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Dress Right: Military Influences On A Gentleman’s Wardrobe

Some key elements of a gentleman’s wardrobe, especially for the winter months, have their roots in military and naval uniforms. It’s quite a legacy that brings with it several hundred years of fascinating history.

One of the purposes of clothing a body of fighting men in the same manner is to engender a sense of unity, of belonging and of correctness. These are precisely the same qualities that well-dressed men in civilian life, or Civvy Street to use a quaint old English expression, regard as important.

Cutting Matter

To the experienced eye, the cut of a suit or sports jacket can identify its tailor-creator as easily as a man can spot a comrade wearing his regimental tie or regimental button on a blazer.

This two-piece double-breasted suit was cut for the esteemed blogger and style influencer ‘Grey Fox’ here at Number 10 Savile Row.

In a collaboration with Johnstons of Elgin in 2017, the SuitsGreyFox project saw the Grey Fox visit Johnstons of Elgin’s mill to design and manufacture a cloth, which was then cut and tailored by us at Number 10 Savile Row.

Further details on this collaboration can be read on the Grey Fox blog.

We start our examination of military stylistic influences in the Crimean War of 1853-1856, which was the first major military conflict to be photographed. The astonishing images of pioneering cameramen like Roger Fenton and James Robertson of the troops and the grim conditions in the southern tip of the Crimean peninsula are haunting still.


The bitter cold of the winters meant keeping warm was a constant challenge. British men of a certain age will have childhood memories of wearing a hand-knitted hood in winter. This practical but now rarely-seen item was named balaclava after the location of a bloody battle during the siege of the port of Sebastopol.

The Battle of Balaclava is even better remembered as the scene of the Charge of the Light Brigade, a disastrous attempt by around 670 British cavalry to overcome Russian heavy gun emplacements.

The commander of the Brigade was Lieutenant-General James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, an aristocrat who is remembered for his arrogance and occasional incompetence as a military leader.

Like many of the career military men in the British Army between the late 17th and late 19th centuries he was obsessed with the arcane details of different regiments and he was a notorious stickler for correct and immaculate presentation.

Aristocratic Cardigan

In 1837, having inherited his father’s earldom, Cardigan spent £10,000 (amazingly, the equivalent of about £900,000 in today’s values) of his own fortune making his regiment, the 11th Hussars, the smartest troop in the army. The dandified flamboyance of the colour of their trousers earned them the nickname The Cherry Pickers.

It is ironic, therefore, that his name is most commonly heard today to describe a restrained comfortable knitted garment, made with or without sleeves.

The received wisdom on its origin is that the Earl wore a knitted waistcoat under his tunic in Crimea and, as he was regarded as a brave hero immediately after the charge, the garment became fashionable.

Today the cardigan, knitted in yarns from fine to heavy gauges, is a versatile addition to a practical wardrobe. Fine knitwear can be worn under a jacket in place of a waistcoat. A heavy gauge cardigan can replace a jacket for a smart but casual look.

Raglan Sleeve

Yet another connection with Crimean generals is the raglan sleeve, which is named after Field Marshal FitzRoy James Henry Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan, who was in overall command of the British forces and died of dysentery at Sebastopol in 1855.

A son of the 5th Duke of Beaufort, Raglan was a career soldier who served for 41 years. Two days after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, when he was 26 years old, his right arm was amputated as his elbow had been shattered by a musket ball and his doctors were concerned about the onset of gangrene.

Given his disability, he found it easier to wear coats in which the sleeve extended in one piece fully to the collar, with a wider armhole than a conventional set-in sleeve. The style might well have been known before he adopted it, but 200 years later we know it as the raglan sleeve and a very comfortable option it is.

Another version of the story of its derivation suggests the construction came about when Raglan had a hole cut in a blanket so he could drape it about him to ward off the Russian cold, but this hard seems in keeping with the correct dress of a British Field Marshal.

John Jones

Wherever the British Army went, its tailors went too. John Jones, the celebrated art collector and patron who lived at 95 Piccadilly from 1865, was a tailor by trade with premises on Regent Street.

Part of his considerable fortune derived from having a contract to supply uniforms to the force of at least 26,000 British men in Crimea.

