Although many expedition sailors were professional seamen working for the merchant service or the navy, a uniform or set of standard issue clothing was a rarity. During the 18th century, most sailors were expected to piece together a set of clothing for themselves, which they repaired and patched when needed, sometimes with old sailcloth. Crews of the Royal Navy were given an afternoon each week for “make and mend,” during which they could sew, often focusing on embroidering patterns onto their clothing when the basic repairs were finished.

When British seamen could no longer mend and instead needed to replace items of clothing, they could purchase “slops” from the purser. Slops were replacement clothes that usually included striped or checked “waistcoats” or vests, neck kerchiefs, smocks for messy work, and jackets cut short enough to keep from getting caught when the men climbed up into the sails and rigging. Canvas blouses, knit stockings, and flat-heeled shoes were also common dress for 18th century sailors. Trousers, long-legged, loose fitting pants, were not a common item of dress for European men during the 18th century. Seamen and sometimes other labourers distinguished themselves by wearing trousers. They often took pride in their seafaring costume, saving their best for trips ashore.

In 1748, the British Navy created a standard set of garments for the officers, issuing an “undress” uniform of a blue frock and a formal blue coat with white facings. This was a sign of rank, so there were strict orders not to purchase or trade for the clothing of a superior officer. Captains and officers wore the shorter, tighter pants of the day and their coats and waistcoats were embellished with gleaming brass buttons and gold lace stripes. Portraits and sketches of the Spanish show their captains and officers in these impressive garments. The Russians, accustomed to travelling in colder climates, were equipped with fur-lined jackets and hats.
Maritime Museum of British Columbia

© 2007 Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Teachers' Centre Home Page | Find Learning Resources & Lesson Plans