Bellbottoms and Lids: The Evolution of the Naval Uniform - John Perryman

Changing operating environments, climate and even religion have driven changes to naval uniform at sea, ashore and in the air.

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Navy, Peacekeeping operations

Join Naval Historian John Perryman for a journey through time from colonial naval days to contemporary operations in the Middle East as he discusses the evolution of naval uniforms, badges and accoutrements. Learn how changing operating environments, climate and even religion have all influenced changes to naval uniform at sea, ashore and in the air.

John Perryman joined the Royal Australian Navy in January 1980 and during a career in communications spanning almost 25 years he attained the rank of Warrant Officer before commissioning as a Lieutenant in 2001.

In November 2004, John left the permanent navy to take up a position in the Naval History Section, Sea Power Centre – Australia. John is the current Director of Strategic & Historical Studies, co-author of Australia’s Navy in Vietnam and author of Kit Muster, a study of the RAN’s uniforms, badges and categories from colonial times to 1953.


Leonie Pratt: Good evening, we'll get underway. What a wonderful, little intimate crowd we have, so thank you all for joining us. Good evening, my name is Leonie Pratt. I'm the Director of Community Engagement here at the Shrine and it's a pleasure to welcome you this evening. In the unlikely event of an emergency, we need to exit the auditorium, there's the door that you just came in, there is also an emergency exit here on your right. Please just follow the instructions of staff. Anyone got their mobile phones? Please check that they're at least on silent, and preferably turned off for the duration of this talk. Including myself.

I'd like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we gather today and pay respect to their elders both past and present, and also any indigenous joining us today. As is customary before all events at the Shrine let us take a moment to honour the service and the sacrifice of all Australians in serving our country. Those of you that are able, would you please stand for a short service of remembrance? 

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old,

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,

We will remember them. 

Lest we forget. 

Thank you, please be seated. I also extend a very special welcome to any past or present members of the Australian Defence Force, and on behalf of everyone gathered today, we thank you for your service.

It is a great pleasure to welcome tonight's guest speaker, Mr John Perryman. John joined the Royal Australian Navy in January 1980, aged sixteen. During a career in communications spanning almost 25 years, John attained the rank of Warrant Officer before commissioning as a Lieutenant in 2001. Throughout his service he saw much of the world, participating in numerous deployments that included operational service in Somalia, Bougainville and East Timor. In November 2004, John left the permanent Navy to take up the position in the Australian Public Service at the Sea Power Centre - Australia. John is the co-author of Australia's Navy in Vietnam, and author of Kit Muster: A Study of the RAN’s Uniforms, Badges and Categories from Colonial Times to 1953. John is also a regular contributor to a wide range of other historical publications and newsletters. Please join me in welcoming John to the stage as we explore the evolution of Navy uniforms. 

John Perryman: Well, good evening, and thank you Leonie for the very warm introduction. It's always nice to come back to an institution such as the Shrine of Remembrance where, as a young civilian, I had my first visit here back in 1981. I've enjoyed being invited back on a number of times since, to participate in events such as this. I've met a few of you in the auditorium. I'm really happy with the size of this crowd because I actually think that we're going to have a fun time. I hope it's a fun time for you, and that you get something out of this presentation. I'll be very, very happy to answer any questions you may have afterwards, or if you've got any really burning ones, you can hit me up as we go along.

Although I've written about this, and I've been a collector of naval uniforms and badges for many, many years, I've never been asked previously to actually put together a presentation on this topic, and I thought,

Oh, this will be quite easy. I know quite a bit about this, and I've got lots of resources to draw on.’

But it wasn't until I actually got going that I realised how large this topic is, and let's just stop and think about it for a moment. You know, you have the navy with its many different categories and trades, you have an officers’ rank structure, you have a sailors’ rank structure. Then you have all these other moving parts and ancillaries, like the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service, the Nursing Service, the various components of the Naval Reserve, and blow me down, they all wore something different. So we have striven for uniformity from the outset, we've had lots of uniforms, but I would argue that we've never quite actually got there and achieved uniformity. But we do look good.

Ok, so this journey today, Bellbottoms and Lids, as the name suggests, we've got a sailor here and he served for World War Two, and there he is, dressed resplendent in his No.1, white uniform at HMAS Cerberus. You might note on the sundial there the three-headed dog, for those with observant eyes, that's still down at Cerberus, just waxing lyrical there, but he's wearing his bellbottom trousers and the cap on his head is colloquially referred to in the Navy as your lid. And if one had their lid lifted—you were in trouble, because when you got charged, it was ‘off caps.’ So, there we are.