One version of the story says Jones’ firm had a tailoring workshop on a ship in Sebastopol harbour.

Jones' business is part of our family tree, as shown here.

Another coat style appreciated by the men fighting in Crimea was the greatcoat, which had its origins in the generously cut coachmen’s coats worn from the 18th century onwards.

These had, effectively, two layers of cloth: one next to the body and another laid on top, fastened at the edge of the chest to limit the effect of the wind and rain.

Manly Physiques

These two layers, which can be folded back in good weather, are, incidentally, the antecedents of modern lapels or revers.

Classically a greatcoat is a long double-breasted coat that reaches well below the knee, making it demonstrably larger than a classic topcoat or overcoat. The buttons are placed wide at the top and slant down to suggest a V-shape, a classic touch of military styling to emphasise the manly physique of the wearer.

State Finery

On ceremonial occasions the lapels are never folded back.

Seen here is a classic greatcoat, as worn by the Grenadier Guards c 1914.

Sometimes the skirt of the greatcoat is quite full, which allows it to be draped over the horse if the wearer is riding when wearing it.

In some versions, a cape was fitted for extra warmth and protection from rain.

The ideal greatcoat is made from a dense, felted wool cloth, which tends to be naturally water-resistant.

Today, like many historic items of British uniform, a true greatcoat is seen only in the ceremonial or dress uniforms worn for notable occasions such as royal parades, celebrations and funerals.

Fine examples of greatcoats from all the British services are worn by leading members of the Royal family at the National Service of Remembrance at The Cenotaph each November.

British Warm

Another coat with a splendid heritage is the British Warm.

While greatcoats can be grey (as worn by the five Guards regiments) or black (as worn by the modern British Navy, which no longer wears navy blue!) or blue-grey (or Royal Air Force blue) or khaki, the shorter British Warm is always khaki or a similar shade, such as camel, putty or fawn.

Here a British Warm is contrasted with the trench coat.

Practical, WWI

The coat was an optional uniform choice for British Army officers and Warrant Officers Class 1 during the First World War, its shorter length being more practical in the trenches of Flanders. It had epaulettes that stopped shoulder straps, such as on a Sam Browne belt or binoculars case, from slipping and allowed the rank insignia of shoulder boards or “pips” to be easily fitted.

On some rare occasions the coat featured a belt.

Typically the British Warm was made from a heavy melton, which is a tightly woven woollen cloth that is milled (or pressed) and brushed to create a short, raised nap.

Fit For The King

The result is a soft yet sturdy handle and dense appearance.

In 1922 King George V wore a British Warm when visiting Allied war graves in France and Belgium.

Originally the coats carried regimental metal buttons. After the World War I many decommissioned officers continued to wear the coat but with neat leather football buttons.


During World War II the British Warm was a popular choice of Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who can be seen wearing one during the historic meeting in Yalta, (which coincidently is in Crimea), with US President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.

A revival of the classic British Warm would be welcome as it is a fine and practical coat.

Much more commonly seen but with similar roots is the trench coat, which also first came to prominence in The Great War.

All sorts of lightweight fashionable interpretations are available these days, but the originals display the practical requirements of a garment that literally had to serve in terrible conditions as part of a fighting uniform.

Like the British Warm, the trench coat was an optional item of dress in the British Army, bought privately by officers and Warrant Officers Class I, the most senior soldier rank in the British Army.


For the Boer War of 1899-1902 Thomas Burberry supplied British Army officers with a coat that was to become known as the Tielocken, which was knee-length, generously double-breasted with overlapping fronts, and with a belt that could be closed round the waist firmly.

By the time the 1914-1918 conflict began, the gabardine fabric had performed very well and the Tielocken style was amended by Burberry and several other manufacturers into what we would now refer to as a trench coat.

Classic trench coats have epaulettes, 10 buttons on the DB front, a gun flap at the front shoulder under which the lapel can be buttoned in bad weather, metal D-rings for attaching military tools (some legends claim hand grenades were clipped on here), a deep back yoke or storm shield, welted storm pockets, sleeve straps to close the cuff openings, and a centre pleat.

