Bell-bottom trousers date back to the early 1800’s when they were a standard part of American naval outfits. Although the exact origins remain unknown due to a lack of records, the earliest recorded reference to bell-bottoms dates from 1813 when Commodore Stephen Decatur wrote that the men on the frigates United States and Macedonia were wearing "glazed canvas hats hats with stiff brims, decked with streamers of ribbons, blue jackets buttoned loosely over waistcoats and blue trousers with bell bottoms." Bell-bottoms did not become regulation wear for the Royal Navy until the mid-19th century.
Sailors in uniform, 1854
Some quick points:
• Bell bottoms were not worn by officers, only by the lower ranks and the ordinary seamen, generally colloquially called swabs.
• The reasons which have been advanced for a naval tradition of bell-bottoms include:
- they were able to be easily rolled up so as to facilitate scrubbing of the decks;
- rolling them up also made climbing of the rigging easier;
- they could be filled with air and tied at the lower leg for use as buoyancy device if thrown overboard or abandoning ship.
- they could be more easily removed over shoes if overboard.
• Before bell-bottoms were introduced, sailors wore a canvas kilt over breeches.
• The first naval trousers were not true bell-bottoms, just very wide trousers.
• Modern naval uniforms no longer feature bell-bottoms.
• Seamen’s trousers also traditionally had 5 or 7 horizontal ironed creases (see pic above), depending on the length of the leg, developed from the creases that resulted from folding and storing.
• The sailor’s lanyard was originally used to fire the cannons on board ship. Later, a sailor would carry his knife with it.
• The black neckerchief or bandanna first appeared as early as the 16th century and was utilised as a sweat band and collar closure.
• By the way: the word “swab” originally referred to large mop used on shipboard for cleaning decks and living quarters. From this, a “swabber” was a member of a ship’s crew assigned to swab decks (1591). Obviously officers did not have such duties so the term was confined to low ranks and general sailors. By 1609 “swabber” was used in a broader sense of “one who behaves like a low ranking sailor.” Its use as a slang term for sailor is first recorded in 1798.
• The term “Jack Tar” and its shortened form “Tar”, as slang terminology for seamen of the Merchant Navy or Royal Navy, has an uncertain origin. There are a number of possible explanations:
- To make their clothes waterproof, seamen were known to 'tar' their clothes before departing on voyages,. Later they frequently wore coats and hats made from a waterproof fabric called tarpaulin. This may have been shortened to 'tar' at some point.
- It was common amongst seamen to fat their long hair into a ponytail and smear it with high grade tar to prevent it getting caught in the ship's equipment.
- A ship's rigging on wooden sailing ships consisted of rope made of hemp, which would rot quickly in such a damp environment. To avoid this, the ropes and cables of the standing rig were soaked in tar, which had to be replenished by tarring.
(In case you’re wondering, the tarpaulin dates from c 1600, the word “pall” meaning a heavy cloth covering. When coated in tar to make it waterproof, it was called tarpaulin, possibly by reason of the combination of “tar” with “palling”.)