Navies throughout the world wear basically the same uniform. Dark blue for temperate and full dress with a white variant for warmer climates. Whichever version is worn, it will be decorated with buttons and badges that feature an anchor. It is so universally true, that it hardly attracts notice. It is only when you stop to think about it that you realise how unusual it is.
Consider army uniforms. The advent of the breach loading rifle may have forced all soldiers into some variety of green or brown, but before that the armies of the world wore every colour of the rainbow. During the Napoleonic wars, for example, the French and Prussians mainly wore blue, the Swiss red, the Russians green, the Austrians white, the British scarlet, while Brunswick troops fought in black. The buttons and badges that were attached to those uniforms were also very varied in design, even within a single army. So why are naval uniforms so similar?
The Royal Navy was the first navy to adopt a uniform for their officers, in 1748. It was introduced by George Anson, and consisted of white breaches, stockings and waistcoat with a dark blue coat over that. Before Anson, officers wore whatever they chose. There were numerous colours that could have been selected by the Admiralty, with perhaps scarlet the most obvious, given that it was already the establish military colour in Britain. Indeed the many portraits of Royal Navy admirals before 1748 show them in red. But inter-service rivalry was as present in the eighteenth century as it is today. I suspect the principle reason for choosing dark blue was that it was as far removed from the scarlet coats of the army as possible.
As the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries progressed, the Royal Navy became increasingly dominant in its sphere. It was by far the largest navy, was supremely successful in war, and took a leading role in areas such as meteorology, cartography, exploration and suppression of the slave trade. Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery, and as the navies of the world adopted uniforms, they too pulled on the dark blue of the Royal Navy. So ubiquitous did this tide of cloth become that the very colour came to be called navy blue.
This imitation extends beyond the colour of their coats. All most every navy has an anchor on their buttons, because that was what was on the 1748 uniform. There are plenty of parts of a ship that could have been chosen instead, had a particular navy wanted to go its own way. Several would have fitted more elegantly on a round button, like a steering wheel or a compass rose. Not only has the anchor become the universal symbol of navies everywhere, in most cases it is the specific ‘fouled anchor’ of the British admiralty. This design has the cable wrapped around the shaft which, ironically, makes it unusable to anchor a ship.
Having conquered the seas, the navy blue uniform has taken to the sky. Walk through any airport and look at the uniforms that civilian airline pilot’s wear. Universally it is based on the navy once more, even copying the sleeve rings of naval rank. George Anson would have been surprised.
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Philip K Allan is an author of historical naval fiction. His debut novel, The Captain’s Nephew is available to order now from all good online retailers. Click here to learn more