The Navy Sailors’ Service Dress Blue and Service Dress White uniforms wouldn’t be complete without their iconic neckerchief. The uniform changed throughout the years, but the neckerchief consistently remained. Even Popeye the Sailor knew it was an essential part of their attire, but what is it really for?

Neckerchief’s True Purpose

World War I U.S. Navy Dress Blue Uniform of Frank C. Mitchell. Includes tunic, trousers, hat, neckerchief, and knit watch cap. Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, via Wikimedia Commons

The neckerchief was a 36-inch square made of plain black silk or synthetic fabric. It was first used in the 16th century, originally a “sweat rag.” This sweat rag protected the soldiers’ necks from rubbing on the stiff collars of their uniforms, and sometimes, they would tie it around their forehead instead. The silk allows for fast drying but is also effective in keeping the wearer warm during cold weather. It was black so that the dirt wouldn’t show. I mean, who wants to wear a dirty-looking neckerchief all day? It is also claimed that the sailors chose the color to mourn for the death of British Admiral Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, although there was no proof of that.

This could also be used as a bandage to a wound or as a tourniquet to prevent blood loss in an emergency.

Square Knot

Square Knot. Photo from The Salute Uniforms

The Navy wanted their neckerchiefs to be tied the same way, so, in 1817, the square knot was introduced. This seemingly minor detail is important as it represents the hardworking tradition of the Navy. In fact, during inspections, it is one of the things being observed by the NCOs doing these inspections and it has to be done perfectly to pass. According to My Navy HR, this is the correct way of tying a neckerchief:

Fold diagonally from corner to corner and roll continuously to the end. Wear the rolled neckerchief with a large square knot, tied at the bottom of the V-neck opening of the jumper, with ends of the neckerchief even. Cheater knots are not authorized. The upper edge of the knot should be even at the point where the collar opens.

If you are having trouble picturing the instructions, they also have an illustration:

How to properly tie a neckerchief. My Navy HR/U.S. Navy