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Dressed to Deliver: How postal workwear has changed over time

The latest temporary exhibition at The Postal Museum – Dressed to Deliver – opens this autumn.

By Corinne Galloway

An old black and white photo of two women dressed in postal uniform. One is holding a mirror and the other's face is reflected in it.
Photograph of the postwomen uniform, c.1929-1941 Royal Mail Group, courtesy of The Postal Museum

This autumn at The Postal Museum will see the opening of our latest temporary exhibition – Dressed to Deliver – which I have had the privilege to curate. 

Our collection is filled to thebrim with images, artefacts and stories about the history of postal uniforms, from smartly dressed Victorians in formal frockcoats to modern posties and their all-weather activewear. 

The iconic uniforms have helped make postal workers an iconic feature of life in the UK, but postal workers were not always so recognisable

Early postmen were known as Letter Carriers. Letters had to be paid for on delivery, which meant fraud was widespread with illegal carriers 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 General Post Office (GPO)employees.  

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

The first official uniform issued was for Mail Coach Guards in 1784 These guards delivered mail across the country by coach. 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 in a military style to elevate the importance of the wearer and of the GPO.  

An old style postal frock coat and a new one on museum stands. Both red.
Mail Coach Guard and Current Royal Mail Uniform. Photo courtesy of The Postal Museum

The colour red was also associated with Royalty, helping to emphasise legitimacy. 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.

Early identification may have cut down on fake Letter Carriers, but it did little to curb poor public opinion 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. 

However, 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 to standardise British postal uniforms.

In late 1960s the Post Office introduced a grey coloured uniform which was approved by Queen Elizabeth II. Despite the initial popularity, this bold grey look didn’t last long. By the mid-1980s Royal Mail had returned to the iconic blue and red colours for posties’ uniforms.   

Uniforms were also influenced throughout history by some pioneering staff including Sant Singh Shattar and Jean Cameron who fought for the rights of posties to wear clothing that met their needs.  

Three children dressed in postal uniform at the postal museum.
Postal dressup for children at The Postal Museum. Photo courtesy of The Postal Museum.

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.

Launching in 2021, Royal Mail’s Performance Range for staff who transport and deliver the post, 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.

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 The Postal Museum’s new special exhibition Dressed to Deliver from 18 October 2023 to find out more about postal uniforms over time.

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