Category Archives: Uniforms

Child’s Play: Distinguishing Navy Uniforms from Middies


Naval-themed middies were very popular attire for women and children beginning around the turn of the 20th Century. How does one distinguish between a Middie and a Navy dress uniform?

A young woman wearing in the early 20th Century. Note the Ex-Apprentice mark located near the “V” of the neckline, similar to an authentic navy dress blue uniform. This can be very misleading to a novice collector.

I recently noticed an online auction for a naval uniform item that was listed as a World War II U.S. Navy enlisted man’s jumper. For the seller, it appeared to have the same characteristics of other similarly listed uniforms so guiding him (or her) to describe it as being the same as those. This is very common occurrence with online listings. An unsuspecting buyer could easily pull the trigger on this listing, thinking they were purchasing the item as described. Imagine the disappointment when they will most certainly learn that what they brought home wasn’t U.S. Navy uniform, but rather it was a middy.

Middies as a fashion statement
A middy (or middy blouse) was part of a popular fashion trend of the late 19th Century that continued on up through World War I, bringing the styling of the naval uniform to civilian attire to women and children’s apparel. Designs incorporated the “sailor collar and flap” (complete with the piping stripes), neckerchief and in many examples, rating badges. To the untrained eye, the garments look no different from their authentic counterparts.

 

 

U.S. Naval enlisted uniforms vary through the ages
While the overall naval enlisted uniforms design (theme) has been relatively unchanged since the mid-1800s, they have in reality, gone through several subtle iterations, easily confusing novice or new collectors. Along with the uniform variations, the insignia have transitioned considerably compelling even experienced naval collectors to seek informative sources to discern one uniform or rate from another.

In addition to the variations between the different eras of naval uniform and rate designs (which includes the various rate insignia heraldry), individual customization can factor into the mix of uniform deviation. Naval personnel even to this day try to find ways to make their uniform uniquely theirs in an effort to define their appearance as an individual. These customizations may fly in the face of uniform regulations or tap dance in the grey area of with individual interpretation. Another contributing factor is the unique nature of ship’s commanding officers possessing the ability to relax or modify the regulations to fit their command style. 

Several excellent publications are available that provide collectors with the ability to assess a uniform item and properly identify it…most of the time. Occasionally, uniform anomalies surface that clearly stand out and appear to deviate from the uniform regulations or known practices of the purported time period of the item. Fortunately, there are experts in online forums who are experienced with enough of the variances that can help to decipher the uniform attributes in an effort to guide the collector to the best conclusion as to the authenticity of the piece.Navy enlisted uniform basics – what to look for

I am certainly not an expert when it comes to navy uniforms however, through osmosis and reviewing the various reference materials, I am beginning to recognize the nuances and can provide some beginner-level guidance. If you’re just starting out with naval enlisted uniform collecting, I can provide some basic details on what to look for (I have included a few images from previous articles covering navy enlisted uniforms):

  • Tags or labels
    Check the garment for a label or tag as a method to determine when the uniform was constructed. This can also apply for tailor made items, but consultation with experts should be required in order to nail down the tailor and any comparative details that could be used.
  • Rate insignia
    John Stacey’s book, United States Navy Rating Badges, and Marks, 1833-2008: A History of Our Sailors’ Rate and Rating Insignia is an invaluable tool to decipher the lengthy list of variations with insignia. Mr. Stacey possesses many decades of documentation and research that includes having delved deep into the Navy’s archives of uniform regulations, uniform contracts, and design specifications. Collectors are continuously reaching out to him with their discoveries of anomalies, providing feedback to add to his research and to provide material for the many revisions his book has been subjected to.
  • Distinguishing Marks
    Modern enlisted uniforms no longer employ these specialty insignia as the rates and ratings are firmly developed and managed by naval regulations. As the Navy began to mature and place a significant amount of management of the enlisted ranks (contrary to the previous era of conscription), leadership started to institute systems to allow specialization for these men. With that came a need to allow for recognition for these sailors to display their shipboard role on their uniform. To gain a better understanding of why and when these were implemented, again, refer to Stacey’s book.
  • Construction
    There are several types of materials that have been used throughout the years in the construction of enlisted navy uniforms. Keep in mind that there have been times when sailors would have multiple types of uniforms (blues, whites, undress, dress, working, etc.). Textile variants also play into determining the time-frame (heavy melton wool, weave, duck, canvas, etc.). If the collector is confused, consult the experts.
  • Embroidery and stitching
    Some early 20th century naval uniforms can be especially baffling. A few years ago, one in particular drew significant attention among collectors for its distinctive embellishments and custom embroidery. What was confusing (to a novice like me) was that every aspect of the uniform was so ornate and beautifully designed, unlike the conventional uniforms of the same period. Many collectors (including me) debated as to the authenticity and whether it was truly a uniform or perhaps a middy. As it turns out, it was a custom-tailored “liberty” uniform that is unauthorized for official wear, yet proudly worn ashore.

