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An Officer and A Gentleman: Naval Uniform and Male Fashion in the Eighteenth Century

  • The Royal Navy first introduced uniform in April 1748.
  • By the time that Nelson won his famous victory at Trafalgar in 1805, uniform was firmly established as a key feature of the Navy’s public image.
  • Throughout this period, uniform was only worn by commissioned officers and not by common sailors.
  • In their portraits, naval officers were usually depicted in their ceremonial full-dress uniform, rather than the more informal undress uniforms that they wore whilst on duty.
  • Full-dress naval uniform was designed to resemble upper-class civilian dress. This signalled the elevated social status that came with an officer’s commission. According to the Admiralty, uniform was introduced for officers in order “to distinguish their rank as gentlemen”.
  • Naval officers’ portraits therefore provide illuminating insights into broader fashions in elite men’s clothing in this important period in British history.
  • Bringing together portraits from the National Portrait Gallery with uniforms and accessories currently held by the National Maritime Museum, this slideshow explores some of the key features of eighteenth-century naval dress.

Before Uniform

  • Before 1748, naval officers wore whatever they liked, although they usually opted for something formal, respectable and expensive when appearing in polite society or sitting for their portrait.
  • By contrast, army officers had a well-established uniform, which could be traced back to the mid-seventeenth century. Naval officers worried that they were seen as less respectable than their military counterparts because they did not have a uniform.

William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland

Studio of David Morier, oil on canvas, (circa 1748-1749), 29 1/2 in. x 24 in. (749 mm x 610 mm), Transferred from British Museum, 1879, NPG 537

  • William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, was the third son of George II and a leading general of the day.
  • He is shown in this portrait in the uniform of an Army general.
  • When this portrait was painted, officers in the Army had been wearing uniform for almost a hundred years. By contrast, their counterparts in the Navy had only just received their first ever uniform.
  • A number of features of military uniform, such as the turned-back lapels shown in this portrait, later became part of naval uniform.
  • Throughout the eighteenth-century, military uniform was red and British soldiers were known as “redcoats”. When naval uniform was introduced in 1748, the decision was taken that it would be dark blue, giving us the term “Navy blue”. However, many naval officers would have preferred red uniforms, like the Army. They thought that red was a more martial and dignified colour.

James Cornewall
By Unknown artist, oil on canvas, 1730s, 50 1/4 in. x 40 in. (1276 mm x 1016 mm), Given by Cecil Andrew South, 1980, NPG 5323

  • James Cornewall was a naval officer in the early eighteenth century. He was killed at the Battle of Toulon in 1744.
  • This portrait shows Cornewall in the decade before he died.
  • The Navy had no official uniform at this date so Cornewall is shown in his own clothes. He wears a blue velvet coat.
  • Blue and brown coats were fashionable for gentlemen in the 1730s and 1740s and many naval officers chose to wear these colours in their portraits. There was also a fashion among naval officers for wearing blue coats with red waistcoats.

The Introduction of Uniform

  • These images show the first full-dress naval uniform pattern, introduced in 1748.
  • The flared skirt and deep cuffs of the coat reflect contemporary fashions. This style was considered relatively conservative in the late 1740s but the Admiralty wanted a look that was well-established and traditional.

Sir Peter Warren

By Thomas Hudson, oil on canvas, circa 1751, 53 1/2 in. x 52 in. (1359 mm x 1321 mm), Given by Dr D.M. McDonald, 1977, NPG 5158

  • Sir Peter Warren was born into a Roman Catholic family in Ireland but he was raised as a protestant so that he could enter the Royal Navy, which did not allow Catholics to serve as officers. He became famous for masterminding the successful British siege of the French fortress at Louisbourg in 1745.
  • He is shown here in rear-admiral’s full-dress uniform.
  • An officer’s rank was indicated by the gold decoration on his uniform. The most senior officers had the most elaborate decoration. Tassels like those on Warren’s coat were only worn by admirals.
  • There is one ring of gold lace around the cuff, denoting a rear-admiral. Vice-admirals had two rings and full admirals had three rings.
  • Warren also wears a red sash, which indicates that he had been made a Knight of the Bath by the King.

Dress coat of a naval lieutenant
Wool, linen-wool blend, brass buttons, 1748–67, 1080 x 410 x 280 mm, National Maritime Museum, UNI0003.

  • This coat was designed for a naval lieutenant.
  • Although it is similar in style to the coat worn by Sir Peter Warren, it is much plainer, without any gold embellishment. This shows that the officer holds a lower rank. Lieutenant was the lowest commissioned rank in the eighteenth-century Navy.
  • An important function of uniform was to signal the rank that the wearer held within the Navy.

