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British Airmen Uniforms (to 1914, Great War, World War 1)

Updated on September 23, 2013

Uniform Proposal for RFC Military Wing

Proposal for full dress uniform for the Royal Flying Corps Military Wing 1913 housed in the Imperial War Museum, London.
Proposal for full dress uniform for the Royal Flying Corps Military Wing 1913 housed in the Imperial War Museum, London. | Source

RFC Dress Uniform in Imperial War Museum

There is an original, unique piece of military tailoring In the Imperial War Museum in London. It is a tailor's trial for an officers dress uniform for the Military Wing, Royal Flying Corps (RFC), dated 1912.

The lancer regiment style tunic consists of blue-grey material with a black 'plastron' front. The tailor offered a choice of headgear, a conventional forage cap or a red képi, piped in gold for officers and black for other ranks.

The uniform was not adopted and the eventual RFC full-dress uniform was a much simpler affair.

The képi was all things French, but in 1912 France led the world in the air. For instance, in 1913 French aeronautists and their incredible flying machines held the world records for speed, height and distance.

Little wonder that tailor designed a képi to crown his creation.

Military Uniform Function

A notable social historian of costume, James Laver, has divided the function of any military uniform into three basic principles:

  1. Hierarchy

  2. Seduction

  3. Utility

in his excellent little “King Penguin” book on British Military Uniforms (Penguin, 1948).

Uniform Questions and Answers


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Utilitarianism over Seduction and Hierarchy

From 1900 onwards most European metropolitan armies chose 'Utility' with regard to their uniforms, as tradition was outgunned by machine warfare, exampled by the development of machine-guns and quick firing artillery.

'Utility' triumphed in the British naval officer uniform and 'Hierarchy' had been reduced to a simple but elegant pattern of rank cuff-rings. A pattern that was pretty much copied around the world.

The stylish double-breasted eight-buttoned 'Monkey Jacket' remained seductive however.

The lessons of colonial wars and South Africa had been learnt by the British Army which incorporated a highly utilitarian form in the 1902 pattern of khaki service dress of:

  • 'forage-cap',
  • patch pockets and
  • puttees.

'Hierarchy' in the Edwardian Army still revolved around the horse - the 1902 officers' service dress featured:

  • breeches in Bedford Cord,
  • riding boots,
  • khaki tunic flared at the skirts with massively capacious pockets
  • Sam Browne belt
  • vestigial sword slings.

A system of lace cuff rings, pips and crowns indicated rank with a different pattern for Scottish regiments.

Much to the consternation of the traditionalists, in 1913 a lapel tunic with collar and tie was introduced for commissioned officers. However, the effect was still one of horsey squirearchical elegance. Again this officer's uniform was eventually copied around the world.

Reconnaissance Aircraft Footage (WWI, silent)

Air Battalion Royal Engineers (ABRE) Uniform

The quest for a distinctive uniform for a British air service began with the Air Battalion Royal Engineers. They wore Royal Engineers service dress with no official distinctive badges but in 1911 began an urgent search for a form of working clothing which would allow the wearer to be recognised as an aviator and officer.

The three traditional principles of uniform development came under considerable strain in the new airborne environment - 'Utility' triumphed in a leather motoring coat worn in flight. But a faint aroma of burnt castor-oil rotary engine lubricant did little for 'Seduction'.

'Hierarchy' too was under pressure as flying skill, or lack of it, was a great leveller, and rank badges did not last long stitched to a leather jacket.

Although no patterns of special working clothing for the Air Battalion were officially sealed, a uniform of:

  • fur cap with ear flaps,
  • gauntlets,
  • leggings, and
  • double breasted leather jacket with rank badges on the shoulder

was proposed. This is sometimes taken as the basis for the distinctive Royal Flying Corps Military Wing tunic of 1913.

External Link: Royal Engineers Museum Collections

Royal Flying Corps Military Wing Recruitment Poster 1913

Royal Flying Corps Military Wing Recruitment Poster 1913
Royal Flying Corps Military Wing Recruitment Poster 1913 | Source

Royal Flying Corps Shoulder Titles

RFC items available for sale on Ebay
RFC items available for sale on Ebay | Source

Royal Flying Corps Cap Badge

Bronze RFC cap badge
Bronze RFC cap badge | Source

Royal Flying Corps, Military Wing, Breast Badge

RFC Military Wing breast badge authorised in 1913. A smaller gilt-metal version was worn on dress uniform.
RFC Military Wing breast badge authorised in 1913. A smaller gilt-metal version was worn on dress uniform. | Source

Royal Flying Corps, Military Wing, Uniform 1913

The képied-lancer tunic is another source for the 'special pattern' tunic.

A journalist calling himself 'Union Jack' visited the Central Flying School at Upavon a few days before the official opening on 19 June 1912 and reported:

'The uniform of the Flying Corps has not yet been issued, but I learn it is to be French-grey in colour and that the tunic will be of the lancer shape, but with no buttons. Knee breeches with leggings, and an ordinary military cap with the aeroplane as a badge complete the outfit.'

The aeroplane badge never materialised - the RFC, Military Wing, badge was a development of the Royal Engineer's with a monogram inside a laurel wreath.

The colour 'French-grey' is highly significant as this blue-grey shade re-emerged in 1919 as the colour of the Royal Air Force service dress and again became a worldwide air force trademark even adopted by the German Luftwaffe of the Second World War.

The lancer cut of the tunic was perpetuated in the double-breasted plain-fronted jacket of the RFC Military Wing authorised in Army Order 378 of November 1913.