Research – a wise investment
Spending time to get familiar with some of these basics along with investing in reference materials will go a long way to prevent you from making costly mistakes. The flip-side of this situation is that educated buyers might even discover a piece that the seller has grossly undervalued (due to their own ignorance of naval uniform nuances) thereby providing the piece to be acquired at a bargain-basement price.

In the case of the seller with the middy eBay listing (mentioned above), I did make contact regarding the mistaken description for which I was politely thanked; the seller informing me that they would remove the auction and properly identify it when relisted.

Most middy rating badges are boatswains mates and quartermasters. Notice how disproportionate the crossed anchors are. Also note that the eagle is on odd pattern as compared to the authentic design. As for the red chevrons (on white uniform), they were discontinued after 1913 (source: eBay image)

Middy Rating Badges
In addition to the mis-identification of middy costumes and clothing as Navy uniforms, the rating badges that are stitched to the sleeves of these garments can also be improperly listed for sale online. To the unsuspecting or untrained eye, a middy badge could be seen as authentic. Middy rating insignia are often proportionally distorted from their authentic counterparts. In addition to the size variances (middies were made for children and women so their badges had to be smaller to be aesthetically appealing on smaller sleeves), the distinguishing marks are always sized disproportionately to the eagle and the chevrons. Also, pay attention to the way that the embroidery work was done. Most chevrons were sewn-on pieces of wool flannel (rather than directly embroidered to the base material).

 

Giving sellers the benefit of doubt, they may not be intentionally deceptive with their listings. I suspect that when they come across these badges, they truly believe that they are authentic and are merely adding them to their manifold-listings of online sales, not considering for a moment that the pieces are merely costume elements.

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Unlocking the Secrets of Your Collection: Research is the Key


The cover of the 1913 U.S. Navy Uniform Regulations is very high quality in its construction.

Researching early military uniforms to ascertain a date or time period when they were issued or used can pose a challenge for collectors. Navy uniforms can be exceedingly difficult to pinpoint when it comes to dating them for a number of reasons.

Over the last few years, I have stressed that education and research materials only serve to enable collectors to make sound purchasing decisions. Knowing where to turn for information can be a daunting task for someone making their initial foray into this hobby. Simply knowing what research material might exist isn’t in the mindset of those seeking details about a uniform or uniform item.

This copy is complete with all of the details including tables and pertinent data.

When I started a serious approach to research (in this case, verifying a jumper as pre-World War I), I was in the dark as to where to look so I turned to Google to begin my investigation. With the understanding that information on the web is seldom complete or authoritative, the search results seemed to be ambiguous and quite vague, so I narrowed my focus to locating people I could glean information from. As with any relationship, time is necessary to determine whether an “expert” is truly knowledgeable in their professed field of experience, so there was a risk that I might have received some inaccurate data.