I'm going to take you from the slide on the left, where we have a sailor in landing uniform around about the turn of last century. You can see that he's wearing what today would be considered a ceremonial uniform, and that was the uniform that most of their work was done in on a day-to-day basis. The only difference is 'You're going ashore Jack, here you go, here's your landing kit, off you go.' The slide on the right shows you the other side of the arc where this is where we've got to today, where we have a much more practical approach to the demands that are called on for the Navy. So, we're going to go from that to that, and it's not just a story about men. This is a story about the men and women who served in our naval forces.

On this slide you can see First Officer Blair Bowden on the left. This photograph was taken around about 1943. She's dressed in a khaki uniform and she's at HMAS Rushcutter in Sydney. She went on to become the first post-war director of the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service, but at those times their duties were pretty well confined to administrative-type duties, and they didn't operate in combat roles. The slide that we are looking at on the right here, we've got two of our contemporary women. The Officer at the top there is currently serving in the Middle East region and she's one of our pilots. And the young lady at the bottom here is in full boarding party uniform, so you can see that a lot has changed since World War Two.

Ok, so where did all this begin? Well, it all begins with Royal Naval dress and Australian naval dress descends directly from that worn by the Royal Navy in the late 19th Century. When the Naval Colonial Defence Act was passed in 1865 which permitted the Australian colonies to raise their own naval forces, officers of the Royal Navy had been wearing a standardised form of uniform for over 100 years, and in the case of men, uniform for Petty Officers, Seamen and Boys was formally established in 1857. Both officers and men of the Royal Navy dressed in their smart blue or white uniforms, as the case dictated, were recognisable the world over as belonging to the most powerful navy afloat. That was something that the new Colonial naval forces very much wanted to be a part of—who wouldn't want to look like the world's most powerful navy? Britain had enjoyed that since Nelson's victory, Trafalgar in 1805, and had commanded the sea ever since. So when the colonies first started looking at setting up their own little navies of course, who did they want to look like: the Royal Navy, and that made sense because we were a British settlement.

The Admiralty, however, who were responsible for the Royal Navy, they had other ideas, and they were concerned about legal aspects surrounding Australia's new naval forces and were adamant that colonial naval officers and men were not to wear uniforms that could not be distinguished from those of the Royal Navy. What they didn't want, they didn't want these colonial navies in the antipodes going off and misrepresenting Great Britain and causing them problems at a State level. So what happened was this: the colonies pretty well adopted the Royal Navy uniform but with some embellishments, and you can see here the officer on the left is a Commander in the South Australian Naval Forces, and you'll notice above his lace on his sleeve he's wearing two crossed anchors that's in lieu of the loop, which is known as the executive curl, and most of you would probably be familiar with naval uniform where you actually see that curl. The executive curl wasn't worn by all Officers. Originally, it was only worn by those Officers of the military branches. Supply Officers, Engineers, those type of officers they did not wear it. That came later and we'll cover that a little later in the presentation.

So the South Australians distinguished themselves with the crossed anchors. In the centre, we've got an Officer of the Queensland Marine Defence Force. He has the triangle above his rank lace, as his idiosyncrasy, and below that you can see the button of the Queensland Naval Forces with ‘Her Majesty's Queensland Navy’, HMQN on it. The sailor on the right there, well he's got the white stripe down the side of his pants. He's actually Victorian. Victorian Officers—here's an example of one here. At the top left there you can see an example of one of the buttons that was adopted by the Victorian Naval Forces with the ‘VN’ on it, and this gentleman looking very, very smart there in his cocked hat and full-dress epaulettes, examples of which we can see there on the right. A very, very impressive uniform.

In New South Wales they didn't put as much effort into it because the Royal Naval Squadron was in Sydney, so the Royal Navy ships were there with a large Royal Naval footprint, but nevertheless, they raised their own Naval Brigade. You can see some of those Signalmen here of the New South Wales Naval Brigade, and I can tell you now that they're actually spelling out ‘naval brigade’ using seven forehand fades, as a former Signalman. When I was writing my book Kit Muster, I was unaware that they'd actually instituted their own badges which had Naval Brigade New South Wales on them, and it was very, very timely that a gentleman in Sydney contacted me and said, 'I happen to have these badges in my collection.’ Here's an example of that. I've not seen any others so I imagine they're quite rare. Of course, there we have a naval, a New South Wales Naval Brigade button, which they also used to distinguish themselves from their Royal Naval counterparts.

