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US Navy & US Marine Corp Boat Cloaks, and US Army Capes

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Introduction

The goal of this thread is to detail the history, use, and characteristics of US Navy (USN) and US Marine Corp (USMC) officer’s boat cloaks and US Army officer’s capes. Despite a superficial similarity, these three garments differ significantly in detail, differences which will be identified and illustrated in this thread. All three garments have a parallel history stretching back well over a century but—happily, for lazy historians—saw few changes over their period of official use. Of the these three garments, only US Army capes remain in use today, or at least remain ‘on the books’ in regulations.

This thread will also include US Air Force officer’s capes (of which little information and no meaningful visual proof has been found) and, as far as possible given available information, make a note of boat cloaks used by non-US militaries (focusing on the UK and Canada).

Origins?

Boat cloaks, it is generally agreed, originated as weatherproof overgarments worn by naval officers to protect their uniforms while riding in small boats from ship to shore, usually in port and usually on their way to evening engagements in full dress. In the nineteenth century, and even into the early twentieth century, officers in most navies wore big, bulky, gold rank epaulettes with full dress (and sometimes service dress). These epaulettes were difficult to squeeze under a sleeved overcoat or greatcoat, so cloaks, being shapeless and sleeveless, offered a comfortable way to protect expensive uniforms and epaulettes from salt, spray, and rain. For reasons unknown, the US military systematized boat cloaks to a much broader extent than other militaries in designs unique to the US military, and retained them for a much longer period.

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USN Boat Cloaks

The first official reference I have been able to find for USN boat cloaks is the 1903 Navy Regulations (below). The description speaks for itself, although it’s worth noting that the boat cloaks were to be made of the same wool and lining as the officer’s overcoats (the early version of the officer’s bridge coats) which I think implies the cloaks were intended to be a proper outergarment, not just a lightweight rain shell.

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The next reference is the 1913 regulations (below) which introduce an important change to length, extending it to two inches below the kneecaps, making this garment much longer than before. Note the mention of epaulettes being worn when determining length. Otherwise, the 1913 regulations repeat the 1903 regulations.

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The next reference is the 1922 regulations (below) which repeat the 1913 regulations except to mention that “hooks and eyes” are used to close the collar, rather than the “hook and eye” in earlier regulations, suggesting an increase from one to two closures at the collar (although this may be reading too much into this small passage). No mention is made of cloth.

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The next reference is dated during wartime, the 1941 regulations (below). This description is more or less unchanged from the 1913 and 1922 regulations, except that “blue cloth” is to be used. The drawing of the cloak floating in the air by itself is from the regulations; the coloured illustration is from a detailed history of USN uniforms; the photo is from a 1941 LIFE Magazine photo series of US military uniforms.

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The final reference I have been able to find is the 1998 regulations (below). This description is basically identical to the description in the 1941 regulations, indicating, I think, the boat cloak’s essentially relic status in the USN regulations by the end of the twentieth century. Boat cloaks were officially eliminated (or “unauthorized”) in July 2016, after well over a century of use by the USN.

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USN Boat Cloaks (cont.)

Now let's take a look at some art and photographic examples of boat cloaks in use by USN officers. This first photo is from 1918 and shows R Adm Moffett with Admundson. Note the admiral’s use of the hook and eye at the collar but not the chest frog. The admiral is wearing the cloak over his service dress tunic, indicated that boat cloaks weren’t used just for formal occasions, at least in this period.

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The next three photos are from just after the Great War (the group photo is dated 1919). The group photo is interesting because it allows comparison of the bridge coat to the officer’s overcoat (the early version of the bridge coat). The close-up photo shows the single hook and eye at the collar and how the frog is used to close the front of the boat cloak across the chest. Note also that the boat cloaks in the photos appear to be the 1922 regulation length (two inches below the kneecap) rather than the shorter 1903 regulation length, suggesting that the length had officially changed before the 1922 regulations or that the 1922 regulations simply reflected de facto changes made by officers (since boat cloaks were tailor-made private-purchase garments, they probably varied from regulations to a greater or lesser extent).

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The next two photos show R Adm Wiley with a US army general (left) and Adm Byrd with a civilian (right, when Byrd was a commander).