Uniform Pattern Changes

  • Naval uniform was updated every few decades to keep pace with fashion.
  • These images show the Navy’s second full-dress uniform, introduced in 1767. The deep cuffs and full skirts of the first pattern have been replaced by closer fitting alternatives. Turned-back lapels – a common feature of eighteenth-century military uniform – appear here for the first time in naval full-dress. This pattern remained in use until the 1780s.

John Jervis, Earl of St Vincent

By Francis Cotes, oil on canvas, 1769, 49 1/2 in. x 39 1/2 in. (1257 mm x 1003 mm), Purchased with help from the Art Fund, 1949, Primary Collection, NPG 2026

  • John Jervis was a talented naval officer and politician, rising to the rank of admiral and becoming First Lord of the Admiralty. He is famous for commanding the victorious British fleet at the Battle of Cape St Vincent on 14 February 1797 and for making important reforms to naval administration and discipline.
  • Jervis is shown in this dynamic portrait as a captain in 1769. He wears the new full-dress uniform for captains, which had been introduced in 1767.

Dress coat of a naval captain
Wool and linen with brass buttons and gold lace, 1774–87, 1025 x 600 mm, National Maritime Museum, UNI0011.

  • This uniform would have been worn by a captain.
  • It shows that breeches, rather than trousers, were official naval uniform.


  • Epaulettes were officially introduced into naval uniform in 1795 but some officers wore them as a non-regulation accessory before this date. Officers often flouted Admiralty regulations by embellishing their uniforms in ways that suggested their wealth, status or fashion sense.
  • Epaulettes were a mark of military distinction that originated in France and their adoption demonstrates the influence of foreign military fashions over British naval uniform.
  • Some officers were initially resistant to the introduction of epaulettes. Horatio Nelson condemned the adoption of “Frenchman’s uniform” in a letter to his friend and mentor William Locker in 1783. However, Nelson did wear epaulettes after they became official uniform. The bullet that killed him at Trafalgar hit his epaulette.

Lord Hugh Seymour

By Samuel William Reynolds, published by John Jeffryes, after John Hoppner, mezzotint, published 1 June 1802, 13 7/8 in. x 10 in. (353 mm x 254 mm) plate size; 15 in. x 11 1/8 in. (381 mm x 281 mm) paper size, Bequeathed by (Frederick) Leverton Harris, 1927, NPG D14704

  • Lord Hugh Seymour was the fifth son of Francis Seymour-Conway, 1st Marquess of Hertford. He was a prominent figure in society with a reputation for dissolute behaviour in his youth but he went on to become a courageous and successful naval officer.
  • At a meeting with French royalists at Toulon in 1793, Seymour found that he was not recognised as an officer because he did not have epaulettes. After this, he began wearing epaulettes, even though they were not official uniform.
  • Two years later, in March 1795, he became a Lord of the Admiralty and used his new position to change the uniform regulations. He made epaulettes mandatory for officers in order to indicate rank to non-English speaking allies.
  • Wearing vice-admiral’s full-dress uniform, he is shown here proudly displaying his epaulettes.

Epaulette of a vice-admiral worn by Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar
Card or sheet metal, cotton wadding, silk, silver, gold alloy, before 1805, National Maritime Museum, UNI0031.

  • This epaulette was worn by Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805.
  • It is decorated with two stars, indicating the rank of a vice-admiral, worked in silver spangles and metal thread.
  • One side has been damaged by the bullet that killed Nelson, exposing some of the cotton wadding used to pad the underside of the epaulette.
  • Fired by an enemy sniper from high up in the rigging of the French ship Redoubtable, the bullet broke Nelson’s shoulder blade and damaged his spine.
  • When the bullet was removed during Nelson’s autopsy, some of the gold bullion from the epaulette was still stuck to it.

Non-Regulation Clothing

  • These portraits show that officers often adapted and personalised their uniform to make it more practical or to suit their own taste.
  • Throughout the eighteenth century, Admiralty regulations stated that officers should wear knee breeches, stockings and shoes but these portraits show officers wearing trousers.

