French Navy Officers

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Origin and History

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Uniforms

N.B.: this section is a translation of part of Michel Pétard's article L'homme de 1764 – L'uniforme des officiers de Marine initially published in the magazine Uniformes Number 65 of January-February 1982.

By an ordonnance dated March 2 1665, Louis XIV authorised his captains and lieutenants of the navy to use a bkue coat decorated with up to four gold or silver braids. Five years earlier, royal declarations dated November 27 1660, then May 27 1661 had forbidden to persons of both sexes to wear gold or silver fabric on their clothes or other clothing accessories. These terms were repeated in an ordonnance of December 29 1664, making an exception for the Gendarmes de la Garde, the Chevau-légers de la Garde and the officers of the king's retinue who could obtain a patent signed by His Majesty. These were the so called justaucorps à brevet (patented coat). This measure was extended from January 1665 to the officers of the Gardes Françaises and Gardes Suisses as well as to those of the Gardes du Corps and the Mousquetaires de la Garde.

Therefore, the naval officers benefited from the justaucorps à brevet from 1665. Several years will follow during which no new measures will regulate their uniform. Fantasy was queen and the general aspect of these officers depended of their fortune. Only the blue colour seems to have endured through time.

It is only in April 1751 that regulation projects began to circulate between the court and the fort of Toulon about two types of new uniforms (small and great uniform).

From 1756, a new regulation impose a uniform to naval officers. Deliberations had finally given birth to a decision of the court. This decision was sent to the naval commander at Brest on October 26 1756. This text was an initial version of the royal ordonnance of September 14 1764 which reused the same terms and completed them.

Officers of all ranks would now wear a black tricorne laced gold, bordered with white plumes and with a white cockade; a blue coat lined scarlet with scarlet cuffs; a scarlet waistcoat lined white; scarlet breeches; scarlet stockings. For some occasions, officers were allowed to wear black breeches and white stockings. To accompany the small uniform, the black tricorne had no plumes.

The great uniform

Captain of a ship of the line in great uniform circa 1764 – Copyright: Michel Pétard

For vice-admirals, the coat and the waistcaot were bordered à la Bourgogne: two identical and parallel braids the second twice narrower (12 lignes) than the first one (24 lignes). The wider braids was also used to cover the seams. The cuffs were decorated with two wide braids. These braids were directly embroidered on the uniform.

For lieutenant-generals, the uniform was similar to the one of the vice-admirals but without braids on the seams.

For the chef d'escadre, the uniform was similar to the one of the lieutenant-generals but with only one braid on each cuff.

For the captain, the coat and the waistcoat were bordered with a golden braid (24 lignes) and there were two braids on each cuff for a captain commanding a ship of the line and only one for a captain commanding a frigate.

For the lieutenant, the coat and the waistcoat were bordered with a golden braid (16 lignes) and there were two braids on each cuff.

For the ensign, the coat and the waistcoat were bordered with a golden braid (16 lignes) and there were only one braid on each cuff.

Great uniforms of officers circa 1764
Copyright: Michel Pétard
Figure 1: great uniform of a vice-admiral, it is the only one with braids on the seams (disposition of braids on the pockets and in the small of the back was not regulated and could vary among officers)
Figure 2: waistcoat of the great uniform of a captain of a ship of the line, decorated with the same braids as the coat but with smaller buttons
Figure 3: reproduction of "double anchors" (left) and "single anchor" (right) buttons as depicted on contemporary portraits
Figure 4: coat of the great uniform of a lieutenant of a ship of the line

The small uniform

The small uniforms of all ranks consisted of a blue coat lined scarlet with scarlet cuffs, scarlet lapels and a scarlet collar; a scarlet waistcoat lined white; scarlet breeches; scarlet stockings.

For the captain, the coat and the waistcoat were bordered with a golden braid (6 lignes) with 10 golden buttonholes on both sides of the coat down to the pockets (6 on the lapel and 4 under the lapel); 3 golden buttonholes on each side at the small of the back; 2 golden braids and 3 golden buttonholes on each cuff for a captain commanding a ship of the line (only one golden braid and 3 golden buttonholes) for a captain commanding a frigate.

Left: Small uniform of an ensign of a ship of the line circa 1764
Right: Small uniform of a captain of a ship of the line circa 1764
Copyright: Michel Pétard

For the lieutenant, the coat and the waistcoat were bordered with a golden braid (6 lignes) without golden buttonholes, and there were two braids on each cuff.

For the ensign, the coat and the waistcoat were bordered with a golden braid (6 lignes) without golden buttonholes, and with only one braid on each cuff.

For the captain of a fireship, the coat and the waistcoat were bordered with a golden braid (12 lignes) and there were two braids on each cuff.

This small uniform was doubtless very popular because it was much less expansive than the great uniform. Indeed, naval officers of this period were rarely rich and few could treat themselves to the great uniform.

The fatigue uniform

The fatigue uniform was introduced only around 1768 and is not covered in our article.

References

This article is mostly a translation of an abstract of Michel Pétard's article L'homme de 1764 – L'uniforme des officiers de Marine initially published in the magazine Uniformes Number 65 of January-February 1982.

Acknowledgment

Dr. Marco Pagan for his collaboration to this article.