I recently noticed an online auction for a naval uniform item that was listed as a World War II U.S. Navy enlisted man’s jumper. For the seller, it appeared to have the same characteristics of other similarly listed uniforms so guiding him (or her) to describe it as being the same as those. This is very common occurrence with online listings. An unsuspecting buyer could easily pull the trigger on this listing, thinking they were purchasing the item as described. Imagine the disappointment when they will most certainly learn that what they brought home wasn’t U.S. Navy uniform, but rather it was a middy.
Middies as a fashion statement
A middy (or middy blouse) was part of a popular fashion trend of the late 19th Century that continued on up through World War I, bringing the styling of the naval uniform to civilian attire in women and children’s apparel. Designs incorporated the “sailor collar and flap” (complete with the piping stripes), neckerchief and in many examples, rating badges. To the untrained eye, the garments look no different from their authentic counterparts.
U.S. Naval enlisted uniforms vary through the ages
While the overall naval enlisted uniforms design has been relatively unchanged since the mid-1800s, they have in reality gone through several subtle iterations, easily confusing novice or new collectors. Along with the uniform variations, the insignia have transitioned considerably, compelling even experienced naval collectors to seek informative sources to discern one uniform or rate from another.
In addition to the variations between the different eras of naval uniform and rate designs (which includes the various rate insignia heraldry), individual customization can factor into the mix of uniform deviation. Naval personnel even to this day try to find ways to make their uniform uniquely theirs in an effort to define their appearance as an individual. These customizations may fly in the face of uniform regulations or tap dance in the grey area of individual interpretation. Another contributing factor is the unique nature of ship’s commanding officers possessing the ability to relax or modify the regulations to fit their command style.
Several excellent publications are available that provide collectors with the ability to assess a uniform item and properly identify it…most of the time. Occasionally, uniform anomalies surface that clearly stand out and appear to deviate from the uniform regulations or known practices of the purported time period of the item. Fortunately, there are experts in online forums who are experienced with enough of the variances that can help to decipher the uniform attributes in an effort to guide the collector to the best conclusion as to the authenticity of the piece.
Navy enlisted uniform basics – what to look for
I am certainly not an expert when it comes to navy uniforms—however, through osmosis and reviewing various reference materials, I am beginning to recognize the nuances and can provide some beginner-level guidance, if you’re just starting out with naval enlisted uniform collecting.
Tags or labels
Check the garment for a label or tag as a method to determine when the uniform was constructed. This can also apply for tailor made items, but consultation with experts should be required in order to nail down the tailor and any comparative details that could be used.
John Stacey’s book, United States Navy Rating Badges and Marks 1833-2008: A History of Our Sailors’ Rate and rating Insignia is an invaluable tool to decipher the lengthy list of variations with insignia.
Mr. Stacey possesses many decades of documentation and research that includes having delved deep into the Navy’s archives of uniform regulations, uniform contracts, and design specifications. Collectors are continuously reaching out to him with their discoveries of anomalies, providing feedback to add to his research and to provide material for the many revisions his book has been subjected to.
Distinguishing Marks - Modern enlisted uniforms no longer employ these specialty insignia as the rates and ratings are firmly developed and managed by naval regulations. As the Navy began to mature and place a significant amount of management of the enlisted ranks (contrary to the previous era of conscription), leadership started to institute systems to allow specialization for these men. With that came a need to allow for recognition for these sailors to display their shipboard role on their uniform. To gain a better understanding of why and when these were implemented, again, refer to Stacey’s book.
Construction - There are several types of materials that have been used throughout the years in the construction of enlisted navy uniforms. Keep in mind that there have been times when sailors would have multiple types of uniforms (blues, whites, undress, dress, working, etcetera). Textile variants also play into determining the time-frame (heavy melton wool, weave, cotton duck, canvas, etcetera). If the collector is confused, consult the experts.
Embroidery and stitching - Some early 20th century naval uniforms can be especially baffling. A few years ago, one in particular drew significant attention among collectors for its distinctive embellishments and custom embroidery. What was confusing (to a novice like me) was that every aspect of the uniform was so ornate and beautifully designed, unlike the conventional uniforms of the same period. Many collectors (including me) debated as to the authenticity and whether it was truly a uniform or perhaps a middy. As it turns out, it was a custom-tailored “liberty” uniform that is unauthorized for official wear, yet proudly worn ashore.
Research: a wise investment - Spending time to get familiar with some of these basics along with investing in reference materials will go a long way to prevent you from making costly mistakes. The flip side of this situation is that educated buyers might even discover a piece that the seller has grossly undervalued (due to their own ignorance of naval uniform nuances) thereby allowing the piece to be acquired at a bargain-basement price.
In the case of the seller with the middy eBay listing (mentioned above), I did make contact regarding the mistaken description for which I was politely thanked; the seller informing me that they would remove the auction and properly identify it when relisted.