Until 1817, U.S. diplomats designed their own uniforms. The Department of State officially created uniforms based on those worn by U.S. delegates to the Conference of Ghent in 1814 (above). The original uniforms consisted of a blue and gold embroidered coat, white breeches and stockings, a sword, and a cocked hat with a black cockade.
In 1829, the Jackson administration simplified the uniforms to a black coat with a gold star on each side of the collar, black or white breeches, a foldable tricorn hat, a black cockade and eagle, and a steel-mounted sword with white scabbard. The uniform was not mandatory. Some officials wore more eccentric outfits according to their personal taste.
Secretary of State William L. Marcy (at right) issued a circular in 1853 suggesting that U.S. diplomats wear the “simple dress of an American Citizen.” It was foreign governments that preferred accredited diplomats to wear a uniform at formal occasions. Congress then temporarily banned uniforms altogether in 1867 due to the rather showy nature of some of the individualized outfits. Some diplomats felt uncomfortable with the lack of a uniform, feeling underdressed when attending official functions.
A circular released in 1893 reaffirmed that the uniforms should be worn for “visits of ceremony… and on all proper occasions.” The decision to wear the uniform was left to the judgment and needs of the diplomat.
Ambassador Larz Anderson (at right), ambassador to Belgium in 1911, made his uniform quite elaborate. It included a navy coat with gold detailing on the chest, collar, and cuffs. His ornate jacket had long tails, he wore a feathered hat, and he carried a sword.
There was a time when diplomats wore a modified U.S. Navy uniform. Then, in 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order stating that “no person in the diplomatic or consular service should wear a uniform or official costume not previously authorized by Congress.” Congress had never authorized uniforms, though; diplomatic uniforms are no longer used today. There has been talk about reintroducing uniforms for Foreign Service Officers for formal events and presentations. A suggestion has been another modified U.S. Navy uniform. This would require Congress to pass a law, though, given language in the Foreign Service Act of 1946, which stipulates that “no officer or employee of the Foreign Service is to wear any uniform except such as may be authorized by law.”
The diplomatic uniform seen below, now on display in the A-100 classroom for entering Foreign Service officers and on loan from ADST, belonged to John Campbell White, who wore it in 1915-16 when he was Second Secretary in the U.S. Legation in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg, Russia). The Diplomatic and Consular Services were not unified until the Rogers Act of 1924. This, then, was most likely a diplomatic, rather than a consular, uniform as it had gold embroidery while consular uniforms had silver. Note the impressive saber handle (now that would be fun to wear at cocktail parties!)