A History of UK Military Uniform

A Timeline of British Military Uniform

redcoat history military uniform

In the minds of many, the British military uniform of the past is the redcoat. This uniform was made familiar by images of the guards in London, and countless movies of British soldiers fighting Zulus in Africa, the French at Waterloo, and American rebels or patriots (depending on your point of view). How did the colour red come to be associated with the British soldier?


Apart from a few specialised guard units like the Yeomen warders – the famous Beefeaters seen today at the Tower of London – British soldiers did not have a standard uniform until the first permanent armies appeared during the English Civil Wars.

When the first English armies were raised, it’s likely that red was chosen because red dye was easily available and relatively inexpensive. At that time, national armies in Europe also began adopting colours associated with their countries. Although not all British troops were dressed in red, it soon became their iconic colour.

As Britain became more powerful and acquired a large overseas empire, the red coat was seen throughout the world. It became the colour of the British soldier, or ‘redcoat’.

The Nineteenth Century

The nineteenth and early twentieth century saw the greatest development and variety of British military uniforms. Encounters with other armies during the Napoleonic wars led to the adoption of foreign uniform, such as the busby, fur-lined pelisse and short boots of the Hungarians for hussar regiments. The exploits of the Polish cavalry led to the formation of lancer regiments, who adopted not only the lance, but also the characteristic four-cornered Polish headgear, the czapska.



Queen Victoria’s love affair with Scotland led to a whole host of Scottish uniforms, with kilts for highlanders and trews for lowlanders. The empire provided further scope for new types of uniform, notably in India, where British tailoring met Indian kurtas, turbans and cummerbunds, to produce splendid ensembles still in use on ceremonial occasions.


khaki uniformsBrightly coloured uniforms were good for morale and group identity, and helped distinguish friend from foe. In the nineteenth century, most infantry were armed with smooth bore muskets: these were so inaccurate that soldiers stood in tightly massed ranks and were trained to level their weapons and fire together in a volley.

When they did, the gunpowder in use at the time produced large amounts of dense smoke that obscured the firers. Although more accurate rifles did exist, these were slower to load and only used by specialised troops. Under these circumstances, presenting a brightly coloured target was not much of a problem.

As weapons developed and became more accurate, bright uniforms became more of a disadvantage. In India during the second half of the nineteenth century, white tropical uniforms were dyed khaki to blend in with the landscape. Khaki soon became the standard colour for British field uniforms in all theatres and remained so until the late twentieth century, when it was replaced by camouflage-patterned fabric.

The Royal Navy

royal navyAlthough the army had the most varied and ornate uniforms, the Navy was the instrument of British power overseas. Naval ships secured the trade routes on which the nation grew rich, and allowed British soldiers to be transported throughout the empire.

Dress regulations for naval officers’ uniforms were first issued in 1748 by Lord Anson, reportedly at the request of officers themselves who ‘wished to be recognised as being in the service of the crown’. The colour blue was chosen by the then monarch, who was so taken by the sight of the Duchess of Bedford riding in a habit of blue with white facings that he chose the same colour scheme for his naval officers.

Navy blue has been the colour of naval uniforms ever since, initially with white breeches, then with white or dark trousers, always varying according to the general fashion of the time. White uniforms for the tropics were first introduced in 1877, and have been in use in one form or another since then.

The uniform for naval ratings initially consisted of blue or white trousers, a white shirt and a blue jacket. The characteristic broad sailor’s collar was introduced in 1830. Contrary to popular belief, the collar was not for the purpose of protecting clothing from tarred pigtails, as these had fallen out of use by this time. For many years, sailors wore wide, bell-bottom trousers, replaced by flared trousers in 1977.

The Royal Air Force

The RAF started off as the Royal Flying Corps, and was initially part of the army. It only became a separate entity in 1918. The uniform was initially khaki. For a year, the RAF had a pale blue uniform that was very unpopular, and this was replaced by the blue-grey colour that remains in use to this day.

Uniforms Today

Non-ceremonial UK uniforms today consist of either technical clothing, such as flight suits, and camouflage uniforms with protective helmets, or follow a similar pattern to that used in modern forces worldwide. Distinctive badges and insignia are applied depending on the branch of service. Full dress army uniforms have for the most part been replaced by the No 2 khaki parade uniform, or occasionally by the dark blue No1 ceremonial uniform.

Only a few regiments such as the Foot and Horse Guards, and the Royal Horse artillery can still be seen in full dress uniform, a reminder of a more colourful era.

At Shirtworks, we have been providing regimental and operational tour t-shirts, hoodies, caps, jackets, fleeces and work shirts to the armed forces for over 25 years.

For more information, visit our military section.

If you’d like any more information 0800 0725334 or contact us online.

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