John Byron

After Unknown artist, line engraving, circa 1778, 7 1/4 in. x 4 1/2 in. (184 mm x 115 mm) plate size. Given by Henry Witte Martin, 1861, NPG D23545

  • John Byron was the grandfather of the famous Romantic poet, Lord Byron. He was a decorated naval officer, noted for his circumnavigation of the world in the Dolphin in 1764–66.
  • This print was published during the American War of Independence, in which Byron served as commander-in-chief of the North American station and held the rank of vice-admiral. However, the portrait shows him in captain’s uniform.
  • The print may indicate how officers actually dressed for active duty. Byron wears an undress uniform coat and waistcoat but, instead of tight-fitting knee breeches, he wears trousers, which were not official uniform. There is evidence that officers sometimes opted to wear long, loose-fitting trousers on deck because they allowed greater freedom of movement.
  • Underneath his waistcoat, a sword belt with an oval buckle hangs diagonally across his chest. His sword has a distinctive eagle-headed hilt, visible beside his left hip.

Sir William Sidney Smith
By John Eckstein, oil on canvas, 1801–02, 93 1/2 in. x 57 in. (2375 mm x 1448 mm), Purchased, 1890, NPG 832

  • Sir William Sidney Smith was an eccentric and egotistical officer, whose intelligent, imaginative and daring actions in the 1790s caught the public eye. He was famous for escaping from the Temple Prison in Paris after he was taken prisoner by the French in 1797.
  • This portrait represents Smith fighting alongside Ottoman troops at the Siege of Acre in 1799. Composed in the artist’s studio, it is theatrical and romanticised, rather than an accurate portrayal of the battle.
  • Although he wears a uniform coat, Smith wears tight-fitting trousers and knee-high Hessian boots, instead of the breeches and stockings specified by Admiralty regulations. This reflects a contemporary fashion for trousers and Hessian boots, which was later popularised by the Duke of Wellington.
  • The fashion-conscious Smith is always depicted wearing boots in his portraits.
  • Eckstein’s portrait also shows Smith heavily armed for battle. Holding a sword in his right hand, he has one pistol thrust into the Turkish sash around his waist and another hanging from a shoulder strap.


  • Accessories worn with uniform added extra layers of meaning. Swords had particularly important symbolic value.
  • In battle, officers armed themselves with short swords or cutlasses, which were well-suited for fighting at close-quarters in the cramped conditions on the deck of a warship. However, in portraits, they are generally shown wearing long swords, often with decorative hilts. These swords were dress swords designed for display rather than fighting. Sometimes officers were given valuable dress swords in recognition of bravery or distinguished service.
  • In the eighteenth century, wealthy and high-born men wore dress swords to signal their status as gentlemen.
  • When a naval officer was court-martialled, his sword was taken from him and placed on a table in the court room to show that his rank and reputation had been put on hold. If he was acquitted, his sword was returned to him. If he was found guilty, the point of the sword was turned towards him. This practice continued in Britain until 2004.

Augustus Keppel, Viscount Keppel

By Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas, 1779, 48 1/2 in. x 39 1/2 in. (1232 mm x 1003 mm), Purchased, 1864, NPG 179

  • Wearing the uniform of a full admiral, Augustus Keppel is shown here near the end of his long naval career. He enjoyed a close friendship with the celebrated painter Sir Joshua Reynolds and sat to the artist for seven portraits over the course of his life.
  • The portrait was painted to celebrate Keppel’s acquittal following a high-profile court-martial inquiring into his conduct at the Battle of Ushant in July 1778.
  • He is shown proudly grasping the hilt of his sword, referring to the symbolic moment at the end of the court-martial when his innocence was proclaimed and his sword was returned to him.
  • Reynolds produced multiple versions of this portrait. To show his gratitude, Keppel distributed the paintings among those who had defended him during his trial. This example was presented to John Dunning.

Lloyds Patriotic Fund £100 Trafalgar pattern presentation sword, presented to Captain J.R. Lapenotiere
By Richard Teed, steel with gilding, 1805, 749 x 38 mm, National Maritime Museum, WPN1045.

  • This sword was presented to Lieutenant John Richard Lapenotiere by Lloyds Patriotic Fund in 1805 in recognition of his services. Commanding a small but fast vessel known as the Pickle, Lapenotiere had raced from the Mediterranean Sea to London after the Battle of Trafalgar to bring news of the British victory to the Admiralty.
  • Founded in 1803, Lloyd’s Patriotic Fund is a charitable fund, which uses public donations to support wounded servicemen and their families. Until 1809, the Fund also awarded prizes for bravery in the form of money, silverware and engraved swords, like this one.
  • A portrait in the National Maritime Museum shows Lapenotiere holding this presentation sword.


