Just under 240 years ago, the classic Royal Mail red uniform was introduced, and now an exhibition looks at how the uniform has changed design over the centuries while always remaining recognisably the Royal Mail.
The exhibition starts with a sharp contrast between the original 1784 uniform, which was closer to a military jacket, and the modern, more relaxed look favoured by the staff who have to wear it. The formal jackets may look smarter, but they were in practice, pretty impractical to wear in Britain’s ever changeable weather.
This is the story the exhibition tells, how the uniforms slowly became more practical while also reflecting the changes in society itself.
You certainly wouldn’t have had Royal Mail maternity dresses, or saris, or turbans in the past, but, often after a bit of a fight, they’re now accepted elements of the modern attire worn by the postie.
Although initially introduced as a uniform for Mail Coach guards, it was later expanded slowly to the posties as well. There were also early problems with uniforms being, well, not that uniform in design in the early years, and often only a jacket and not much else.
A satirical cartoon mocks the scruffy trousers worn by posties who weren’t supplied with them, and that emerges as a bit of a trend, with the uniform sometimes only partial, with staff sometimes having to supply their own trousers or shorts.
And there were problems.
A magnificently terse letter here complains about attempts to use the EIIR cypher and the English Crown on uniform buttons in Scotland making it clear how unpopular that change to the uniform was.
These days, staff are far more involved in testing and designing new uniforms, but that wasn’t always the case, as a film about Jean Cameron, a woman who campaigned in 1941 to be allowed to wear trousers when delivering mail in the Scottish highlands. She was successful, and the trousers are still known as Camerons to this day.
As public facing representatives of the postal service, and someone who regularly knocks on people’s homes, there were quite strict rules about wearing the uniform correctly, and do read the staff poster about how to wear a uniform with a small insert for women which said “generally the same applies”.
Times have changed, fortunately.
Although the exhibition is filled with examples of old and progressively more modern uniforms, it’s very much the anecdotes next to the displays that offer fascinating insights into something many of us probably haven’t really thought about.
And the uniform keeps evolving – the current design is based very heavily on staff input. While it looks very casual at a glance, there’s a lot of clever thinking about making clothes suitable for the job without losing the Royal Mail identity.
They also come with a “dog peg pocket” for staff to carry a small “posting peg” to push the mail through letter boxes to avoid getting fingers bitten by the dog.
Centuries of change, and yet some things never change.
Like the best exhibitions, this one takes something familiar, the postie’s uniform, and shows it in a new light that we might never think about. You’ll certainly not look at the postie in quite the same way again when you see one out and about delivering the mail.
Adult (25+): £16 | Young person (16-24): £11 | Children: £9
The ticket includes unlimited access to the Postal Museum for one year from your visit and one ride on Mail Rail, valid on your first visit to the Museum.
You need to book in advance here.