Dressed to Deliver: How postal workwear has changed over time

From smartly dressed Victorians in formal frockcoats to modern posties and their all-weather activewear, uniforms have helped make postal workers an iconic feature of life in the UK.

Before uniform: early identification  

Early postmen were known as Letter Carriers. They would call on houses for mail deliveries and collections. Letters had to be paid for on delivery so identifying who was an official carrier of the mail was important.

Fraud was widespread with illegal carriers delivering mail and collecting the money for themselves. In 1728 the Post Office issued brass tokens to Letter Carriers. Bearing the King’s Arms, these tokens identified them as official Post Office employees, helping to identify who was a legal Letter Carrier.  

Front of the badge

This desire for easy, public identification of official Post Office employees drove the introduction of uniform and remains a key reason behind uniform today.  

Building a brand  

The first official uniform issued by Royal Mail in 1784 was for Mail Coach Guards. These guards were the only official Post Office employees aboard coaches delivering mail across the country. Their job was to protect the post from highwaymen and represent the company and its new service. The guard’s uniform was a key part of this. Made up of a gold braided scarlet coat with blue lapels and black top hat with a gold band it was designed to show the strength and importance of the wearer and of the General Post Office (GPO).  

Mail Guard’s Frockcoat (2010-0079)

The frockcoat is bold and militaristic in style. It mirrors the style and colour of British soldier’s uniform at the time, helping to project an image of power. The colour red was also associated with Royalty, helping to emphasise the legitimacy of the GPO service. Mail Coach Guards were also issued with a type of gun known as a blunderbuss, and a timepiece to ensure they kept to their delivery schedule.  

Although the Mail Coach Guard had disappeared by the 1850s, the colour red has remained part of the Post Office’s, and later Royal Mail’s brand. The colour has featured in almost every postal uniform, from red piping on Victorian posties trousers, to bright red polo shirts and jackets today.  

Trust on the doorstep

Early identification may have cut down on fake Letter Carriers, but it had done little to curb bad behaviour and poor public opinions of the real ones. By the late 1700s people were concerned about unprofessional behaviour such as visiting alehouses whilst on duty, skipping work and mishandling the mail. So, in 1793, the Post Office decided to issue uniforms to London Letter Carriers. They hoped uniform would build public trust by making them more recognisable and responsible. 

Like the Mail Coach Guards, the first uniform for Letter Carriers was very formal and included a scarlet coat and a top hat.  

As the postal services grew, other postal workers were given their own uniforms. Red frockcoats were hard to keep clean, so by 1860 Letter Carriers were issued with a blue coat and trousers. By 1872, uniforms had been issued to all Letter Carriers, not just those in London, making the entire delivery force instantly identifiable.  

Letter Carrier Frockcoat (2010-0479)

A Uniform For Every Role

After the introduction of the Penny Black stamp in 1840, the Post Office grew at a rapid rate. More letters were sent than ever before and new services were introduced – such as the parcel post and telegrams. With this expansion came a variety of new jobs, many with their own unique uniforms.  

For example, the River Postman had their own uniform. Similar in style to the Mail Coach Guard’s uniform, the River Postman’s uniform consisted of a full skirted frock coat, with a military-style collar and in the same colour palate of scarlet, navy and gold.  

A very formal, bright red 'frock coat', worn by Postmen. It has dark red, velvet cuffs and collar, and gold buttons down the middle and up the sleeves. The bottom is quite frilly, almost like the hem of a dress.

Frock coat typically worn by the River Postman, c.1800

By the 1890s decisions about which staff were issued with which uniform items had become disorganised and confusing. 

To deal with this, the Committee on Uniform Clothing was created in 1908. They produced a report standardising British postal uniforms by creating six ‘Classes’. These groups were based on the job responsibilities and hours worked.  

Introduced in 1910, the new system allowed the Post Office to ensure a consistent look across the uniform range, whilst also providing specialised clothing and accessories to those that needed them.  

The River postman frockcoat was replaced by a combination of different items from the standard uniform with a modified heavy overcoat to keep them warm and dry. This remained the case until role of the river postman came to an end when the service was ended in the 1950s. Other specialist roles, such as Telegram Messenger Boys continued to have a specialist uniform, albeit one that looked similar to the main posties uniform.  