These practical additions, plus a throat latch to close the gap when the collar was raised and large pockets for map cases, were designed to meet the task in hand.

As officers were expected to buy some of their uniform, many British manufacturers developed their own versions of the trench coat, especially after Burberry began selling its trademarked gabardine cloth to the general market.

The Ypres

Versions of the British trench coat – sometimes with a raglan sleeve - became a popular garment for several armies in both world wars.

The First World War saw many British manufacturers produce versions of the trench coat. This advert appearing in Country Life.

As with the British Warm, in the post-1918 years former officers wore the garment as civilians and its use spread far beyond military ranks.

It is one of the few garments with a military heritage that is also popular with women as well as men.

Moving from the military to the naval traditions, the British Royal Navy proudly calls itself the Senior Service and with some justification. Although warships had been used by English and Scottish rulers since early medieval times, a national fleet was first organised on the orders of King Henry VIII in 1546.

Shipbuilding Henry

His father and the first Tudor king, King Henry VII, had commenced a programme of shipbuilding to better protect his island nation.

When Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509 he had five ships at his disposal.

Shipyards were developed at Deptford and Woolwich on the River Thames, close to Henry’s palace at Greenwich.

Modern Maritime Greenwich

This location in south-east London is now home to the National Maritime Museum, which has a fine selection of naval uniforms.

Sunken Rose

Henry VIII also sanctioned the first naval dock at Portsmouth, which became the spiritual home of the Royal Navy. By 1540 the British fleet comprised 40 ships, including Henry’s supposed favourite, the Mary Rose, which was launched in 1511 and sank in 1545.

When the maritime force was formally organised in the year before Henry’s death, it was known as the Navy Royal. The more familiar name was not adopted until after the restoration of King Charles II in 1660.

From this mid-17th century period and through the 18th century the British Royal Navy challenged the Dutch and then the French navy for seaborne supremacy. From the mid-1700s until the start of World War II in 1939 the Royal Navy was the most powerful fleet in the world.

Its domination of the waves was instrumental in establishing and defending the worldwide British Empire and such was its influence that many other navies copied its uniform of navy blue and white.

The concept of a common dress code at sea did not exist until 1748 when the first uniform regulations for officers were issued. Some historians suggest that senior naval staff made the request as they wished to be recognised as serving their sovereign, King George II.

Lord Nelson

Reflecting the civilian styles of the day and with, to modern eyes, a surprising disregard for practicality, the uniforms comprised frock coats and breeches with different ranks being indicated by the shape and cut of lapels and cuffs.

It was in such a uniform that the diminutive Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson led the Royal Navy against the French at Trafalgar on 12 October 1805.

Naval Insignia

From 1795 stripes of lace on the cuffs were used to distinguish the different ranks of admiral but it was not until 1856 that the first version of today’s familiar naval rank insignia, consisting of stripes with a ``curl`` in the top one, was introduced for all officers.

Above we see HRH The Princess Royal, in the uniform of an admiral, with her husband Vice Admiral Sir Timothy Laurence.

To the mid-19th century most of the regular seamen wore “slops”, ready-made clothing sold to the ship’s company by a manufacturer. It was not until 1857 that the Admiralty specified the so-called “square rig” uniform for ratings or regular sailors.

Sailor Suits

This comprised a tight square-cut top worn with bell-bottom trousers, which were so designed to allow them to be easily rolled up to stop them getting wet with sea water.

Classic Sailor Style

Miniature versions of the classic sailor suit have long been a favourite with royal children. Prince Louis was seen carrying on the tradition last summer for Trooping the Colour during the Platinum Jubilee celebrations for his great-grandmother, the late Queen Elizabeth II.

Throughout the 19th century, naval (and military) “uniform” was not a strict term or concept. Officers paid for their own uniform and regularly modified it to suit the prevailing civilian fashion of the day. Similarly, captains typically established general standards of appearance for the seamen on their vessel, but there was little or no uniformity between ships. The wearing of tailcoats by officers persisted until the 1880s when a more familiar naval DB jacket became common.

This lack of naval uniformity has contributed to one of the great myths of bespoke tailoring – the origins of the term “blazer”.

Blazing Away

For such a relatively simple jacket, the blazer has attracted a number of tales regarding its origins.