  • Seals were another important accessory for naval officers. Consisting of a metal die or engraved gem, the seal was pressed into hot wax to make an impression on a document.
  • Functioning like a signature, they were used by officers to authenticate official correspondence to the Admiralty and to seal their personal letters to loved ones at home. Officers were often away at sea for long periods and letters provided a vital means of communication with their families in Britain.
  • Eighteenth-century gentlemen, including naval officers, often wore their seals as fashionable items of jewellery, usually hanging them from a ribbon or chain at their hip.

Sir Home Riggs Popham

By Unknown artist, oil on canvas, circa 1783, 74 1/2 in. x 47 1/2 in. (1892 mm x 1207 mm), Given by G.F. Popham Blyth, 1888, NPG 811

  • Sir Home Riggs Popham entered the Navy in 1778 and saw service against the French in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1793–1815). He devised a system for using signal flags that remained in use in the Navy until the invention of radio rendered communication by flag obsolete.
  • He is shown here as a young man in lieutenant’s full-dress uniform.
  • He has a baton in his right hand and holds his tricorn hat in his left. A dress sword hangs at his left hip.
  • A seal hangs from his waist on a length of ribbon.

Pinchbeck fob seal set with an oval agate intaglio
Agate and pinchbeck, 18th century, 40 x 22 x 29mm, National Maritime Museum, JEW0110.

  • This seal is made from pinchbeck (an alloy of zinc and copper used as a cheap substitute for gold) and contains an agate gem engraved with a ship.
  • The provenance is unknown but the design would have been appropriate for a naval officer.

Gold fob seal set with a crystal intaglio
Crystal and gold, 1797, 5 x 15 x 32 mm, National Maritime Museum, JEW0079.

  • This seal is made from gold and features an agate gem engraved with the arms of Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson from 1797–8.
  • It was common for seals to feature officers’ coats of arms.
  • Nelson’s arms are supported by a lion and a sailor armed with a cutlass and a pair of pistols, who carries a staff bearing a Commodore’s flag.

Medals and Honours

  • Officers were permitted to wear official medals and honours as part of their uniform
  • Throughout the eighteenth century, naval officers were rewarded for distinguished service with knighthoods and other royal honours. The Admiralty also began awarding gold campaign medals during the 1790s. These medals were given to senior officers who had fought in particular battles and always hung on blue-and-white striped ribbons.
  • In the 1790s and early 1800s, the government distributed an increasing number of medals and honours to officers. This recognised the Royal Navy’s widespread success in this period as Britain established itself as the world’s leading naval power, culminating in Nelson’s famous victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Adam Duncan, 1st Viscount Duncan

By John Smart, pencil and wash, feigned oval, 1798, 7 1/8 in. x 6 3/8 in. (181 mm x 162 mm), Purchased, 1963, NPG 4315

  • Adam Duncan was a Scottish officer, most famous for leading the British fleet to victory against the Dutch at the Battle of Camperdown on 11 October 1797.
  • This portrait shows Duncan wearing a sash across his chest and a star on the left breast of his coat. These details indicate that the admiral was a knight of the Russian Imperial Order of Saint Alexander Nevsky. He was awarded this honour by Emperor Paul I after commanding an allied Anglo-Russian fleet in the North Sea in 1797. A number of eighteenth-century British naval officers held foreign honours, which they won as a result of working with or serving in overseas navies.
  • Duncan also wears the gold campaign medal that he was awarded for his victory at the Battle of Camperdown. It is hung around his neck as per the instructions that he received with the medal, which stated: “The Blue and White Ribband to be passed through the oval ring attached to the Medal, and to be worn round the neck, under the Coat, and over the waistcoat, so that the medal may hang about an Inch above the Pit of the Stomach.”

Captain’s Naval Gold Medal awarded to Captain John Wells for the Battle of Camperdown

By Lewis Pingo, gold, 1797, 33 mm diameter, National Maritime Museum, MED0154.

  • This is an example of the gold campaign medals awarded to officers by the Admiralty in the 1790s.
  • This medal was given to John Wells, who was captain of the Lancaster at the Battle of Camperdown in 1797.
  • The obverse (front) shows Britannia being crowned with a wreath by a winged Victory.
  • The ribbon has been cut short and attached to a gold buckle, enabling Captain Wells to wear the medal pinned to his chest in the way that naval and military officers wear medals today. Many officers chose to wear their medals in this manner, rather than hanging them around their necks.

This feature was compiled by Katherine Gazzard as part of an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Partnership project with the University of East Anglia (UEA), the National Maritime Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.

All National Maritime Museum images © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

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