Naval sailors of many nations wear a uniform first worn by the British navy, which, with few exceptions only [and none in the British navy] see the junior ratings wearing one style with senior ratings plus commissioned officers wearing another.  However, in the latter case, whilst of the same 'rig', the detail in/on the uniforms of senior ratings vis--vis commissioned officers is marked, with commissioned officers tunics carrying two sets of four buttons of a specific design whereas the senior ratings wear only two sets of three buttons of a yet another different design. Those two styles {junior ratings vis--vis senior ratings plus commissioned officers} are universally accepted to be 'square rig' and 'fore and aft rig' respectively but why ? 

Well, most of my readers will know that the expressions have something to do with sailing ships but do they relate to canvas sails or to wooden [normally, but could be metal] objects onto which the canvas sails are attached? After all, sails are, or can be, positively square in shape but solid masts are obviously not.

The answer is that the sails themselves do not play any part in these uniform descriptions so we must investigate the solid parts of the ship. Have a look at this picture which shows a typically square rigged vessel.

Note that the 'foremast' the 'mainmast' and the 'mizzenmast' all carry YARDS {or yardarms shown in blue] onto which sails are connected and then either furled or unfurled. They are all set across the ship at 90 to the centre line of the ship in the fore and aft plane known as the longitudinal line, in a fixed position. We say that they lay thwartships or along the latitudinal line i.e., across the narrowest part of the ship. Thus irrespective of whether the sails are in use or not, these yards are permanently rigged in the SQUARE position and of course support sails which are square in shape or rectangular : we can of course lower them for repairs or maintenance. Now look aft to the 'jigger mast' and straight away you will note the shape of the sail which is called a 'lateen sail' being used in this picture as a 'spanker or a driver'. It is attached to the jigger mast in two places both outlined in red, namely the 'gaff' and the 'boom'. When this mast is in service both articulation points are facing the front of the vessel, the foreward {pronounced "for-ad"} end. Also when not in use both the gaff and the boom can be pulled upright for storage and when secured,  lay in the longitudinal line or in the FORE AND AFT position.  This is also true if the lateen sail is lowered but the boom [and gaff] remain as shown The sails you see foreward viz the 'head sails' are simply lowered and covered when not in use, and as such, play no part in this story.

The ship below is a fully rigged fore and aft vessel with lateen sails. In such two masted vessels, had the 'foremast' been the larger of the two mast, it would have been called the 'mainmast' and the 'main' would have been called the 'mizzenmast'.


The shape of a ship with a pronounced 'sharp end' to cut through the waves and an equally pronounced rounded or square 'back end' to provide generous living quarters for the admiral or captain made it immediately obvious to the onlooker as to which way the ship was lying or if under way, in which direction it was travelling this without the need to look further aloft than the upper or main deck. In those days ships did not go astern so every ship travelled with forward motion. Also in those days only officers wore headgear and that the tricorn.  Later this changed to the bicorn worn firstly in the thwartships {the square rig} manner and later on in the fore and aft manner when it became known as a cocked hat with the front very much the same as the back. In the later Victorian period the peaked cap was introduced and for the first time the headgear had a distinct front and back look and could only be worn one way with the peak {or, as a northerner/Scot might say, the neb} leading. This was enhanced by adding a cap badge in the centre of the peak and later on by the adding of "scrambled eggs" on the leading edge of the peak for senior officers. The wearing of the peaked cap and the tunic uniform was for officers only, so it was simply an evolution of uniforms and as such didn't become known as a specific rig.

In the late Victorian period the rate of chief petty officer was introduced and eventually he too changed into a buttoned tunic coat and wore a peaked cap with a cap badge. Petty officers were graded as first and second class but continued to wear sailors apparel each wearing different badges on their sailor suit sleeves. By this time sailors were beginning to wear a uniform so that [as the word suggests] they all looked the same. Their dress [naval speak for uniform] was essentially a tight fitting jumper, bell-bottomed trousers, a lose fitting shirt or vest and a broad collar, and by the time of Queen Victoria's funeral in early 1901 the men wore their first real hats which were made of straw and called Sennet's - midshipmen were issued with straw boaters. In the early 20th century years, first class petty officers were allowed to change into buttoned tunic coats and peak caps but only at their own expense to start with.  Eventually, this uniform was the dividing line between the two types of petty officers which lasted into the early 1960's.

