Navy Uniform Change Proposal from YANK Magazine

In 1945, the Navy considered changing from their classic jumper and bellbottoms to a newer more “modern” uniform.

Farewell to Bellbottoms

Navy Notes

By Donald Nugent Sp(X)3c

Yank Navy Editor

The bell bottoms on the regular-issue Navy trousers are too slight to be noticeable. But the phrase “bell-bottom trousers” persists in songs and newspaper headlines as a symbol of the sailor’s whole uniform.

The latest word on the bell bottoms is that they will be discontinued as soon as the present supply is exhausted. Samples and plates of the new uniform are being sent to the fleet commanders for approval. Just when it actually will be issued has not yet been announced, but presumably it will be too late to affect the appearance and comfort of millions of present-day sailors who will not be part of the postwar Navy.

In the new uniform, says the Navy, “tight pants and middy blouses are going into the ashcan.” Probably with them will go the term “bell bottom.”navy

So will end an era of over 100 years that has seen no major change in the uniform of the Navy enlisted man—an era in which nearly everything else in the Navy has changed.

Six months ago, the Pelican, newspaper of the New Orleans Naval Repair Base, suggested a new uniform along the lines of the battle jacket and fore-and-aft pants. YANK’s Navy Department passed the suggestion on to its readers, with drawings, and asked for opinions. After a few thousand opinions arrived, YANK altered the drawings according to suggestions received and published the results. Before the correspondence had ceased, over 7,000 Navy men had written in, about 90 percent highly desirous of a change. Most were in favor of the battle jacket. All wanted a serge or other harder material—even the 10 percent who liked the present uniform.

The pictures on this page represent the uniform as it has developed over the years, and also show the uniform proposed by the Pelican and altered by the suggestions of YANK Navy readers.

Probably the first reference in history to a naval uniform came at the time of the Roman invasion, when the term “uniform of the day” was originated. The Veneti put to sea from the Loire River in speedy longboats. Their sails and their uniforms were colored light blue, but the object was to camouflage themselves against the light blue sky rather than to establish a regulation uniform.

Before the American Revolution, even the British had no naval uniform. The French were reported to have had uniforms which caused considerable agitation in the British Admiralty. Most of the British officers bitterly opposed the idea on the grounds that it was a gentleman’s privilege to select his own suit and not be required to wear the “yoke of a livery” or look like “lackeys and equerries.”

These officers met regularly in Will’s Coffee House, Scotland Yard, and in 1754 they passed a resolution that a uniform dress would be useful and necessary for commissioned officers.  They then resolved that a committee be appointed to wait upon the Duke of Bedford and the Admiralty and, if their Lordships approved, to introduce the proposal to His Majesty, George II. Many protested the resolution. They wanted the proposed uniform to be used only on State occasions.

Designs and colors were discussed at length. Scarlet and blue, as worn by the Army, were favored by most of the officers. But Bedford told them that the king had been taken with the Duchess of Bedford’s riding habit, which was blue faced with white, and had then and there appointed blue and white the colors for the Navy.

The first British uniform was ordered by the Admiralty in 1748 for flag officers, captains, masters and lieutenants. It was immediately extended to midshipmen “to distinguish their class to be in the rank of gentleman.” A uniform for the crew was not designed until 1857. The American Navy had a seaman’s uniform as early as 1830.

Clothing was issued to the crews of British ships in the 17th century by the Crown. The object was not, however, to create a uniform appearance but “to avoid nastie beastliness by diseases and unwholesome ill smells in the ship.” It was up to the captain to order any clothing he saw fit. Otherwise the men bought their own. An ad in a newspaper of the time read:

MORGAN—Mercer and Sea Draper.

No. 85, opposite the Fountain Inn, High Street.

Sailors rigged compleat from stem to stern;

Viz,: chapeau, napeau, flying jib and flesh bag,

inner pea, outer pea and cold defender.

Rudder case and service to the same; up-halers,

down-traders, fore-shoes, lacings, gaskets, ect.


In the United States, after the Revolutionary War, the Marine Committee resolved a red-and-gold uniform for naval officers that was so magnificent it was seldom worn.  U.S. skippers were a hardy lot. They disliked such frippery.

When Capt. Stephen Decatur, commanding the American frigate United States, captured the British frigate Macedonian, he was wearing an old straw hat and a plain suit of clothes which made him look more like a farmer than a naval hero. But when the crew returned to New York and the city divided $50,000 among them as a prize, newspaper accounts said that many of them were buying new uniforms consisting of blue jackets, red waistcoats, black neckerchiefs, glazed hats and blue trousers.

In the famous battle between the American Bonhomme Richard and the British Serapis, the crew of American skipper John Paul Jones’ ship consisted of a motley assortment of some 20 nationalities wearing as many different kinds of clothes.

During the early years of the U.S. Navy the uniform of crews seems to have been a rather uncertain thing. But by 1841 it had become standardized into the form which it has kept, with minor variations, for a hundred years.

The 1841 general order for the uniform for petty officers, firemen, coal heavers, seamen, ordinary seaman, landsmen and boys called for a blue jacket with white-duck cuffs and  white-duck collar, and blue trousers, with trap door, for winter; a white jacket with blue-cotton collar and cuffs, and white trousers for summer. The hat was the blue, flat type, smaller than now and with the ribbon of the bow hanging down to the shoulder.  Aside from the white collar and cuffs, the 1841 uniform resembled the present day one more than those of later years. The most noticeable difference was that jumpers were tucked inside the trousers and neckerchiefs were loosely rolled and spread all over. It became customary only recently to press them.

Hair, beard and whiskers were also included in the 1841 order. The hair and beard were to be kept short. The whiskers should not descend more than two inches below the tip of the ear and thence in a line toward the corners of the mouth. Mustaches and Imperials could not be worn on any pretext whatever.

The name of the ship, lettered in gold on the flat hat ribbon, appeared around 1869. So did the stripes around the cuff. Landsmen, coal-heavers and boys wore one stripe; ordinary seamen and second class firemen, two stripes; seamen, three stripes; petty officers, four stripes. Designating letters were worn on the lower sleeve: “A” for apprentices, “W” for ship’s writers and “S” for ship’s schoolmasters. Watch stripes were worn one inch below the shoulder seam—one stripe for the first section of the watch and two stripes for the second section—on the right sleeve for the starboard and left for port.

By 1905 the jumper was bloused and tied at the bottom, and was spacious enough to carry a litter of pups. The flat hat was almost wide enough to require removal before passing through a small port. The dress blues were not altered again until 1927, when they were made more form-fitting. The collar, so large that it extended a bit beyond the shoulders, was decreased to its present size. In the last few years the jumper was cut short and hemmed, instead of being bloused and tied with a drawstring.

There are always those who cry out at the suggestion of change, especially in anything so inviolable as a military uniform which may be called picturesque. The British Navy attempted some reforms in 1921 which brought one Col. Barwell of the Army to full cry. “The uniforms of both the Army and the Navy are again the subject of reform, not to say of interference,” exclaimed the colonel. “I notice the most picturesque costume of the Navy is to be done away with and the least picturesque one is to be retained.”

Now the New York Times, somewhat unhappily, calls it heresy to change from bell-bottom pants and 13 buttons. The Times asks whether anyone ever wrote a song about straight-hanging trousers, declares that it favors flowing beards and shoulder-length haircuts and chides the admirals for their betrayal of the gallant and picturesque.

But most of those who have written their opinions to YANK are willing to forego the songs and the tradition and the beards. They would rather have a few pockets and some breathing space.

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