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Officer’s Uniforms of the British Navy

Dressing Captain Wentworth

Ah! Who can resist the thought of a man in uniform? Certainly not Mrs. Bennet (“I remember the time when I liked a red coat myself very well — and indeed, so I do still at my heart…”) From her ever warm admiration, Jane must have had similar feelings for Naval Officers. She would have been surrounded by them during her stay in Portsmouth, living with her brother, Captain Francis Austen. There, she would have had firsthand knowledge of “the character of the navy; their friendliness, their brotherliness, their openness, their uprightness… convinced of sailors having more worth and warmth than any other set of men in England; that they only knew how to live, and they only deserved to be respected and loved.”

What then, made up the uniform of a Captain in the British Navy?

British Naval Uniform Regulations were first implemented by Lord Anson in 1748. They were, reportedly, lobbied for by the officers, themselves, who “wished to be recognized as being in the service of the Crown.” The color blue, while seemingly a natural one for the Navy to choose was actually decided upon by the then monarch, George II, who, seeing the Duchess of Bedford ride out in a habit of blue faced with white, was so taken by the combination that he chose the same for his officers’ uniforms.

The “best uniform”, consisting of an embroidered blue coat with white facings, worn unbuttoned with white breeches and stockings, was worn for ceremonial occasions; the “working rig” was a simpler, less embroidered uniform for day-to-day use. In 1767 the best uniform was abolished and replaced by the working rig, with a simpler “undress” uniform for day-to-day use. By 1795, as a result of the French Revolutionary Wars, a plain blue “undress” coat had been introduced for everyday use, and epaulettes were officially introduced.*

According to the National Maritime Museum, “With undress uniform, [Officers] wore a plain hat, and epaulettes only some of the time. Captains with less than three years seniority wore only one epaulette on the right shoulder. Commanders wore one epaulette on the left shoulder. Lieutenants wore the uniform with white lapels introduced in 1787 until 1812. Warrant officers’ uniform was unchanged from 1787 until 1807 (this rank included pursers, gunners, boatswains, carpenters and, until 1805, surgeons).” The white collar patch of the Midshipman first appeared about 1758 and their uniform did not change after the modifications introduced in 1787.

By 1846 all officers wore epaulettes. The white facings came and went over the years, briefly becoming scarlet (1830-1843). Though stripes of lace on the cuffs had been used to distinguish the different ranks of admiral since 1795, the first version of current rank insignia, consisting of stripes with a “curl” in the top one, was introduced for all officers in 1856.

Again, the NMM offers, “Admirals had three silver stars on each epaulette and three rows of lace on the coat sleeve, vice-admirals two and rear-admirals one, worn with both dress and undress uniform. In practice, as opposed to the regulations, the sleeve lace seems to have been sewn on the cuff.

A flag officer’s full dress blue coat had one row of gold lace round the lapels, buttonholes, tails, pockets and pocket flaps. There was an extra row on the cuffs in addition to the distinction lace. It had a white lining and was worn with a gold laced hat, white waistcoat and breeches. The buttons remained those introduced in 1787. The undress uniform was similar but without lace on the lapels, pockets, buttonholes and the extra row on the cuff.

Captains’ dress uniform was similar to that of flag officers but without laced buttonholes and with two rows of lace on cuffs. Epaulettes were plain.”

In 1825, the white breeches were replaced by trousers for officers serving in the United Kingdom. Throughout the nineteenth century, there was great variation in uniform; officers paid for their own uniform, and often adapted it to fit civilian fashion of the time, as the Admiralty regulations governing uniform were not highly prescriptive.*

Headgear tended to follow the fashion of the times. Even a brief review of the period will show a number of variations on a theme, though the bi-corn was quite popular. Other items, such as vests and cravats or neck stocks were, to a certain extent left to the discretion of the wearer. A review of Lord Nelson’s wardrobe shows a number of “non-regulation” items including hose, waistcoat and black velvet stock.

The question is often asked as to why Captain Wentworth is not portrayed thus in most story illustrations and films. In Mansfield Park, Jane Austen, herself, answers the question:

William had obtained a ten days’ leave of absence, to be given to Northamptonshire, and was coming, the happiest of lieutenants, because the latest made, to shew his happiness and describe his uniform.

He came; and he would have been delighted to shew his uniform there too, had not cruel custom prohibited its appearance except on duty.

So the uniform remained at Portsmouth, and Edmund conjectured that before Fanny had any chance of seeing it, all its own freshness and all the freshness of its wearer’s feelings must be worn away.

According to Navy Regulations in 1861, “Officers on furlough will not wear their uniform, and officers are strictly prohibited from wearing any part of it while suspended from duty by sentence of a court martial.” Another portion of the regultions state that ” A person who is discharged honorably or under honorable conditions from the…Navy…may wear his uniform while going from the place of discharge to his home, within three months after his discharge.” Coupled with Jane’s suggestion of “cruel custom” it is clear that while on shore, Captains Wentoworth, Harville and Benwick would have been in civilian dress, as modeled by the newest version of Persuasion. A pity, but a historical necessity. Still, I cannot fault any costume department for desiring to change history. Wouldn’t we all like to imagine the dashing Captain in his gold laced coat, sweeping Anne off her feet and carrying her away?

Why not browse our costume section at our online giftshop for costume, patterns and accessories?

*Historical Information from: Wikipedia, the Online Encyclopedia, with additional material from The National Maritime Museum. Visit their site for further information on Regency Sailors’ dress as well as photographs of actual Georgian era uniforms, including that of Admiral Lord Nelson.

A complete description of United States Navy Uniform Regulations from 1814 can be found here. The details found in this document would strongly resemble those in the British Regulations.

Minature portrait of Capt. Francis Austen, by kind permission of owner. All other reproduction prohibited.

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