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The following paintings show Adm Joseph Mason Reeves in 1925 (left) and Adm William Pratt (right).

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Roosevelt’s Boat Cloaks

Everyone is already familiar with FDR’s use of the boat cloak, thanks to widely disseminated photos of the Yalta Conference, when FDR met with his allied counterparts Churchill and Stalin near the end of WWII to jockey for control of post-war Europe, so I will focus on photos most people haven’t seen.

The first two photos are from the photo call of the three leaders (the second photo was taken before Churchill arrived). The third and fourth photos are also from the Yalta Conference, but at the airport before the conference started, when FDR and Molotov greeted Churchill (note how FDR has only one of the two loops of his cloak’s frog fastened).

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FDR also wore a boat cloak at the Potsdam Conference (below) which took place earlier in the war, but photos from this event are not easy to find.

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The next two photos are of FDR meeting King Farouk of Egypt and King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia. These photos were taken on a US warship.

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Roosevelt’s Boat Cloaks (cont.)

FDR wore boat cloaks quite often in the USA, as the photos below illustrate. The first few photos show FDR in the back on his official cars, in good weather and bad (note the photo of his bodyguard helping him put on the cloak); the last two photos show FDR standing (at the railing of a US warship, and leaning on his son(?) outside the Lincoln Memorial).

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USN Boat Cloaks (cont.)

Let’s take a close look at some actual vintage USN boat cloaks. These examples have been found in various places across the internet, usually listings for sale. Remembering that these were private-purchase items, countless variations in minor details will be seen, but overall adherence to the official regulations is surprisingly consistent.

The two boat cloaks below both belonged to FDR. At first glance they appear identical, but the frogs are positioned in different spots (one lower, one higher), and the manufacturer’s tags are different, so these are different cloaks. The provenance letter attached to the first cloak, which was provided by the widow of one of FDR’s valets, implies that FDR owned and wore more than one cloak. Note that the second cloak has a Naval Uniform Shop tag inside a small pocket lined with the same cream-coloured corduroy that was used in USN pea coats of the period.

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USN Boat Cloaks (cont.)

Following are a number of boat cloaks worn by persons less famous than FDR. The first one is dated 1899 and was evidently tailored in Shanghai. It was apparently owned by a senior officer on the USS Maryland and USS Arizona.

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The cloak below is dated 1913 and was owned by AG Robinson and was tailored in Annapolis.

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The cloak below is dated 1917 and was owned by GB Hoover and was tailored in New York City.

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The two cloaks below are dated from the 1920s. The second one has a button just below the collar to help close the front of the cloak—buttons were not regulation and would have been a feature requested by individual officers when having their cloaks made.

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The cloak below is dated 1933 and was apparently owned by a former commandant of the USCG. Note the row of buttons to help close the front of the cloak—as noted above, these were not USN regulation but would have made this a more practical garment in windy weather.

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The cloak below is dated 1935 and was tailored in New York City. Note the rear view: visible are two seams over the shoulders, which were added to help shape the fit over the shoulders. This was not regulation, since USN boat cloaks were supposed to be 3/4 of a circle that could in theory be laid flat. Compare this cloak with the next one.

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The cloak below is dated WWII and was owned by Ralph Wood (his name is embroidered inside the collar, something I’ve never seen elsewhere). The first photo is particularly useful since it shows how these cloaks could lie flat, being officially made from 3/4 of a circle—compare this cloak to the one above with shaping over the shoulders which could not be laid out flat like this cloak. This difference might seem like ‘inside baseball,’ but it’s significant since in my observation only US military cloaks had no shaping over the shoulders and could be laid flat; shaping cloaks to fit over the shoulders is almost ubiquitous among military capes in non-US militaries and civilian clothing, making the design of US military cloaks unique.

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USN Boat Cloaks (cont.)

Following are a number of cloaks of varying dates which help illustrate the variation in details these private-purchase garments display. The first cloak is supposedly dated from the Indian Wars, which makes it late nineteenth century, but interestingly strongly resembles twentieth century boat cloaks except for the oddly shaped frog on the chest and the two arm slits (and two inside pockets).

