No, this post is not about the garment worn by religious orders to show membership. Back in the Medieval era, once an initiate passed a series of tests, he would be given a “frock” which was the garment worn by the “accepted” members of the order.
The archaic dictionary definition of “to frock” is “invest someone in a priestly order.” Over time, it came to mean one dressed in more spectacular clothing.
Back in 15th Century navies, one’s rank wasn’t always denoted by a collar device, a shoulder board, or a patch on one’s sleeve. It was often the quality or color or type of the coat one wore.
In the Continental Navy and the early years of the U.S. Navy, midshipmen wore a blue coat that came down to their hips over a white vest. Lieutenants and above wore frock coats that came down the back of their thighs. When a midshipman made lieutenant, he changed coats. Hence, one could say he was “frocked.”
To earn the lieutenant’s frock coat, the midshipman had to “sit for the lieutenant’s exam.” This meant that the young officer would sit in front of at least three captains who would grill him for two to three hours about seamanship, tactics, leadership, the articles of war, ship maintenance, and whatever else came to their minds.
At the end of the exam, the captains would vote on the fitness of the midshipman to become a lieutenant. If he passed, he would be given a lieutenant’s coat. Hence, moving from midshipman to lieutenant was a “big deal.”
Frocking was also part of the promotion process for higher ranks. As one rose in rank, there was more gold braid and color so with each promotion, the officer needed a new coat. Tradition called for the newly promoted to pass down his coats to those who have not yet been advanced.
There’s more to the story than just a change in coats. If the midshipmen who passed the lieutenant’s exam were deployed, the captain would note the board results in his log and send a letter to the Navy Department. For the letter to go to Washington and then back to the officer’s ship often took months, maybe even years.
As early as 1802, Navy regulations allowed for frocking, i.e., allowing officers to wear the insignia of the next higher rank after selection while the paperwork caught up with reality. Over time, the tradition has continued and evolved. Even the Bureau of Naval Personnel refers to the process as “frocking.”
Today, if one is a U.S. Navy officer, once the selection board has released its results, commanding officers are authorized to frock new selectees. Like everything else, there are rules on how it is done and some restrictions.
While the newly frocked individual wears the rank and can sign official documents using his new rank, he or she does not receive the pay for the new rank until a date of rank is issued. Nor does the frocked service member accrue time in grade for the new rank. And, if the frocked officer killed or injured, his survivor benefits are based on his actual rank.
Bottom line is that “frocking” is one of the many traditions of the Naval Service. Some of our sister services have adopted this practice, and to them, welcome aboard!
Continental Navy uniforms 1775 – 1783 courtesy of U.S. Navy Heritage and History Command.