The straw hats [Sennet's] were replaced with a more practical cap which was the proverbial round cap having a band around the rim of the cap {a tally} with various lettering.  This too was the practice right up to and including the very early 1910's when ship's names appeared.  This practice was stopped and put on hold for the duration of WW1 and WW2 but was revived, except for a few, in between the wars, and from 1946 onwards.  Of those few, one band has survived with having H.M. SUBMARINES proudly shown and never the name of the boat in which they served. Several types of sailors hats [more correctly, caps] have been used from all black [winter wear] to white blanko tops [summer wear] round caps, then white plastic caps with the very unpopular oval caps coming from Australia.  Despite a regular wash, these plastic caps became off-white in colour and the only really smart chap on parade was a man wearing a peaked cap with a brilliant white and starched cap cover - just like I used to wear and yes, even in submarines. I even had a good stock of starched stiff collars [with front and back studs] which I used to send by the dozen to be professionally laundered.

It was in the early 20th century when the terms SQUARE rig and FORE AND AFT rig were first coined.  The rationale for doing so was that the yard arms matched if not surpassed the width of the beam of the ship [the widest part] and this equated to the shoulders of a sailor, the broadest part of his body. That the collar took the form of a square at the rear was not accidental for it completed the picture of 'broadness and the square' with a sail unfurled. Sailors rig however, had a very pronounced front and back just like that of the fore and aft rig, having part of the collar showing at the front, complimented by the addition of a 'silk' and a 'lanyard'.  The chest area was not symbolic, at least not in the winter months because it was a dark blue knitted jersey whereas in the summer months it was a white cotton front.  However, the blue jersey was so itchy and so uncomfortable that more often than not the summer white front was worn underneath the winter rig.  What both winter and summer chest apparel had in common was that both had square tops, again matching the square of the collar and thus of a sail. The sailors round cap had its own dedicated front and could be worn in either of two ways as long as the breath-eyelets [letting out the heat of the head] were on the sides of the cap.  To give the cap a dedicated front, the manufacturers join [four in number with one on each side above the breathe-eyelets] was placed immediately above the ratings nose [so one running down the centre of his neck also as it were] and immediately under it was placed the central letter of the ships name on the cap tally. This was made known to one on joining the ship or establishment and woe betide anyone on parade who hadn't got all the central parts in the right place directly above the nose. So, no peak and no obvious directionality as was obvious with a peak. Discounting the cap for one moment, it is obvious that the collar and tie of the fore and aft rig were, although physically different, the equivalent of the dark blue jersey [front] and the light blue collar [back] et al,  for all parts of each uniform had a front and a back, even the caps as we have said.  The item of uniform used in the coining of Square and Fore and Aft rigs was the peak cap of a senior ratings/commissioned officer and the large light blue collar of the junior rate and petty officers.  They were based on sailing terms which by 1907 had gone [the 1907's seamanship manual* refers to sailing ships but makes all aware that there is a new non-sailing navy now] and were never official, just like the calling of the naval LSGC {Long Service and Good Conduct Medal] Pea-Do was never official.  Surprisingly, the calling of these terms came to the fore during and after WW2 and many even today, use the expressions though I wager they do not know why!

* My copy of this manual was once owned by Admiral of the Fleet A U Willis who in 1908 served in the Mediterranean Fleet in the Glory. Then, he was a midshipman and he died in 1976.

The picture below shows the rigging of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's S.S. Great Britain now on view to the public at Bristol - a must visit for all devotees of ships and shipping, so well is the Ship Museum configured. It shows the various rigs she has had over the years each one set to reflect her changing role in the mercantile navy of Great Britain. Note that on build in 1843 she was fore and aft rigged which changed in 1852 to a square rig, maintaining that rig but with more sail aloft in 1882 until her demise. Figure 1 shows her abandoned in the Falkland Isles before being brought back to the UK for preservation.

  Incidentally, did you know that the SS Great Britain permanently [no colour or sunset ceremonies] wears a WHITE ENSIGN ? Well she does and all the flags, pennants and bunting are exactly the same as she wore when HRH Prince Albert, The Prince Consort and husband of Queen Victoria visited Bristol for her float-out-of-build-dock ceremony in 1843. The reason for this no one seems to know because it wasn't until the 9th July 1864, twenty one years later, that the white ensign was adopted as the Royal Navy's dedicated [and only] ensign, and in 1843 the white ensign was for the junior admirals and fleet whilst the red ensign was for the senior admirals and fleet: certainly, if it was symbolic of HRH visit, then he would have warranted the RED ENSIGN!