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The three cloaks below typical examples of boat cloaks from the first half of the twentieth century. Note the inevitable differences in the frogs, hooks and eyes at the collar, and cloth, etc.

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The two cloaks below are dated WWII. The first cloak is obviously part of a female nurse’s uniform, but aside from the maroon lining and the extra-small collar, it conforms to the men’s version. The second cloak was owned by GE Connelly and came from the Naval Uniform Shop; another nurse’s boat cloak. If you look closely at the coloured illustration in the #2 post in this thread, you’ll see a nurse’s boat cloak illustrated.

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US Marine Corp Boat Cloaks

Let’s change gears and take a look at USMC boat cloaks. The earliest reference I have found is in the USMC 1912 regulations (below). Read the description closely and you’ll see it describes a more sophisticated garment than the USN regulations. The overall shape (3/4 of a circle) and velvet collar are the same as the USN boat cloaks, but the USMC prescribed a red lining and two hooks and eyes at the collar, and added braid along the edges, four buttons down the front, and an agraffe over the chest (this is a fancy cord intended for both decoration and as a way to wear the cloak over the shoulders when unfastened and unbuttoned). The USMC also provided for optional inside pockets. The buttons down the front make this a practical garment in windy weather, although I know from personal experience that buttons on a cape are difficult and frustrating to button, and are best left to a second pair of hands. I suspect but am not certain that the boat cloak has been discontinued—if someone has reliable information that says otherwise, please post.

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Additional references can be found in the USMC’s 1917 and 1922, unchanged from the 1912 regulations. In this century, boat cloaks are referenced in the 2003 and 2018 regulations, the latter shown below.

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The painting below is dated 1983 and you can see the boat cloak depicted on the rearmost Marine.

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The photo below was from The Marine Shop when they offered boat cloaks for sale. I’m not sure when they stopped offering them, but it was recently as far as I can tell.

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The USMC boat cloaks attracted in modern days a certain amount of incredulity among Marines, in part because the cloaks seemed like such relics and because they were rarely seen ‘in the wild,’ but they also attracted a certain amount of awe, Marines being proud of their spectacular dress uniforms. Both feelings are captured well in the cartoons below.

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Below is an example of one of those rare ‘in the wild’ sightings of a boat cloak (dated 2013). This photo also reinforces the point that USMC boat cloaks were allowed not only for officers but also senior NCOs (unlike USN cloaks which were allowed for officers only).

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US Marine Corp Boat Cloaks (cont.)

Let’s take a close look at vintage examples of USMC boat cloaks. What stands out to me is that these real-life examples, despite being of different ages and different sources, show only minor variation in details, much less than among USN boat cloaks.

The cloak below is dated 1901. It does not have any buttons, oddly.

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The cloak below is dated 1915 and was owned by Col Raymond Marsh and was sourced from the Cadet Store at West Point. This cloak also does not have any buttons and is shaped over the shoulders (see discussion in post #7 above re USN boat cloaks). The fact that neither this 1915 cloak nor the 1901 cloak above have buttons suggests that buttons may have been a feature added to the regulations at a later date, although the 1915 cloak post-dates the 1913 regulations which specified buttons.

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The cloak below is dated 1939 and illustrates the uniform regulations clearly. Note the inside pocket, braid along the cloak edges, and the agraffe (cord).

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The two cloaks below are of unknown dates. The second cloak, due to condition and details, appears to be relatively recent.

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US Army Capes

Did you know that the US Army has capes, too? They do, and they’re still officially allowed (and they’re called “capes,” not “boat cloaks”). The description below is from the 2017 Army uniform regulations. On the surface, the US Army capes resemble the USMC boat cloaks including the agraffe, but the Army capes do not have buttons down the front nor the braid along the edges. Uniquely in the US military, the capes have different coloured linings matching the branch of service of the wearer, except generals who wear dark-blue linings only.