The cut of the tunic was basically the same for officers and other ranks although with a variation in the quality of cloth and tailoring. Cuffs for other ranks, were plain, with a special fastening tab for officers, later pointed. Other ranks wore a dark blue shoulder title with 'ROYAL FLYING CORPS' embroidered in white and officers wore the letters 'R.F.C.' in gilt metal on a curved bar on the shoulder straps below the embroidered rank badges. No collar badges were authorised, although officers frequently transferred their full dress badges to the collar of the service dress.

This jacket caused quite a stir at the time of its introduction, yet it made remarkably practical concessions to utility.

The 1913 service dress was completed for officers by:

  • 'Austria pattern' cap with bronze RFC badge,
  • Bedford cord breeches,
  • drab putties and
  • brown ankle boots.

Officers seconded for duty with the RFC wore the full dress, undress and mess dress of their permanent unit.

After King George V had given his consent in June 1912, Army Order 40 of February 1913 authorised a flying badge for qualified Military Wing pilots in gilt metal for full dress and embroidered on blue cloth for service dress. The design was the RFC cap badge mounted between two outspread wings, based on those of a swift.

External Link: Royal Flying Corps Gift Shop

Royal Naval Air Service (No: 1 Squadron) 1914

Uniforms of the Royal Naval Air Service (No: 1 Squadron) 1914
Uniforms of the Royal Naval Air Service (No: 1 Squadron) 1914 | Source

Biplane Battles

Admiralty Indignant Concerning RFC Military Wing Badge

The Admiralty reacted indignantly, piqued that they were not consulted before the RFC Military Wing badge was submitted to the King.

Typically Murray Sueter began a search for a quite distinct flying badge for qualified pilots of the Naval Wing, and the search was made more urgent by the fact that Military Wing pilots would be sporting their flying badge to a levée at Upavon on 13 February 1913.

The naval pilots had to attend without such distinctions - the first embroidered badge, an anchor between wings, commissioned from the famous typographer and graphic designer Eric Gill, was rejected in October 1913.

The commission (worth 25 guineas) went out again to an artist named Alexander Fisher, who produced a bird badge. It 'looked like a goose' according to Sueter's autobiography and Fisher's badge was rejected in favour of a Napoleonic gold eagle based on a brooch bought by Sueter's wife in Paris.

In December, Sueter 'took this eagle brooch to the Admiralty to show to Mr Churchill and Admiral Prince Louis of Battenburg.' They much preferred it to the goose design and adopted it for the badge of the Royal Naval Air Service.

RFC Naval Wing Breast Badge by Eric Gill

RFC Naval Wing Cloth Breast Badge designed by Eric Gill in 1912 (not adopted). The Public Records Office, London has the original.
RFC Naval Wing Cloth Breast Badge designed by Eric Gill in 1912 (not adopted). The Public Records Office, London has the original. | Source

RNAS Wing Commander Rank Insignia

Wing Commander Rank Insignia in the Royal Naval Air Service.
Wing Commander Rank Insignia in the Royal Naval Air Service. | Source

RNAS Flight Lieutenant Rank Insignia

Flight Lieutenant Rank Insignia in the Royal Naval Air Service.
Flight Lieutenant Rank Insignia in the Royal Naval Air Service. | Source

Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) Uniform 1914

In May 1914 Sueter set out in an Admiralty minute the basis of a uniform for the Royal Naval Air Service:

Working dress for officers

  • Naval Monkey Jacket,

  • Blue breeches,

  • Uniform black lace boots,

  • Blue putties,

  • White flannel shirt,

  • Soft white linen collar with black tie, the collar to be fastened by a gold pin passed under the tie.

Flying uniform

  • Brown leather cap or helmet,

  • White sweater and scarf,

  • Leather overcoat with sleeves,

  • Blue overcoat,

  • Fur or leather gloves,

  • Brown leather trousers (optional).

Ratings were to be dressed in the naval uniform of their rating with special badges based on the eagle in cloth to be worn on the left arm. A ratings cap band emblazoned with the words 'ROYAL FLYING CORPS' has survived but there is no evidence it was ever issued.

At this stage the Naval Wing was not ranked with the 'executive' or fighting branch of the Navy and officers were not entitled to wear the executive curl on their cuff rings until July 1914.

But then at last, on 1 July, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service were officially established as separate entities. At the same time on 26 June Admiralty Orders authorised dress regulations for the RNAS.

The dress proposals in Sueter's minute of May were adopted with the addition of the eagle in gilt on the left sleeve. The anchor on cap badge, buttons, epaulette and sword belt was replaced by the eagle.

Working clothing at this stage, as in the RFC, was still largely a matter of improvisation and private purchase.

Army Recruitment for The Great War

Recruitment Poster for Sections of the Army (World War 1) including Air Force
Recruitment Poster for Sections of the Army (World War 1) including Air Force | Source

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    • humahistory profile image
      Author

      Chaz 3 years ago from UK

      Thank you so much, janshares, your comments are much appreciated

    • janshares profile image

      Janis Leslie Evans 3 years ago from Washington, DC

      This hub detailing the history of uniforms is quite informative. You present the information in an engaging way. Excellent writing and images to support the text. Voted up and interesting.

    • humahistory profile image
      Author

      Chaz 3 years ago from UK

      Uniforms were designed to seduce the onlooker into wanting to have one and thereby conscript into the force. But it only works on those that are not confident enough in their own 'style'.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 3 years ago from sunny Florida

      Very interesting. There is something "seductive" about a uniform especially to the onlooker. Angels are on the way to you ps