Iconic Navy Uniforms

Phasing out the NWU Type I

The history of the U.S. Navy dates all the way back to the Revolutionary War, and although it was defunct for a short period afterwards, today we celebrate its 241st birthday.

The first official uniforms were created in 1817 when the War Department specified that sailors should wear blue jackets and trousers, a red vest with yellow buttons, and a black hat. However, the military was short on funding at the time, so uniform regulations weren’t heavily enforced.

Today, things are a little different. Uniforms have evolved over the years to help distinguish ranks and specializations, and there have been countless iterations along the way. Last month, ahead of its birthday, the Navy announced it would begin phasing out the Navy Working Uniform (NWU) Type I in favor of the more traditional color pattern of the Type III.

Check out the infographic below for a rundown of five of the most iconic uniforms in the modern rotation, or read on for more details.


Full Dress Whites

Before the Civil War, early regulations prescribed only full dress uniforms, but dress coats were expensive, difficult to clean, and very few officers could afford to put them through the stress of shipboard life. Service dress uniforms solved that problem, but the Navy maintained full dress for special occasions.

Today, officers wear their Full Dress Whites for many formal ceremonies, including changes of command, retirements, commissioning and decommissioning, funerals, and weddings. Full-size medals are worn above the left breast pocket and ribbons are moved to the right side. Other accessories may include a sword or cutlass, white pistol belt, ascot, and a dress aiguillette.

Service Dress Blues

Complete with a standard navy blue jumper and trousers, traditional white hat, and a neckerchief, this uniform has seen minimal change since its creation. They’re often referred to as “crackerjacks” due to Sailor Jack’s famous depiction on the Cracker Jack box.

Service dress uniforms came about out of functional necessity for junior enlisted personnel working on ships who needed something more versatile and forgiving. Bell-bottom trousers, another iconic aspect of the classic uniform, were designed for form and function. Not only were they intended to distinguish the uniform from civilian fashion, but they also could be rolled up above the knee if needed.

Neckerchiefs were originally intended as wearable sweat rags, because the black material doesn’t show dirt.

NWU Type I

Nicknamed “blueberries,” these predominantly blue and grey uniforms were originally designed for shipboard use and in industrial environments ashore. Effective October 1, 2016, Type I is being phased out gradually as the Navy moves towards more traditional camo patterns. This move has reportedly been discussed by leadership for years.

Although comfortable and functional, with many optional features and different styles to better customize for personal preference, the color choice has been well scrutinized. Many sailors, including Navy Secretary Ray Mabus in a quote from 2013, might joke that you’ll only be camouflaged if you fall overboard.


The Type II features a desert digital pattern and is currently restricted to SEALs and other sailors assigned to Naval Special Warfare Units for use in desert environments. The Navy saw these as a tactical upgrade over Type I, with a more practical color and pattern similar to MARPAT used in the Marine Corps. 


The Type III features a woodland digital pattern and is currently used by sailors in expeditionary units like the Seabees and Riverine units. It’s set to completely replace the Type I by 2019 and minimize the uniform variations across different ranks and specializations, which is expected to save the Navy potentially millions of dollars.


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