By the early 1880s the uniform that popularised the sailor suit had evolved to seamen generally appearing in blue serge or white duck jumpers, frocks and bellbottom trousers. White duck was a very, very hard-wearing white linen-type material but it was known as duck. On frocks and jumpers a blue jean collar bearing three rows of white tape was worn, and contrary to popular belief the white tape in the rows of three did not actually commemorate Vice Admiral Lord Nelson's victories of the Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar. Even the United States and German navies adopted the same white tape, so I'm not quite sure how that came about. I think it's probably more for decorative purposes, but it seems to be an enduring theme in navies around the world, which is sort of interesting.

You can see this chap on the right here he looks like an old salt. He's wearing his frock, he's got a couple of campaign ribbons. You can see his collar quite clearly there is three rows of tape. He's got a Naval Reserve cap ribbon on. He could probably do with a beard trim, but apart from that he looks the goods. The Chief Petty Officer on the left there, he is wearing the cap badge that later became a Petty Officers’ badge. But that badge there was originally a Chief Petty Officer badge and the badge you see at the top left was the one that he would have worn on the arm of his tunic.

Federation. In 1900, Australia's federated, sorry 1901, and the colonial naval forces are swept up and become the Commonwealth Naval Forces on 1 March. There were no immediate changes to uniforms for a period. The CNF, as it was known, was consolidated in name only, and it wasn't until 1904 when Captain Cresswell, who you can see there on the left, was appointed as the Administrator that really, things began to get shaken up. One of the things that he determined was this, that the Commonwealth Naval Forces would adopt Royal Naval uniform to a large extent, and the Officers would all adopt the triangle worn by the Queensland Marine Defence Force which at that time he was the director of. So, he didn't have to change his uniform, which I imagine would have been pretty expensive back then as well. Here we've got two examples of officers of the Commonwealth Naval Forces.

For the Ratings, remember that a rating is some one who is not an Officer, they're not a Warrant Officer, they're someone who doesn't hold a warrant or a commission, so basically, sailors are known as Ratings. Petty Officers, men and boys, adopted the same uniform as that worn in the Royal Navy, with the exception that cap ribbons were lettered HMAS. Ok, now this is kind of interesting because the use of the HMAS actually predates the official granting of that privilege by King George V, but we see when HMA Ships Parramatta and Yarra come out in 1910 they're both referred to as HMAS, even though we hadn't yet been granted that Royal title. That's an interesting sort of observation.

Here we've got a Rating, he's Armourer's Mate. That's his rate badge there up the top left. You can see he's wearing that on his arm as well, and there he's got his easily identifiable naval uniform and cap ribbon HMAS Cerberus.

Now as I said, the granting of the Royal title in 1911, coupled with the arrival later of the Australian Fleet in October 1913, removed any lingering concerns the Admiralty held concerning Australian naval men wearing Royal Navy uniform, and in 1913 the RAN received approval to adopt the full range of uniforms in use by the RN, again with some minor embellishments which mainly boiled down to buttons and cap ribbons. Apart from that, the two navies by design were quite interchangeable, so it was not uncommon for Royal Navy personnel to be serving in the Australian Navy and Australian naval personnel to be serving in the Royal Navy.

Also in 1913, the Naval Dockyard Police were established to keep law and order, and here we can see a constable down at Cerberus. This is one of a handful of photos we've got of the early Naval Dockyard Police, and you can see there he's wearing the bobby-like hat on his head and this helmet plate that's on the right is an enlargement of that device. I've only ever seen one example of that, ever, and that's how we were able to create this image on the right here.

In 1913 the Royal Australian Navy Band was instituted. HMAS Australia our new flagship is in Britain, it's being finished off and completed, it's about to make its voyage out to Australia. Because it's going to be the flagship of the Royal Australian Navy and we modelled ourselves on the Royal Navy, it was a must that we have a band, so, a call for musicians was put out. Musicians were sent to England, and they were sent to train with the Royal Marines and they did quite well.

