History in the details: Civilian Uniforms

History in the details: Civilian Uniforms

A brief history by costume and picture expert Jayne Shrimpton

Jayne Shrimpton, Professional dress historian and picture specialist

Jayne Shrimpton

Professional dress historian and picture specialist


There is an important aspect of dress history that is often overlooked, falling as it does between regular clothes and military (army, navy, air force) uniforms: the civilian uniform. Essentially a standardised type of occupational dress, civilian uniforms became increasingly significant during the 19th century, growing ever more common in the early-mid 20th century and still worn today by some workers, albeit usually in more modern, modified form.

Civilian uniforms will have been worn by any of our forebears who worked at some point in their lives as public servants, from firefighters and police personnel to post office workers; in transport, including taxis, buses, trams and trains; in the medical professions, especially nursing staff; as domestic servants, whether as nannies or liveried footmen; in hospitality and catering; and even in factories.

Some civilian uniforms have closely followed broader trends in uniform design, so at times their style has resembled military uniform of the same period, as well as occupational uniforms worn in different lines of work. Some civilian uniforms are less regimented than others and may be more subject to changing fashion, especially certain female outfits. Often standardised work wear incorporates particular features that define the role, such as the waitress’s starched apron and cap. Indeed one of the chief purposes of civilian uniforms has been to clearly indicate a person’s job, in many cases their servile status.

Another important function of uniform workwear is to identify the employer or organisation for whom the wearer works. With this in mind many uniforms have been fashioned in distinctive colours and borne unique emblems of the company, usually expressed in metal coat or tunic buttons and lapel badges, and, frequently, cap badges. When smart uniforms were provided as part of the work package, this was seen as a perk, generated a sense of pride and was thought to foster a positive esprit de corps .

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Some early civilian uniforms are fairly easy to identify, others extraordinarily difficult, since numerous diverse uniforms once existed, yet many were short-lived, relating to now-defunct jobs and businesses. Sometimes military experts or dress historians are able to help with civilian uniform identification, but this remains a highly complex topic that can defy even the most experienced specialists. This new series within our regular History in the Details column aims to explain the basics of this fascinating subject, with helpful visual examples.

Jayne Shrimpton is a professional dress historian and picture specialist, and author of several family photo and dress history books. Read her features on the Edwardian home and Edwardian photos in Issue 8 of our print edition, out now – see discoveryourancestors.co.uk

This photo, 1892, depicts the first trained Norland Nannies wearing fashionable dresses with puffed gigot sleeves, the brown fabric distinguishing them from other domestic servants. -Norland College
This photo, 1892, depicts the first trained Norland Nannies wearing fashionable dresses with puffed gigot sleeves, the brown fabric distinguishing them from other domestic servants. -Norland College
Four dress/uniform experts saw this image before the uniform was identified as that of the International Mercantile Marine Company, a short-lived shipping company founded in 1902 <small>Patrick Davison</small>
Four dress/uniform experts saw this image before the uniform was identified as that of the International Mercantile Marine Company, a short-lived shipping company founded in 1902 Patrick Davison
This uniform of this London traffic duty policeman, pictured on a popular postcard photograph, is typical of the early-1910s -<small>Jayne Shrimpton<small>
This uniform of this London traffic duty policeman, pictured on a popular postcard photograph, is typical of the early-1910s -Jayne Shrimpton

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