The most familiar one suggests that in 1837 the young Queen Victoria was so impressed by the dark blue coats with brass buttons worn by the crew of HMS Blazer that she decreed the jacket should thenceforth be called a blazer.

Another version has a later captain of HMS Blazer attempting to smarten up his crew in the 1860s with the jacket. A further option moves the garment from the ocean and identifies the bright club jackets worn by sports teams or varsity clubs as the original “blazers”.

In 1987 a flurry of letters on the subject of the origin of the blazer and its name decorated the pages of The Daily Telegraph. Venerable menswear writer John Taylor, who from 1945 until 1970 was a champion of Savile Row and the bespoke craft as editor of the trade paper The Tailor & Cutter, weighed in with his own version of events.

Dismissing all the HMS Blazer connections, in a feature in the trade magazine Men’s Wear he decreed that the original blazer dated from the 1870s and was the vivid scarlet jacket worn solely by members of the Lady Margaret Boat Club of St John’s College at Cambridge University.

The club exists today and its website states the first use of the word “blazer” to describe its jackets appeared in the London Daily News of 22 August 1889.

Sporting Style

What’s not in dispute is by the 1890s brightly striped “blazers” became a popular “casualwear” option for smart and sporty men. Rowing clubs, other sporting groups, schools, colleges and possibly even a few regiments devised their own colourful and striking “colours”.

The trend was still going strong up until the outbreak of World War II and we continue to make boldly striped bespoke blazers here at 10 Savile Row.

Today in the UK the annual Henley Royal Regatta, the festival of rowing on the River Thames and one of the highlights of the Summer Season, is the best place to see blazing blazers in their splendid glory.

How many of those wearing them, however, believe they have a naval heritage?


To complicate matters further, the late Hardy Amies in his classic guide ABC of Men’s Fashion asserted that the blazer “originated in the 1860s, a short jacket with patch pockets worn for cricket and tennis.”

The book was published as an inexpensive paperback in 1964 and republished in hardback by the V&A in 2007.

He added the habit of wearing a DB navy blue blazer as an alternative to a tweed sports jacket (too informal) and a dark suit (too formal) “was almost certainly started by army officers who were able to use regimental buttons instead of plain brass.”

Back on the briny, the double-breasted jackets worn as Royal Navy uniforms in the later Victorian era were “borrowed” by the sporty Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, who was a keen sailor.

As we noted in a previous feature on our journal, Teddy was probably the most successful style setter of all the British royals and the navy blue jacket he wore when racing his yachts is another link with the modern blazer.

It is worth noting here that the 8-button jacket worn in the Royal Navy is the only double-breasted uniform jacket in the British services.

One garment with a definite naval link, somewhat heavier than a blazer, is the reefer jacket or peacoat.

Fit For Reefing

In its classic form, this is a hip-length double-breasted style with a large collar and generous lapels that fasten with six or eight large flat buttons.

The jacket was cut with overlapping fronts that fastened at the sides to prevent the buttons being caught in rigging lines when the wearer was “reefing”, that is rolling or folding a canvas sail to preserve a vessel’s stability in strong winds.

A sturdy jacket to keep out the cold was much appreciated by seamen carrying out this demanding task. Classically it has two handwarmer pockets formed from vertical slits on each side.

Why Pea?

A reefer or peacoat is made from relatively dense woollen cloth. The pea in its name is generally accepted to be a corruption of “pij”, the Dutch name for the type of coarse cloth originally associated with the naval garments.

These days the style is still popular but modern weaving techniques means the cloth is much lighter while still being warm and durable.

As one of The Daily Telegraph correspondents confidently stateds in the 1987 Letters Page debate: “A dark blue double-breasted coat is a reefer jacket, a reefer jacket with stripes is a boating jacket, and reefer jacket ‘blazoned’ with a badge is a blazer.”

At Dege & Skinner we are more easy-going about terminology, but we are able to make all these versions to a client’s specifications.

The Duffle

Another British classic with seagoing origins is the duffle coat. The original thick and water-resistant woollen cloth is said to have originated in medieval times in the Belgian / Flemish town of Duffel and the wooden toggle and jute rope fastenings have been traced back to Polish garments on the 1820s.

