This article is from the Winter 2011 issue of MHQ, which will be available on newsstands Tuesday, November 16th, 2010. Visit the HistoryNet store to order your copy today!
Q: What is the origin of the belts that United States Navy and Army officers have been wearing since at least the Civil War?
A: The dress uniform belts are descended from the fabric sash worn by officers and some NCOs as early as the American Revolution. According to Colonel Robert H. Rankin’s Uniforms of the Army (1967), European armies originated the use of the sash, probably early in the 16th century. Although decorative, it could also be used as a makeshift stretcher by inserting a pikestaff through a hem on each side. American officers wore a cloth sash under the sword belt that passed over the right shoulder. They also sometimes donned one under their waist belt. Though the custom continued for many years, the sash today is worn only by cadet officers at West Point and military schools.
The U.S. War Department’s Revised Regulations for the Army of the United States, 1861 detailed sashes and belts and the many variations worn by militia and volunteer units. According to the regulations, the sash had to be worn “on all occasions of duty of every description, except stable and fatigue.” Regulation 1504 required the sash for general officers to be “buff, silk net, with silk bullion fringe ends; sash to extend around the waist, and to tie behind the left hip, pendent part not to extend more than eighteen inches below the tie.”
The regulations called for a “medium or emerald green silk net” sash for medical officers; “crimson silk net” for ordnance, artillery, cavalry, and other officers; and a “red worsted sash” for sergeant majors, quartermaster sergeants, ordnance sergeants, hospital stewards, first sergeants, principal or chief musicians, and chief buglers.
A fancy dress uniform waist belt, usually called a sword belt, was in use before the Civil War. According to the 1861 regulations, officers were to wear a waist belt over the sash that was “not less than one and one-half inch nor more than two inches wide…the sword to be suspended from it by slings of the same material as the belt, with a hook attached to the belt upon which the sword may be hung.”
For general officers, the belt was made of Russian leather and adorned with three stripes of gold embroidery. For all other officers and NCOs, the belt was plain black leather.
Officers and NCOs of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps wore comparable sashes and sword belts. Officers and NCOs of the Confederate army and navy also wore them, when available. Navy uniform regulations in 1913 stipulated the design of the dress belt and straps. Captains and commodores wore a dress belt of “dark navy-blue silk webbing, backed by black grain leather, 13⁄4 inches wide, with seven gold stripes 1⁄16 inch wide,” with the stripes in the center of the belt. Lieutenant commanders and others of lesser rank wore a similar belt with five stripes.
And admirals? The regulations called for a half-inch gold stripe embroidered on each edge and an eighth-inch stripe in between. The admiral of the navy wore a similar belt, though his was the only one authorized to be made from cloth.
C. G. Sweeting, a former curator at the National Air and Space Museum, has written several books on military garb, including Combat Flying Clothing and Combat Flying Equipment.
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