Wanting to have go-to resources at my disposal, I began to gather reference material that suited my needs. My collection being predominantly focused on the service of my relatives and ancestors, I knew that I had to get the details (i.e. enlistment dates, commands assigned to, campaigns they participated in, etc.) of their individual service records. Armed with hard facts, I could then pursue the pertinent reference materials such as individual unit histories, training manuals, and uniform regulations.

The plates are spectacular! This one shows the warrant officer shoulder boards and insignia.

Some of these materials are plentiful and relatively inexpensive, such as the Navy’s Blue Jackets Manual (issued to new recruits). Others are somewhat rare, making them difficult to find or posing negative impacts onto collecting budgets. One reference book I had been seeking was the 1913 United States Navy Uniform Regulations. I couldn’t locate one through various book stores or eBay. Fortunately for me, Google Books digitized a  copy and had the majority of the book’s content available for online use. Unfortunately, the missing portions were the ones I needed for my research. I was amazed to see that I could purchase a hard copy, printed and bound complete book for less than $10.00, shipped to my door! Naturally, I pulled the trigger and less than five days later, I had the needed reference book in my hands.

This plate shows the construction of the dress whites – bleached white duck and blue flannel cuffs and collar.

What arrived was a paperback book with a high quality glued-in binding that will withstand repeated viewings or being transported to collector shows much better than an original 100-year-old hardbound book with a weakened spine.

The chief and enlisted dress blues plate shows the proper wear and insignia placement.

Acquiring the 1913 regulations may not appeal to others, but for me this was like locating a missing piece that completes a collection. I’ve confirmed a piece as authentic and I can correctly pursue the remaining outstanding parts to properly complete my uniform display!

Reaching the Pinnacle of Militaria Collecting


This uniform group belonged to Rear Admiral Robert Copeland who received the Navy Cross for his heroic attack (while in command of the USS Samuel B. Roberts and the destroyers of “Taffy 3″) against a Japanese battleship force in the Battle off Samar (source: D. Schwind).

I’ve been collecting militaria for about three years and nothing that I’ve purchased for my collection is worthy of comparison to some of the impressive acquisitions that I’ve seen other, more seasoned collectors acquire. Some of these people have reached what I would characterize as the pinnacle of militaria groupings that could put most museums’ collections to shame.

Flight suit belonging to Distinguished Service Cross recipient, Colonel Francis Gabby Gabreski.

I spend a great deal of time touring history- and military-themed museums in my local area. On occasion, a museum might have an item or group related to a recognizable name from our nation’s military history. For me, there is a sense of being close to a significant contributor or a pivotal moment that made a difference in the outcome of the battle or even the war at the sight of a famous veteran’s personal effects. One would expect to see these sorts of artifacts in a museum… but what about a private collection?

In the world of militaria collecting, obtaining a named uniform of a veteran who participated in a significant battle and, perhaps receiving a valor medal for his (or her) service while under fire adds a massive layer of icing for that piece of cake. What if that item was from a well-known historical figure? Audie Murphy? General MacArthur? The chances are extremely remote that a collector would be able to locate a genuine item belonging to one of these people, let alone being able to afford to acquire it.

This jacket belonged to Major General George S. Patton Jr.

In the community of United States Militaria collectors (to which I belong), there are several folks who have worked diligently to acquire uniforms and decoration sets that belonged to notable military figures from American history. From general or flag officers to member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (some holding the position of Chairman, JCS) to Medal of Honor and Navy Cross recipients, these collectors have reached a level that regardless of the time, effort or finances, I could never achieve.

Extreme Collections

For now, I will simply settle on admiring these collections from afar.

Rare Bird – Outside of Uniform Regulations


In an article that I wrote last year, I touched on an aspect of rating badge collecting that focuses on those constructed with bullion-metallic thread. The post was primarily covering the design and aesthetic aspects rather than regulatory or uniform issue standards. However, in order for collectors to make sound purchases or additions for their collections, they need to be well informed.

This crow dates from the 1970s and is entirely embroidered. This was a short-lived experimental rating badge.

