Sailors' cap ribbons

The silk ribbons on a sailor’s cap came to be through both custom and regulation. 

Sailors’ present-day hats are distinctive by their silk ribbons (known as ‘tallies’) inscribed by the name of their ship and/or the navy they belong to.

The introduction of official navy uniforms

Sailors were wearing cap ribbons by the 1840s, but it was not until 1857, when the first official uniforms for sailors were introduced, that 'hat ribbons bearing the ship’s name' were officially recognised.

Although the uniform regulations did not specify how the ribbon was to be marked, it was customary for sailors to paint on the name of their ship in large capitals. Gilt wire lettering was officially introduced in 1858.

At first the regulations did not state how the ribbons were to be tied, although illustrations in the 1879 uniform regulations show the ribbons on hats and caps tied at the back with long ends hanging down. Between 1893–1911 the ribbons were to be 'tied in a bow over the left ear – the ends being three and four inches long respectively – the shorter end being in front'. From 1911, they were tied with the 'ends of the bows if equal lengths not more than two inches long'.

Sailors’ hat ribbons during the World Wars

During both World Wars, various security measures were in force concerning cap ribbons and the need to keep the whereabouts of HM ships secret. In December 1914, an order was issued prohibiting the wearing of cap ribbons ashore, and in June 1915 men on leave from battleships, battlecruisers, cruisers and light cruisers were ordered to wear cap ribbons of their depot and not of their ships. During the Second World War, cap ribbons bearing only the letters 'HMS' or 'HM Destroyers/Submarines' were in use.