Navy Dress Blues, "Tailor-mades" and "Liberty Cuffs"
Daniel D. Smith, SCPO, USNR (Ret)
As a young third class petty officer I once had a set of Navy dress blues "tailor made" in San Francisco, California. Ever since that time I have had a fascination with "liberty cuffs". Liberty Cuffs are those embroidered patches sewn inside the cuffs of Navy dress blue uniforms. These uniforms are worn by Navy enlisted men, pay grades E-2 through E-6. The embroidered patches were non-regulation, "illegal," and often resulted in sailors, if caught (usually by the Shore Patrol personnel), having their liberty cancelled and being sent back to their ship or shore station.
The patches (liberty cuffs) were sewn, usually by a uniform tailor using a hidden stitch. This resulted in a regulation looking uniform when the cuffs were in place and buttoned, but displayed when the sailor was on liberty and unbuttoned and rolled the cuff up one roll to display the fancy designs. Liberty cuffs were found all over the fleet, and in many state side uniform tailor shops. But, they were most commonly made in Asian ports. In fact, the oldest versions of these fancy inside cuffs were often attributed to "China Station sailors", "China Fleet sailors", or "China sailors", for short. The customizing of the inside of Navy blue jumpers dates back to the late 1800s.
The historical time-line of "liberty cuffs" is not well documented. Military historians and memorabilia collectors place the beginning somewhere in the early 1900s for hand stitched dragons on silk panels which were then sold to U.S. sailors as momentos of visits to Asian ports. Asian hand stitched silk dragon designed actual liberty cuffs have been dated to the 1930s. It is believed that mass machine developed liberty cuff designs began in the late 1950s. After that time major patch companies like GEMSCO produced packaged multiple design variations that sold near navy bases in many cities.
Tailor-made dress blues had more fancy decorations than just the "liberty cuffs". Many tailor-made jumpers had zippers on one side, or even both sides, to facilitate easy dressing and removal of the jumper. Many had silk designs sewn in the inside/back side of the jumper and many tailor-made dress blue uniforms were made of gabardine material. Tailor-made trousers some times had zippers hidden at the sides of the 13-button front flap and a fancy silk insert with design on the backside of the front "flap".
Liberty cuffs became less prevalent and downtown private "locker clubs" started disappearing when Admiral Elmo Zumwalt and BUPERS allowed lower pay grade enlisted personnel to wear civilian clothing, "civvies", from shipboard liberty in the very early 1970s.
At this time the collecting community dealing in liberty cuffs appears to be fairly small. Less than a dozen liberty cuff collectors have corresponded with this author. These collectors usually also collect and/or deal in other Navy militaria such as vintage navy rate badges, qualification badges, vintage navy "marks" and some collect complete uniforms.
As a short side story, there was also a tailor-made white uniform worn by some of my shipmates, I never had a set of these, they were called "sharkskin whites", some even had a zipper in the side of the jumper, just like the tailor-made dress blues. Because you could basically see through the material of all white enlisted men's uniforms there was little, or no, fancy embroidery inside those jumpers. I did see one set that had a liner and a dragon in light thread inside the white jumper.
If you have corrections or additions to this short history of Navy uniform liberty cuffs, or if you collect these rare items, please correspond with the author at the email address listed below.
Click here for History of regulation Navy dress blues. Learn about "Blue Jackets", marks (1841), crowned hats, flat hats, straw hats, canvas hats, white hats, Petty Officer's badge, specialty marks (1866), combination rating badges (1886), right arm rates (port and starboard watch ratings), watch mark for non-rated personnel, branch marks (1912), distinguishing marks (1905), Eagle facing left or right (1941)
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