed. Shirts were fairly standard for the period, as were shoes, stockings, and frocks, or coats. A man’s breeches might tell something about his occupation, being made of linen, wool, canvas, or leather. As those men impressed into the naval service were all from the lower sorts, nothing of station in life could be determined.

Landsmen probably found out quickly that shoes were of little use on board ship and would have shortly adopted the sailor’s practice of not wearing any while serving duty on board ship, though they might come in useful for shore leave. He would also probably soon find out that his long coat tails were something of a nuisance on a ship, becoming entangled in ropes of all sorts and generally getting in the way. He would also find that his fitted breeches were too constraining for shipboard use and do away with the knee buckles or ties, at least temporarily.

If a landsman adopted a seafaring life for his own, he would soon trade his clothing for the sailor’s slops from the ship’s chest. It is here that we find the distinctions between the sailor’s clothing and the landsman’s. We will look at the various articles of clothing in turn in order to discover what would properly suit a sailor of the Revolutionary War period.

Shirt – sailors wore a standard 18th century workingman’s shirt of linen, osnaburg, or, more rarely because it was expensive, cotton.

Pants – sailors needed loose fitting clothing for moving around rigging comfortably, but it could not be something that would cause them to trip or get caught up in while moving around. Thus, sailors adopted three types of lower garments. First, and most widely worn, were slops. Available from the ship’s slop chest, these were loose fitting trousers, generally made out of canvas or old sail cloth (heavy linen) that came to just below the knee and appear to have had fly fronts. Second, were trousers. These, also, were very loose fitting. Made of canvas, as well, they generally had flap fronts, like the breeches, and came to just above the ankle. Third, were skilts. More properly called petticoat breeches, these were loose skirts made from canvas or old sail cloth and originally meant to keep tar off of a man’s good clothing, or in otherwise to protect it from damage. Skilts also had a fly front and came to just below the knee. They were usually worn over breeches but were sometimes worn with nothing underneath. All three items were typically white or light brown in color.

Stockings – sailors only wore stockings when they wore shoes, which was generally only on shore or in cold/severe weather. When they did wear them, they wore both knitted wool and sewn cotton or silk cloth. Illustrations depict them wearing white stockings predominantly, but surviving examples of the period indicate other colors were worn, as well.

Shoes – sailors wore the standard black square toe shoe of the day. Fitted shoes were much more expensive and, while they might have been more comfortable, they tended to wear out faster because they were worn on the same feet, whereas square toe shoes were alternated so that the wear was not on the same parts everyday.

Hats – sailors were very fond of hats and headgear, even aboard ship, and are rarely pictured without one. By 1775 the habit of turning up the edged of the brim to form the familiar ‘apple pasty’ shape, similar to a diminutive cocked hat, had pretty much died out. In fashion was a low crowned, flat topped, narrow brimmed black hat, of either felt or tarred canvas. Some chose the cocked hat while others wore a higher crowned black hat, similar to those in style in the early 1800s with a nearly conical top. Others chose scotch bonnets or monmouth caps of various styles.

Jackets – since many shore occupations chose to wear trousers or clothing similar to slops, a sailor’s jacket became his most distinctive feature. The variety of jackets available is mind boggling according to period descriptions and illustrations. Early in the century, gray was the preferred color for the short jacket, but by the end of the century, blue had become the color of choice, although brown was still commonly worn. These jackets came in two lengths – waist and hip length. They came single breasted or double breasted and with or without collars. They also came with and without pockets.

Waistcoats – many period illustrations also depict sailors wearing waistcoats in a variety of colors.

Neckerchiefs – sailors often wore a neckerchief as a regular part of their clothing. Worn to mop sweat or tie back their hair, there was no standard form of neckerchief until the Revolutionary and Napoleonic conflicts, beginning in 1793. Although black seems to have been favored well before then, illustrations depict neckerchiefs in a variety of colors and patterns.

Variations and standardization – sailors came from a variety of places and background experiences and their dress illustrates that fact. A ship’s company might be made up of men of a multitude of backgrounds and when brought together to man a ship, particularly if it was newly commissioned, the clothing the sailors wore would be equally diverse. As time went on a ship’s company might have taken on a semblance of uniformity as men drew articles from the slop chest to replenish old or worn out articles. However, when the slop chest itself was replenished, there was no guarantee that new items would match old ones. Similarly, as men came and went for various reasons such as discharge, disease, etc., men who had not been part of the crew and who had drawn clothing from other sources would bring new variations to the ship. The idea that the slop chest standardized a crew’s clothing is, I think, overstated in light of the constant turnover of a ship’s company during this period.

Jack Taking a Quid of Comfort in a Storm, 
n.a., 1790, ©: National Maritime Museum

On the other hand, select portions of a crew could have been standardized out of the captain’s pocket. Such was the habit of outfitting the crew of the captain’s gig or barge in the same uniform (see picture below of a Barge Seaman, recognized by their distinctive head dress). Since there was no standard uniform for the other ranks, only the captain’s imagination and budget served as limits to how he outfitted this group of able seamen.

A Seaman, assigned to Barge duty, by Dominic Serres, n.d. (probably c.1756-1763), Copyright:
National Maritime Museum

Amount – Again, there was no standardized list of what a sailor required. The Marine Society, a civilian organization that outfitted men and boys for service in the Royal Navy, issued a jacket, waistcoat and breeches, a felt hat and two worsted caps, two pair stockings, three shirts, one pair shoes with buckles, a knife, pillow and blanket. On the other hand, Captain Charles Middleton, Lord Barham, required his sailors to have three jackets, two waistcoats, two breeches, four shirts, two frocks, two pair trousers, two pair shoes, four pair stockings, one set of bedding, and two hats or caps.

Hair – some mention of a seaman’s hairdressing is found in the literature as well. Regularly worn long, the hair was pulled back into a pigtail and tied with a ribbon, although it could also be doubled up in a bight, plaited, wound in ribbon or contained in a black silk bag.

Other necessities – hammocks and other bedding were required for a man’s comfort. Hammocks were made of canvas, were to be six feet, 2 inches in length and to weigh 6 pounds. Sailors were also required to have two pillows and a blanket. Beginning in 1780, haversacks were also issued to sailors in which to keep their clothing as there was little room for chests in ships of war. It is not clear whether this was similar to the haversack issued to soldiers or of a different pattern.


'Jack Oakham throwing out a Signal for an Engagement.
' mezzotint by Sayer & Bennett, c.1782. ©: National 
Maritime Museum. Obviously depicts a sailor in 'going 
ashore rig.'

Click here to acquaint yourself with the several ways to acquire period sailor dress.

About the Author:
Meryl Rutz holds a Master of Arts in History from Northern Illinois University and a Bachelor of Arts in the Teaching of History from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has been interested in the maritime events of the American Revolution for several years and has recently gotten involved in reenacting the life of a sailor in the Royal Navy during that period.

The HMS Richmond, Inc. welcomes classroom use of its educational materials. Students and teachers may download this information and/or images without restriction for use in a classroom setting. The following statement should be included on each copy: Copyright © 2000, Meryl Rutz. All rights reserved, worldwide.
No permission or license is granted for commercial use of this material.

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