Liberty Cuffs

The traditional uniform worn by the United States Navy has evolved over the years, but like most military customs, traditions and practices, each piece of the uniform has played a role in the shaping of today’s naval uniform and plays a role in the history of the United States Navy- an outfit men and women all over America are proud to adorn. “Liberty cuffs” are a part of naval uniform tradition that cannot be found in the United States Naval code of conduct, due to the fact that these patches were strictly against military dress code. That did not stop sailors from adorning these patches while on “liberty” or around the town with fellow shipmates. The history of the development of the naval uniform traces the uniforms through significant changes dating from the 1770s to the 1980s. There are vast differences between the uniform of an official and that of an enlisted man.

“The enlisted man’s uniform was developed largely as a product of his surroundings, both geographically and technically. Unlike the officer’s uniform which began as a reflection of his social status and evolved into one reflecting his environment, his garb reflected practicality and was devoid of superfluity. Each item originally represented either a need for protection against the elements or to create distinctions among specialists in a growing Navy. Throughout, a simplicity was sought which would not interfere with the sailor’s everyday tasks” (Department of the Navy, 2012.)

Officials wore their uniforms to military regulations, whereas men that enlisted would occasionally decorate the interior of their uniform as an attempt to show some self-expression. “Liberty cuffs” are one example of ways men in the navy personalized their uniforms despite military regulations.

The first naval uniform was worn during the Revolutionary War, and today’s naval uniforms do not deviate far from the uniforms worn back in the 18th century, despite many changes throughout the years. Military regulations regarding uniforms for officials has been set in stone since the 18th century.

“The first uniform instruction for the U.S. Navy was issued by the Secretary of War on 24 August 1791. It provided a distinctive dress for the officers who would command the ships of the Federal Navy. The instruction did not include a uniform for the enlisted man, although there was a degree of uniformity. The usual dress of a seaman was made up of a short jacket, shirt, vest, long trousers, and a black low crowned hat” (Powers, 2010).

Any alteration to the military uniform was strictly prohibited and strongly enforced.

Despite the rigidness of the military uniform, the customization of one’s naval uniform has been a tradition since the early 1800s- a time when soldiers would customize the inside of their navy blue jumpers (Smith, 2010). This personalization and customization of naval uniforms continued throughout the 1800s and in the early 1900s, “liberty cuffs” began to emerge on many fleets and in many cities. These cuffs were embroidered into the inside of the navy uniforms. “Liberty cuffs” were against military regulation, and if a man was caught with “liberty cuffs” sewn into his uniform, he would most likely be sent back to port or dismissed from the Navy altogether.

“Liberty cuffs” were meant to be an underground society for the men in the Navy. When a man was fighting or on duty his uniform would be worn properly, with cuffs down, disguising the patches sewn into the cuffs. When the men were out on the town, or on “liberty”, they would roll up their cuffs, revealing the patches sewn into their uniforms. These cuffs were hand sewn using a hidden stitch that made the uniform appear regulation whenever the men were on duty. “Liberty cuffs” really took off around the 1950s when machines began to mass produce them instead of the hand sewing of the patches from the 1800s.

By the 1970s, “liberty cuffs” had virtually disappeared as a result of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt’s strict enforcement on military policy during and after the Vietnam war. Zumwalt, who was Commander of Naval Forces during the Vietnam War, was famous for his stringent military practices. His implementation of the ‘Mod Squad’, allowed low rank soldiers and even civilians to serve for the Navy. These men would serve in plain clothing, which, in combination with Zumwalt’s strict leash over the military, basic eliminated “liberty cuffs” from the navy uniform.

The Unite States Navy, as well as the other military branches within the United States government, prides itself on it’s heritage and it’s traditions. The naval uniform is no exception. Although “liberty cuffs” were a non-regulation tradition in the history of the United States Navy, the patches play a vital role nonetheless. Today each patch tells a unique story of a naval soldier who fought for their country and possibly died for their country as well. The navy uniforms are a unique and interesting tradition in United States history, and each piece of the uniform tells a story.


Smith, Daniel. “Navy Dress Blues, “Tailor-mades” and “Liberty Cuffs”” Navy Traditions. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 May 2013. <>.

Powers, Rod. “Navy Uniform History.” Navy Uniform History., n.d. Web. 13 May 2013. <>.

“Uniform Changes.” US Navy Uniform. Department of the Navy, n.d. Web. 13 May 2013. <>.

“Historical Surveys of the Evolution of US Navy Uniforms.” Historical Surveys of the Evolution of US Navy Uniforms. Department of the Navy, n.d. Web. 13 May 2013. <>.