Uniforms of various Post Office employees

Staying in Style 

Over time, the look of the local postie has shifted with the changing fashions. The sight of a formal frockcoat and top hat wouldn’t get the same reaction from the public today as it did back in the 1800s. Updating the designs of uniforms has been an important way for Royal Mail and the Post Office to tell the public that they are a modern and reliable service.  

From the early days of the Mail Coach Guard and the Victorian Letter Carriers, the classic colours of blue and red continued to feature across posties uniforms until the late 1960s when the Post Office introduced a grey coloured uniform for its posties.  

Designed to be both fashionable and hardwearing the uniform range featured a flared grey A-line skirt and a loose jacket for women. There was also an optional beret. Postmen’s jackets changed  also changed from a double breasted, to single breasted jacket. 

Summer Uniform Promotional Image 1979 POST POST 61/100 Royal Mail Group

Changing from blue to grey uniforms was considered so big that that Queen Elizabeth II had to approve it. Despite the approval and initial popularity, this bold grey look didn’t last long. By the mid-1980s Royal Mail had dropped the grey, returning to the iconic blue and red colours for posties uniforms.   

Meeting The Needs of the Worker

The role of the postal worker is often a perilous task. They work in all weathers, facing rain, sleet, snow, and heat. They also need to be easily identified and seen, especially in the dark. Postal workers handle heavy mail and packages which can strain their bodies. They may also encounter safety risks like tripping hazards or dog attacks.  

Over the years, hat designs have evolved from part of a formal look that offered little protection to one that is part of uniform designed to better protect workers from the elements.  

Early uniforms saw Letter Carriers in top hats, reflecting the ordinary daily dress for men at the time. These looked smart and fashionable but offered limited protection from the rain and sun. Over time top hats were replaced by a single-peaked Shako, a military style hat with a straight glazed peak at the front. Made of serge wool, it offered some protection against the elements. 

Double-Peaked Shako (2009-0390)

However, its flawed design led to complaints of rain running down the back of postmen’s necks. Following complaints from posties, an updated version was issued in 1896 with an extra peak to stop this.  

This popular hat lasted until the late 1920s, eventually phased out and replaced by a flat cap. Lighter than the Shako, this cap had a stiff brim at the front that offered more protection from the rain and helped workers see in bight sunshine.  

Delivery by bicycle, Llanberis Pass, Snowdonia, Wales, 1988 (POST 118/CT00160) Royal Mail Group

This hat was eventually replaced by a range of hats designed to meet different needs of postal workers including baseball caps, and knitted ‘beanie’ hats. In 2008, Royal Mail introduced a summer hat. This hat not only provides protection from the rain, but its wide brim was also designed to provide protection from the sun by creating shading from the face and neck.  

Summer hat (2022-0622)

The change towards more inclusive and protective postal uniforms has been gradual. Since the introduction of the first uniforms, workers and postal unions have collaborated with Post Office, and later Royal Mail, to make sure they were kept safe and comfortable in all conditions. Pioneering staff such as Sant Singh Shattar and Jean Cameron have also fought for the rights of posties to wear clothing that meets their needs.  

Fit For The Future?

Modern uniforms are designed to meet the needs of the many different roles that postal workers perform: transporting, sorting, and delivering the mail to millions of customers all over the country. 

In 2018, Royal Mail decided to change their staff uniform for the first time in a decade. 

Competing with a host of new delivery companies, they wanted to renew their image as a modern reliable service. After testing and trialling, the new uniform range was launched in 2021. It is available in two versions: ‘Performance’ for staff who transport and deliver the post; and ‘Endurance’ for staff who work in offices, processing and sorting the mail. 

Royal Mail’s Performance Range takes inspiration from outdoor and sports clothing designed for activities such as walking. The range features a flexible layering system of clothing such as base layers, polo tops and gilets. This allows each postie to adapt the uniform to their own needs. 

Current Uniform Range, 2022, Royal Mail Group

The work of a postie today is very different to the Letter Carriers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. With the rise of parcel delivery and the decline of traditional letters their job continues to change. Just as frockcoats gave way to suits and ties, this activewear may be replaced in the future as the postal service adapts to face new challenges.  

Visit our temporary exhibition Dressed to Deliver from 18 October 2023 to find out more about postal uniforms over time.