During my visit this week to the artefacts collection at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth, I looked at three lifejackets from 1915, c.1950 and c.1970.
The earliest of these was patented at the beginning of WW1 and was more than a conventional lifejacket. This life saving device was designed and marketed at naval officers wishing to retain their standards of dress in the face of an emergency at sea. Beautifully tailored, lined and made from wool, the ‘Lifesaving Waistcoat’ concealed an inflatable ring that sat within a front pleat as a sort of peplum. If required, the waistcoat could be let out to accommodate the expanded buoyant ring thus saving the officer from drowning in the event of an attack over dinner.
Responsible for this design were the Royal Navy outfitters Gieves who, having started life in Portsmouth, later bought out Hawkes and Co. to become Gieves and Hawkes of Saville Row.
What I love about this particular example is the quality of the design. On close inspection, the craftsmanship of tailoring has not been compromised for the practicalities of lifesaving. Each section of the waistcoat has been cut from one piece of fabric; the pattern accommodating the fold that houses the inflatable ring.
1950 & 1970
In these later examples, the beauty lies in the fact that they are each highly representative of their respective eras. The 1950s life jacket is a sandy yellow in colour and retains a waistcoat shape much like that of a contemporary buoyancy aid. Unlike contemporary versions, there is much in the way of additional design features and the primary function of buoyancy was supported by front pockets with tie top tabs and a seemingly superfluous serpent-like row of stitching. The fact that this object was made with flourish despite its highly functional purpose is a warming discovery.
By 1970, the lifejacket had taken on an indisputably masculine identity. Step through webbing straps attached to additional items of protective clothing and the design had been streamlined into a jacket with a larger and presumably more effective, inflatable area. Lightweight nylon fabric had replaced waxed cotton in dulled orange and khaki and like the model from twenty years earlier, had limited visibility built into the design. Bulky pouches and pockets had been replaced by a single pocket that housed a whistle but detailing was still evident in the contrast stitching used to reinforce this area.