First made in the UK around the 1850s, a roomy oversized version was adopted by the Royal Navy in the 1880s.

With its hood able to fit over a Navy cap and the toggles fairly easy to undo even when wearing thick gloves, the duffle, with its deep patch pockets without flaps, was ideal for long voyages in frozen conditions.

Above image of a 1943 short duffel from Vintage Menswear (2012) by Douglas Gunn, Roy Luckett & Josh Sims.


The duffle was still giving sterling service in the Second World War by which time it had been adopted by soldiers also. Its most famous wearer was Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, seen here on the right, whose nickname Monty came to be used as a short form for the cosy coat.

After the Second World War many thousands of military-issue duffels were sold by army and navy surplus stores.

Ironically they became something of a uniform for campaigners against nuclear weapons and military aggression in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

These days the duffle, in lighter, softer modern cloths, makes regular returns as a fashion trend and most people are unaware of its origins on the icy high seas.

Back on dry land, the first incarnation of a British Army, that is a single force under a national command, is usually considered to be the New Model Army formed by Oliver Cromwell to defeat King Charles I and his Royalist troops in the English Civil War from 1642 to 1651.

Although the Roundheads are generally regarded as wearing buff-coloured coats, there was not a uniform as we understand it today. Red and blue were the cheapest and most widely used dyes at this time and both sides wore similar clothes. Buff coats were probably undyed. Officers wore whatever they liked.

Across Europe in the late 17th century monarchs began to bring some sort of order to the warlike groups that had previously formed military bodies, which often owed allegiance to a local aristocrat, not the central crown.

Uniforms, supplied by the monarch, marked down the soldiers as “their” men, just as their servants wore livery uniforms. Wearing the same outfits helped create an esprit de corps among the troops, gave them something to be proud about, and brought a sense of discipline to the often rowdy fighters.

Order among soldiers, it was noted, won battles and wars.

Alliances bringing together different nations and the widespread use of foreign mercenary troops made for some interesting exchanges of stylistic ideas.

During the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648 French troops encountered light cavalry mercenaries from Croatia who served the Habsburgs. As part of their outfit, the Croats wore neck scarves, possibly for identification purposes.

The Cravat

The French liked the scarves, adopted the look themselves and named it the cravate after its originators.

This martial adornment was the forerunner to our modern cravat, ascot and necktie, a symbol of respectability derived from a band of horsemen who had a reputation for cruelty in battles and their aftermath.

We continue to sell silk cravats as part of our ready-to-wear and accessories collection.

Equestrian Stock

Another particular neck adornment, the silk stock traditionally worn by English huntsmen and women or dressage riders as part of the equestrian outfit, has its roots in a horrible leather band called a stock that was part of the British army’s uniform in the 1700s.

Soldiers had to wear this to keep their head up and present an imposing stance to the world.

Unsurprisingly, it was much hated.

By the late 1700s military uniforms across Europe – all made by hand at the time of course – had evolved to accentuate a masculine ideal of a warrior, which meant wide shoulders, a deep chest, a small waist and long legs were the desired qualities. That is pretty much a desired look today too.


One of the most flamboyant style of uniform seen in all the major armies of Europe from the early 1600s onwards was that of hussars, irregular light cavalry who fought as mercenaries and had their origins in the Balkans, although the word hussar is of Hungarian origin.

The example seen here shows Charles Edward, the last sovereign Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, in a hussar uniform as a boy c 1895.

Classic Hussar

The ceremonial dress of the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery, worn when 21-gun salutes are fired, are directly linked with the classic hussar look, which features a tunic fastened with horizontal lines of frogging, that is ornamental loops of braid and cord.


Today there are echoes of this fabulously decorative style in a gentleman’s velvet smoking jacket, delicately decorated with frogging on the chest and complementary lacing or braiding on the cuffs.

A nice story to delight your dinner companions is that the look is directly linked to 17th-century equestrian bandits from eastern Europe, whose style was adopted and adapted by the most fashionable regiments of many of the world’s greatest armies.

The stories behind modern menswear never fail to fascinate.

Author: Eric Musgrave 

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