Research - Uniforms

Uniforms serve a number of purposes. They identify a group of people as belonging to an organisation and they can create a bond between people. They can also have a functional purpose. Fire fighters’ everyday uniform has changed several times in the last three hundred years but traditionally uniforms were worn to impress. They were designed to be smart and to look like military uniforms. The first uniforms worn by the fire insurance company brigades were mainly decorative and not very practical.

Fire fighters have generally had two uniforms, one for everyday wear and one to wear when they are putting out fires.

Uniforms are generally made up of:

  • a helmet or cap
  • a tunic
  • breeches or trousers (fire fighters wear overtrousers today)
  • boots
  • a belt, sometimes with an axe.

Over the years helmets have been made out of brass, steel, cork, leather, thermoplastic and composite materials. Tunics have been made from wool but now are made from Nomex which was first used for racing drivers in the Grand Prix. It is light and strong and easy to wear. Early fire fighters wore velvet breeches but again more practical Nomex overtrousers are now worn.

Early uniforms
Initially uniforms were decorative rather than functional reflecting the livery of the different fire insurance companies. The fashion at the time (late 1600s and 1700s) was very elaborate with lots of lace, buttons and braid.

During the eighteenth century there were two types of tunic, one was tight fitting and worn buttoned up and the second was a full coat, worn open with a buttoned up waistcoat. Tunics were brightly coloured (red, blue, brown, green even yellow) to reflect the colours of the different fire insurance companies.

The uniforms were often highly decorated some with up to 56 buttons. Early buttons would have been plain but after 1750 buttons were cast in pewter and carried the company logo.

All firemen wore breeches until the 1800s when they wore trousers. The foreman or captain’s uniform was similar to that worn by ordinary fire fighters but was more elaborate with more braid and lace. The captain also wore a gilt badge which carried the company emblem.

Until the 1740s fire fighters wore buckled shoes. After this date some fire fighters were given leather boots.

The first fire fighters were recruited from Free Watermen who operated water taxis on the Thames. They made good part-time fire fighters because they were self-employed, reliable and they were used to working hard in difficult conditions. Many Watermen were ex-sailors.

In the 1800s a number of fire insurance brigades were brought together under the command of James Braidwood in Edinburgh to create the first municipal fire brigade. The firemen wore a standard uniform that consisted of a short double breasted tunic, based on the design of a naval midshipman’s jacket, white canvas trousers and a leather helmet which was designed by Braidwood himself. As more fire insurance companies merged together the uniforms became simpler and more functional.

1860 to 1940s
Between the 1860s and 1940s there were lots of different types of fire brigades. There were volunteers, parish council brigades, industrial, country-house, police-fire brigades and municipal and local authority brigades. All had different uniforms of different quality and standard. During these years there was a gradual trend towards standardisation. In 1866 the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in London was set up and this brigade had a huge influence on uniform design generally. They wore a blue double-breasted tunic, blue trousers made of waterproof cloth with black leather boots and a leather belt. They also wore a brass helmet. Many brigades adopted a variation of this uniform with a brass or leather helmet carrying the brigade’s emblem.

In the 1890s waterproof mackintoshes became available for use.

Buttons, epaulettes and helmets were a way to distinguish rank. Firemen generally had brass helmets and buttons, and officers had silver helmets and buttons. The buttons of municipal and volunteer brigades often had coats of arms, entwined initials or titles.

The tradition of brass and silver to distinguish rank is still in use today. Fire fighters wear yellow helmets but officers wear white helmets.

From around 1900, with the more widespread use of electricity in houses, many brigades changed from brass to leather and brass helmets to reduce risks of electric shocks to fire fighters.

The Second World War
In the late 1930s the government began to prepare for the Second World War by asking fire brigades to recruit auxiliary or volunteer fire fighters. By March 1939, 140,000 people had volunteered but government needed 350,000 volunteers.

It soon became obvious that the government would not be able to provide the traditional fire fighter’s helmet for such large numbers of volunteers, so they changed the design to a military-styled steel helmet. Officers wore a white helmet and a number of red bands depending on their rank.

But the ‘battle bowler’, as it became known, was adopted and worn until the end of the war.

The Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) firemen were initially given a peaked cap, overalls, rubber boots and a grey steel helmet. Later they were given a tunic, trousers and waterproof leggings.

The AFS were issued with one uniform but regular fire fighters had two uniforms so they always had one dry set of kit.

From the end of the war to the present day there have been a number of changes to the uniform.

Women in the fire service
Women began to be part of the fire service during the Second World War. They played a vital role helping the fire service in communications, as dispatch riders and as drivers.

In the 1950s and 60s fire women used to work in the control room and they wore a uniform that was very similar to that of the men.

The first female fire fighters joined the fire brigade in the 1980s. The first female fire fighters to join the Manchester Fire Service joined in the early 1990s. Absolutely no concessions were made to women in terms of uniform. They wore exactly the same clothing as men.

A good uniform
A good uniform should ‘be comfortable, allow perspiration to evaporate and air to circulate to keep the wearer cool, should protect the body from heat, be waterproof and look smart.’ Although modern fire fighters say one of the biggest problems is actually keeping warm and dry.

Different fabrics such as Nomex have helped to make uniforms more practical. Nomex was widely tested and it was decided that this was an ideal material for uniforms. In 1974 Nomex became the recommended material for uniform and was widely used for tunics and trousers. In the 1980s Nomex tunics were made longer and gabardine raincoats began to be replaced by anoraks. Waistcoat style reflective jackets, worn at road traffic collisions, were replaced by full over jackets with reflective strips. These reflective strips also began to appear on tunics.

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