Some sort of head covering has remained an essential part of military uniforms for centuries. Besides protecting the soldier or sailor from the sun’s rays or the pelting rain, the hat was an essential part of his identity. With elaborate trimmings, cockades, or plumes, the military man’s hat set him apart from the civilian population, even at a time when all men wore hats.
American naval officers always sported distinctive hats. Navy uniform regulations made a distinction between hats worn for formal “full dress” occasions, and those worn for informal “undress” occasions. The undress hats were typically of a style and made of materials that made them suited for shipboard use, whereas the full dress hats were often uncomfortable and impractical at sea.
According to the Navy uniform regulations issued by the Secretary of War in 1794 and 1797, officers were expected to wear “cocked hats with black cockades” when “full dress’d.” Naval officers’ hats at this early period were glorious affairs made of glossy, knapped beaver felt and lined with silk. The tall fans in the rear curved down to wide “gutters” at the side, then swooped up into high leaves which formed a sharp cock in front. As was the fashion of the mid 1790s, officers wore the hats askew, with the front cock ranged over the outside of the left eye. As the decade progressed, the hat rotated even farther clockwise, until the most fashionable officers wore them with the points nearly fore and aft.
By the opening years of the nineteenth century, the cocked hat had evolved into the flat, folding “chapeau bras,” so called because they could be easily transported beneath the arm. Naval regulations throughout the 19th century continued to refer to cocked hats, and while their form and decoration changed with fluctuations in the fashion and hatting technology, they remained a part of naval dress until finally abolished in 1947. By that point it was undoubtedly an expensive and useless holdover from an earlier era.
When not wearing the cocked hat for formal occasions, most naval officers covered their heads with tall “round hats.” A person today might call these “top hats,” but they did not acquire that name, or their elitist associations, until late in the nineteenth century. For the first half of the century the round hat was the hat of the people, worn by laborers, artisans, professionals and naval officers alike. Sometimes they were ornamented with a loop of gold lace, a button, and a cockade, but sometimes they were worn without any insignia at all.
Starting in 1830, naval uniform regulations authorized a blue cloth cap for officers, but this order merely provided official sanction for a fashion that had been worn for years. An 1826 painting of Constitution’s officers in the Mediterranean depict several of them wearing blue caps, and a pre-1829 portrait of Gunner John Lord also shows him wearing a cap with his undress uniform coat.
In 1841, the Navy Department finally provided a pattern drawing for the cap. It shows a 2 ½ inch wide head band surmounted by a large flat crown. A patent leather peak shielded the eyes. All “commission officers” had to wear a 1 ½ inch-wide gold band around their caps. Warrant officers made do with plain caps.
For the rest of the century, and right on to the present day, naval officers have clung to their caps. The form of the modern service dress cap has changed little from its nineteenth century predecessor. Now white or khaki instead of blue, it is yet one more link in the long chain of naval traditions.
Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.