Then the question came up of course, about what will we wear? They quite liked the look of the Royal Marine uniform with their pith helmets and high collars, so they said, 'we'll wear a Royal Marine uniform, just like you.' Trouble is the Royal Marines, who have a very, very long and proud history said, 'no you won't, ok?' They didn't warm to the idea of these Colonials wearing their uniform, which had history going back to 1704 I think, so an agreement was made that they were permitted to wear a similar uniform, and the then naval representative in England, Captain Haworth-Booth, designed the cap badge. What he did is he took the button that had been approved for the Royal Australian Navy, and he used that as a central device with the cap badge, which you can see at the top left there, so you've got the Tudor Crown over what's known as a lazy anchor. See how it's tilted? They call that the lazy anchor, and that formed the central piece of cap badges, and also helmet plates for their pith helmets, and the central device of their belt lockets. That was for the band, that's a very early picture there and by all accounts that did quite well.

In 1914, as war clouds gathered, the rank of Lieutenant-Commander was introduced, taking its place in the hierarchical structure about Lieutenants and below Commanders. This saw the familiar half-stripe introduced between the existing rank lace worn by Lieutenants, and it did not take long for those serving in the lower deck, the ratings, to coin the term 'two and a half' to describe officers of that rank. I've chosen the top-left picture here because this is a Naval Reserve cuff lace. It's got all the ingredients that I wanted to discuss with you. It's got what's known as distinction cloth, which is the white between the lace. It's got the wavy lace of the Royal Australian Naval Reserve and that little half-lace in the middle is the Lieutenant-Commander’s rank that we're talking about.

The following year saw Engineering Officers granted use of the executive curl on the upper rank stripe. Remember earlier I was saying that Officers didn't automatically have the executive curl, which you can see over here on the cuff closest to me. In fact, they just wore the stripes but they had to cull. That was granted to all Officers in 1918. In fact, Engineer Officers and the others follow thereafter, not too long afterwards. The other one we've got here is the red of the Medical category. The red distinction cloth and orange distinction cloth and a salmon colour distinction cloth are the only distinction cloth still used in the Royal Australian Navy, for Dentists, Nursing Sisters and Surgeons, and the reason (for) that is they are still considered to be non-combatants, and that's the means of identifying them. Ok.

World War One: a couple of slides here. Prior to World War One, the boys’ training ship Tingira was commissioned and many of the Boys who trained in Tingira in Rose Bay in Sydney went on to serve in World War One. Here we've got a young naval rating from Tingira, you can see this has been colourised but it's a pretty good example of what your average Sailor looked like, or a young Boy Sailor looked like in World War One. World War One also saw our Fleet go and serve in the Northern Hemisphere, after taking care of business down in the Pacific and in German New Guinea, so these guys are all rugged up in duffle coats. They've got their inflatable life preservers round their coats and they're wearing very, very early anti-flash gear, so it's quite an interesting photo in that regard.

A couple of other World War One slides here. The Rating at the top left is, he looks the goods doesn't he, at HMAS Sydney. Very proud ship, proud crew, and again he's wearing the collar, the white front, you can see the blue tape across at his lanyard. Normally at the end of that lanyard was your seaman’s knife, and what that would do, it just drops into a pocket which was sewn on the inside of the jumper. Not many people know that. It actually had a very practical use. Ships’ mascots, they were all the rage back in the day. I didn't bring the koalas and the kangaroos, but I did bring Jack the dog from HMAS Swordsman who, albeit after World War One, sort of personifies the extent which naval uniform got to.

Then we've got my old mate Dinkum Minogue. This guy, if you've ever read Lofty Batts' Pioneers of the Royal Australian Navy, the adventures of this larrikin defy belief. He turns up everywhere, but he didn't just get around the ship in that rig because he wanted to. Coaling ship was a grubby, backbreaking all-ship evolution where everybody, with the exception of the Captain and I think the ship's Chaplain, were to shift into mufti rig and bend their backs coaling ship. So he is thinking there, his coaling gear is, you can see a pair of boots here in the background. Here we are. I'm not sure whether he's related to Kylie Minogue, but he was in the Dinkum Minogue Hobo Band, so there might be a connection there.