Let me be very up front by stating that I am, by no means, an expert in rating badge collecting. As I am acquiring pieces for my collection, I am researching and back-filling the details. In some cases, I have the order reversed – researching a piece after acquiring it – hoping that I didn’t make a bad purchase. While reviewing some online auction listings of rating badges (for my former rating), something that I have never seen before caught my attention and without hesitation, I pulled the trigger on the “buy it now” button. Rather than spend time ahead of purchasing the crow, I decided that the best course of action would be to research it after I had it securely in my hands. I had no idea of it’s date of manufacture, whether it was genuine, experimental/prototype or a fantasy piece.

My rating badge collection consists primarily of variations of the rate that I wore when I served. Four years ago, I set out to purchase a new, unused rating badge to mount in my shadow box display. All of the examples I had in my collection were affixed to my old uniforms so they weren’t’ quite up to par with what I’d want to be shown beside my medals and decorations. I ended up with a variety we (in the fleet) referred to as a “peacoat” crow. As it turns out, the fully embroidered rating badge (with merrowed edging) was a test crow that never really caught on. While they are somewhat uncommon, they aren’t necessarily rare or highly desired among collectors.

The latest addition to my collection is a silver bird – a bullion eagle and specialty mark hovering over red, embroidered chevrons. The reason this is an odd combination is that (according to Navy Uniform Regulations) the silver/red configuration is only available for E-7 through E-9. Ratings fo E-4 through E-6 may use the silver (bullion) eagle and specialty mark in conjunction with gold chevrons (indicating 12 consecutive years of good conduct service). One could deduce that perhaps this predates the current uniform regulations, however, this would be an incorrect assumption.

A rare bird – an Operations Specialist/Radarman badge with a bullion eagle with red chevron stripes.

1913 Uniform Regulations

  1. “For petty officers holding three consecutive good-conduct badges, the chevrons for blue clothing (dress/undress blues) shall be made of gold lace instead of scarlet cloth, and the eagle and specialty mark shall be embroidered in silver.”

The reverse of the OS2 bullion rating badge showing the construction and the Gemsco label.

Why then does this E-5, Operations Specialist/Radarman 2nd class crow exist? More than likely, the manufacturer (Gemsco) made this variation either errantly or in anticipation of a uniform regulation change that ultimately never occurred. Not to be stuck with inventory, manufacturers most likely divested these crows  and shipped them to uniform shops or uniform tailors to be disseminated to sailors. Seeking to have a measure of individuality with their uniforms, sailors who might be able to “pass,” in wearing the unauthorized embroidery at a command that might not have strict adherence to regulations, would stitch on these subtle “custom” enhancements.

Now that I have this rare bird, I decided that it would display nicely and swapped it into my shadow box (supplanting the standard OS rating badge) as these bullion crows are just too beautiful to sit in a storage box.

A Piece of the Day of Infamy or Simply a Connection to an Historic Ship?


For most Americans, this time of year spurs thoughts of lighted trees, large and rotund red-suited elves, massive crowds at local shops and mega malls, anxiety, and ever-increasing credit card debt in the rush to obtain the perfect gift for loved ones and friends. All of this translates into the hopes that the recipients of said gifts illuminate with unbridled joy and gratitude. Meanwhile, a continuously diminishing segment of the population, in addition to the aforementioned seasonal activities and concerns, recall a monumentally tragic and infuriating event, now 75 years hence.

The USS Arizona’s bow pitches upward on the high seas sometime in the late 1930s (source: U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command).

The USS Arizona’s bow pitches upward on the high seas sometime in the late 1930s (source: U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command).

At that time (three quarters of a century ago), Americans, like today, were in the throes of an economic depression while war and conflict littered regions around the globe. Many Americans had been without work for months, while others had been unemployed for years. The holiday season was in full swing but on an infinitely smaller scale. All of this about to change, catapulting the nation into chaos and doubt while transforming the nation’s doubt into a singular mindset, while rising from the literal ashes and wreckage to defeat fascism.