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Unfortunately, I have not found any twentieth century Army uniform regulations online, but it’s evident that capes were in use by US Army officers for much the same period as the USN cloaks, perhaps longer. The first illustration below is of unknown date but definitely well before the Great War, perhaps even late nineteenth century; note the officer in the right rear wearing a yellow-lined cape (Cavalry). The second illustration shows 1913 uniforms; note the officer at right wearing a short red-lined cape (probably Artillery). The third illustration is a Saturday Evening Post cigarette advertisement dated 1938 depicting an Infantry officer wearing a light-blue lined cape over dress uniform.

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The studio photos below show a general officer wearing a dark-blue lined cape over mess dress (the date is probably late 60s or early 70s, judging by the text), and a junior officer wearing a yellow-lined cape (date unknown). Note the button just below the collar on the junior officer’s cape.

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The two photos below are from a LIFE Magazine photo series depicting US military uniforms in 1941. The first photo shows the range of prescribed outerwear for Army officers (from left to right: the cape, the greatcoat, the short wool coat, the trenchcoat, the rubberized waterproof coat). The second photo shows an Artillery officer wearing a red-lined cape over dress uniform.

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US Army Capes (cont.)

The photos below show several vintage Army capes. The cape below is a Cavalry officer’s cape dated 1902.

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The cape below was tailored in Philadelphia and is of unknown date. The yellow lining likely indicates an officer of Cavalry or Armour.

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The cape below is dated 1909 and was owned by Major WJ Bacon. The lining appears to be dark blue but his rank is obviously not a general so perhaps at this early date the coloured linings were worn by all officer ranks. Note in particular the button just below the collar to help close the front of the cloak (since, as noted in post #9 above, the agraffe doesn’t really do that), and how the left lapel overlaps the right lapel significantly.

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The cape below is dated the Korean War and was owned by Brig Gen LK Ladue and was sourced from the Quartermaster’s Depot in Philadelphia. Note how the shoulders are shaped to fit using the side seams.

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The cape below is of unknown date but was owned by Colonel Richard W Mabee (bio included). Note how high on the shoulders the ‘acorns’ to which the agraffe is attached are mounted.

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The photographs of the cape below are poorly exposed but they are extremely useful since they show the cape laid out on a flat surface, illustrating how these garments are supposed to be constructed. In this case, it is made from 2/3 of a circle from two pieces of cloth sewn together, and appears to have no shaping over the shoulders since it lies mostly flat. It’s hard to tell exactly what colour the lining is but it’s a shade of blue.

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The cape below is of unknown date. Note the snap button just below the collar (compare with the actual buttons used on capes posted above). Note also the internal strap—this is the only example of a US military cloak or cape with this feature which is used to secure the cape on the shoulders when it is unfastened and unbuttoned (although in this case it appears to be too long and mounted too low to be of much use).

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US Air Force Capes

And now, the final type of US military cloak... the USAF cape, for officers and warrant officers. The only information I have been able to find on these is the illustration and photo below (note descriptive text at the bottom of the illustration). They appear to be a dead copy of the US Army cape, including the use of colour linings. The use of past tense in the description suggests these are discontinued. If anyone has any additional information, or photos, please post.

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dannyk

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I know nothing about these nor do I collect them. But I really appreciate the work and effort you’ve put into this. I can always appreciate a collector learning as much as they can and passing on the knowledge. Nice work.
 

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Yes, this took a lot of work. Thank you for completing this project.

I think I will leave it in Outerwear for awhile and then move it to the Guides section.
 

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Here's a colour photo of FDR meeting with the Saudi king on the USS Quincy in Feb 1945 (from wikipedia). Colour reproduction on these old photos maybe not be fully accurate but this shows the dark blue boat cloak with black velvet collar. The black & white photo doesn't show the cloak well but it's an interesting photo of the whole meeting, with a mix of Saudi representatives and US military officers milling around, plus two waiters.

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Here's an interesting cape. This one is obviously a copy of the US Army capes, with all the appropriate details, but it's made from a blue-grey wool. The tag dates is 1940 and was sourced from the Culver Military Academy. It's in mint condition, suggesting it never got much use. I'm guessing it was probably an instructor's garment.

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USN boat cloak owned by Eugene Davis, who became a naval aviatior in 1930. The uniform coats in the image are interesting since they each show different ranks, presumably as Davis was promoted over the years.

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