Now then, not all of the Royal Australian Navy's personnel went to war in navy blue. Members of the Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train and Engineering Unit served at Gallipoli and throughout the Middle East dressed in the olive-drab uniform of the First Australian Imperial Force. Their commanding officer however, Leighton Seymour Bracegirdle, saw the need to distinguish between the two forces and designed large stockless anchor badges to identify them as sailors. You can see here on the left, we've got Petty Officer Ben Thompson. You can see all his collars there. He's got the anchor badges and also on his hat, and then over on the other slide here we've got another Able Seaman. He's wearing a cap and you can see the anchor there also in the top left, that one, and the ‘NBT’ representing the Naval Bridging Train, which they wore on their shoulders. Other war units included the Royal Australian Naval Reserve Guard section, the Naval Wireless Service, the Naval Radio Service, in fact, that took over from the PMG and a lot of the Postmaster General people actually went into that and looked after our Naval Shore Wireless capability of World War One. Sea-service chevrons, they were introduced for those serving in World War One. The inverted red one is as a sleeve of a jumper, the red stripe indicates service in 1914, and a blue stripe service in years after 1940. So, you could tell who your old salts were and your long timers and that sort of thing.

Down the bottom here the Royal Australian Navy Coaling Corps, a very, very short-lived unit. It was introduced in 1916 when the Sydney Coal Lumpers Union looked like going on strike, and the Navy became concerned about whether it would still be able to coal its ships, so they struck this deal with the coal lumpers and said, 'I tell you what, you'll get conditions of service for being in the Navy if you promise to coal our ships in the event of a strike. Here's a badge. Here's an arm armoured.’ So, they did this and sure enough there was a strike, but when the transport workers went out also that's where the deal ended. It was solidarity here and the union has stuck together, and that was the end of the very short-lived Royal Australian Navy Coaling Battalion.

Between World War One and the outbreak of World War Two a variety of new categories made their appearance including Divers and Dental Mechanics. Chief Petty Officers’ uniforms also altered slightly when approval was given in January 1926 for three large gilt buttons to be added to the cuffs of blue jackets and white tunic, so that's now synonymous with the rank of Chief Petty Officer in the Royal Australian Navy, and the Royal Navy for that matter. Three brass buttons worn on the cuff: Chief Petty Officer. If you were promoted from Petty Officer to Chief, it was known as getting your buttons. Unfortunately, in my slide, he elected to have his hands behind his back, however what you can also see is that his badges indicating his rating and his trade have moved up onto the collar, so that's why this slide's important. 

In 1928, a new style of Royal Australian Navy button was introduced comprising a vertical stockless anchor replacing the previously worn lazy anchor—so you can see now the anchor is upright. What followed was the bandsman’s badges went from having the lazy anchor to the vertical anchor as well, and in the top-left there, the new badge for Chief Petty Officers was introduced with the laurels around it and the former badge of Chief Petty Officer became that worn by Petty Officers.

The onset of war with Germany on 3 September 1939 triggered another technological revolution that saw the armed forces of the industrialised world rapidly advance in ways not previously considered possible. With those new technologies and innovation came the requirement for a host of new categories in the RAN and a much more practical approach to dress. At the beginning of the war our men were serving at sea wearing uniform, you can see on the slide on the left there, which was basically this—what today would be considered a ceremonial uniform. They were fighting and dying in those uniforms. By the end of World War Two, we were fighting alongside the Americans in the Pacific. The conditions were hot, it was an area that we hadn't previously spent a great deal of time in, and khaki uniform was introduced as a much more practical hardwearing rig. You can see this Rating on the right here parading that. More often than not, only the shorts were worn with a tatty pair of sandals, and when they went to action-stations they put their anti-flash hood on. I'm not quite sure how that worked out, but the pictures don't lie.

Also in World War Two we saw the institution of the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service, the WRANS, and also the Royal Australian Navy Nursing Service. From 1941, Australia's first female sailors could be found performing a variety of critical jobs ashore, dressed in navy blue jackets, skirts and felt fur hats. I call your attention back to that earlier slide of Blair Bowden. By the end of the war, they too had added a much more practical khaki uniform to their rig. It was better suited to serving in places such as Townsville and Cairns where it was extremely hot. Here we have a Nursing Sister. They followed the pattern of the WRANS reasonably closely, albeit that their cap badge for the Officers was the Naval Officers’ cap badge as opposed to one in gloria blue, and here you can see an example of the wavy cuff lace and shoulder epaulette.

The Women's Services were briefly disbanded after the war, but in 1951 the WRANS was resurrected. In the same year, post-war kit was approved which saw the introduction of light blue embroidered badges for Ratings and the distinctive tricorn hat for Officers. They've gone from having a floppy felt-fur hat to this tricorn hat, which is still in use today. Also, th