A rare color image showing the USS Arizona’s forward magazine detonating after it was struck by a high altitude aerial bomb (Source: U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command).

A rare color image showing the USS Arizona’s forward magazine detonating after it was struck by a high altitude aerial bomb (Source: U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command).

The World War II generation is departing our society at an increasingly accelerated pace. The men and women who banded together on the war front and home front still recall the Day of Infamy, remembering those who fell prey to unpreparedness and bumbling governmental bureaucracy and a dastardly attack. When the final tally was counted in the weeks and months following December 7, 1941, more than 2,400 Americans were dead at the hands of the Empire of Japan. Three battleships of the U.S. Navy were complete losses. One of those ships, the USS Arizona (BB-39), was obliterated by an aerial bomb that penetrated into the forward magazines (for the 14” guns), igniting a cataclysmic explosion, killing 1,117 sailors, accounting for more than half of the Pearl Harbor attack death toll.

The memorial structure straddles the stricken ship’s hull as she rests in the mud and silt of Pearl Harbor.

The memorial structure straddles the stricken ship’s hull as she rests in the mud and silt of Pearl Harbor.

In the 75 years since that fateful day, much has transpired to cause the slow evaporation of Pearl Harbor memories of from the American conscience. The current younger generation experienced their own day of infamy 11 years ago with the 9/11 attacks, fueling the 12/7/41 forgetfulness with redirected angst.

Conversely for militaria collectors, the events of Pearl Harbor are held close to the vest and worn on their sleeves. The pursuit to hold a piece connected to that tragic day isn’t taken lightly. More often than not, collectors pay an extremely high premium for the honor of preserving and displaying items that tell the individual stories of the struggle to survive and the will to fight the attackers. Collectors treasure anything directly related to a veteran, aircraft or ship that participated in warding off the Japanese onslaught.

Inside the Arizona Memorial, this wall bears the names of the 1,177 victims who were killed on that tragic day.

Inside the Arizona Memorial, this wall bears the names of the 1,177 victims who were killed on that tragic day.

For me, the realization of the Pearl Harbor collector mindset truly occurred for me awhile ago when I spotted an auction listing for a flat hat from a navy veteran that served aboard the most notable ship casualty of the attack, the Arizona. I scanned through the associated photographs, noting the condition while attempting to approximate the age of the item.

Worth its weight in gold, this flat hat recently sold for nearly $900 at auction (source: eBay image).

Worth its weight in gold, this flat hat recently sold for nearly $900 at auction (source: eBay image).

By 1941, operation security had been steadily increasing due to the waging war, both in Europe and the Western Pacific. The Navy, seeking to reduce the visible indications of ship movements, stipulated in uniform regulations that all ship identifiers, such as ship-name tallies on enlisted blue flat hats, be omitted from uniforms. Generic “U.S. Navy” lettered tallies replaced the those bearing the names of ships which meant that the one in the auction listing predated WWII by at least a year.

The condition of the hat left lots to be desired. From dozens of small holes scattered across all of the woolen surfaces, it was readily apparent that moths had a field day as they enjoyed their “hat salad.” The only components on this cap untouched by the Lepidoptera larvae were the tally and the liner.

What would be a significant value-increasing factor is if the hat bore the name of its owner. I was unable to discern from the provided photos any hint of a stenciled or inscribed name. If I had been able to see the original owner’s name, I might have been able to locate related details concerning his naval service, and quite possibly, the dates he served aboard the Arizona. It might be safe to assume that the value of the hat increases if the veteran did survive the ship’s sinking. However, based upon the features of the hat (the overall design, the liner and the tally), I would surmise that the hat is closer to the World War I-era.

Regardless of when the hat was used or if it belonged to a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack, the auction’s final, closing bid of $848.00 was astonishing. Without a doubt, the winning bidder took a chance on acquiring an extremely rare piece with direct ties to a historic ship. In doing so, this collector now possesses a tangible connection to that fateful day.

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