The Royal Navy introduced coloured cloth on to their uniforms in 1863, so that it was possible to distinguish between naval departments.

In 1863 the British Royal Navy issued a memo saying that they were going to introduce distinctive colours on naval uniforms to help distinguish between different branches of the naval service. These colours were to be placed between the gold stripes on the sleeves of the uniforms.

The colours were:

  • Medical department to wear alternate stripes of scarlet
  • Paymaster's department to wear alternate stripes of white
  • Engineer's department to wear alternate stripes of purple.

The coloured stripes were initially made of velvet but were later replaced by coloured cloth. The Royal Navy finally abolished the stripes in May 1955, except for those who must be clearly recognisable as non-combatant under the Geneva Convention. These include medical and dental officers, and civilian officers required to wear uniform.

Merchant Navy

There was no official uniform for the Merchant Navy until September 1918, although some of the larger shipping lines had had their own company uniforms for many years before this, and some had followed the Royal Navy and introduced the same distinctive colours for their engineers, medical and purser's departments.