Common Threads Navy

With more than 336,000 active-duty personnel, 101,000 reservists and nearly 300 ships, the U.S. Navy has grown into one of the largest and most respected maritime forces in the world since its founding in 1775. Missions are carried out at sea, on land and in the air and the various uniforms reflect that versatility.

Scroll the interactive display to see how the uniform has changed over time.

Disclaimer: In an attempt to simplify complex details, we’re featuring only enlisted combat uniforms and regulation equipment. Modern sailors are dressed in uniforms used during well-known war periods, beginning with the War of 1812 and not the Revolutionary War, as the idea of uniforms as we think of them today was only slowly being established.

Uniform Evolution

Click through the timeline to see how the Navy's uniform has evolved. Use the scroll bar to rotate the model or click to learn more.

1812-1815

1861-1865

1917-1918

1941-1945

1950-1953

1965-1975

1990-1991

2001-2010

2012-2021

 

War of 1812

The Navy began standardizing clothing for enlisted personnel around the time of the War of 1812. While there were still many variations, the clothing depicted here was the average uniform for an enlisted sailor. Blue was the common color for coats and trousers, replicating a look commonly seen in the British and French navies. Some items were often discarded during the physical exertion of battle.

 

Civil War

By the 1860s, ensembles for sailors began to have more uniformity. There were three uniform variations: general dress, boarding/landing party dress for combat and summer dress.

The Classic Navy Collar Was a 'Tar Flap'
The 13-Button Navy Trousers Myth
 
 

World War I

Although decades had passed, there were few uniform differences from the Civil War to World War I. However, due to the advent of chemical warfare, a new piece of equipment arrived: the gas mask.

Producing WWI Charcoal Filter Gas Masks
How the Navy's WWI Railguns Devastated the Enemy

Variations

 
 

World War II

The Navy updated the materials used for shipboard uniforms and introduced the "Dixie Cup" hat during World War II. However, as corpsmen and other sailors were assigned to more land-based duties, they often wore a uniform similar to the Marine Corps', since that’s who they were assisting.

Most corpsmen saw combat in the Pacific theater, where they served with the Fleet Marine Force.

Others participated in amphibious landings in Europe, setting up beach aid stations and providing first aid to wounded soldiers in North Africa, Italy and France.

WWII Medics and White Dot Helmets

Variations

 

Korean War

Since the Korean War began only a few years after World War II ended, there were few changes to Navy uniforms, especially since there was such a surplus of leftover uniforms and material. However, a few distinct changes and additions were made.

 
 

Vietnam War

By Vietnam, the Navy had developed unconventional warfare capabilities, leading to the advent of special operations forces, the most notable being the Navy SEALs. This led to the use of various uniforms, including the iconic "tiger stripe" and the standard-issue camouflage patterns, which were developed as the war progressed.

The Iconic Tiger Stripes of Vietnam
 

Desert Storm (Gulf War)

The next major conflict to arise was Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, also known as the Gulf War, in the early 1990s. While shipboard sailors continued to wear dungarees, three other uniforms had become standardized, including a desert camouflage because operations had begun to focus on the Middle East and Persian Gulf.

 
 

Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom

Most of the uniforms from the 1990s continued on in some form in the early 2000s. The cap known as the eight-point cover was introduced for camouflage uniforms. And by the late 2000s, the blue digital camouflage called the Navy Working Uniform, or NWU, Type I started to make an appearance.

Why Navy Chose the Camo 'Blueberries'

Variations

 

Modern

By 2010, all sailors wore the blue Navy Working Uniform, or NWU, Type I. In 2012, desert and woodland camo for land-based sailors was replaced by the new combat standard NWU Type III: a woodland green-and-tan digital pattern. NWU Type IIs are used for specialized units and not in regular rotation.

Blues were still used for shipboard work until October 2016, when Type IIIs became standardized wear for all sailors. The blues remained an option until they were phased out completely in September 2019.

Coveralls can still be worn by shipboard sailors.

Historical Research and Review

  • Tom Frezza; Director of Education, National Museum of the U.S. Navy
  • Mark Weber; Director, National Museum of the U.S. Navy
  • MGySgt (Ret.) Tom Williams, Marine Corps Historical Company
  • Ruth McSween; Curator, Navy SEAL Museum
  • Sandra Gall, Naval History and Heritage Command

Concept Creation, Research and Development

  • Regina Ali, Senior Graphic Designer
  • Katie Lange, Social Media/Public Affairs Specialist

Multimedia and Design

  • Marvin Lynchard, Photojournalist
  • Jon Poindexter, Senior Editor/Videographer
  • Daniel Zaborowski, Video Editor

Models:

  • War of 1812: Petty Officer 2nd Class Jajuan Grant
  • Civil War: Petty Officer 2nd Class Jared Joseph
  • World War I: Shipboard Sailor - Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Gorum
  • World War I: Land-Based Sailor - Petty Officer 2nd Class Kashif Basharat
  • World War II: Shipboard Sailor - Petty Officer 2nd Class Jared Joseph
  • World War II: Navy Corpsman - Tom Frezza, National Museum of the U.S. Navy
  • Korean War: Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Gorum
  • Vietnam War: Shipboard Sailor - Petty Officer 2nd Class Jajuan Grant
  • Vietnam War: Jungle Utility Uniform - Petty Officer 2nd Class Jared Joseph
  • Desert Storm (Gulf War): Petty Officer 2nd Class Ashley Guire
  • OEF/OIF: Shipboard Sailor - Petty Officer 2nd Class Ashley Guire
  • OEF/OIF: Land-Based Sailor - Petty Officer 2nd Class Kashif Basharat
  • Modern: Petty Officer 2nd Class Kashif Basharat