It’s Navy Day in Russia on the last Sunday in July and if there’s one thing that springs to mind when you think about Russian sailors, it’s the distinctive striped vest that’s part of their uniform.
Interestingly, the origins of this striped garment have nothing to do with Russia: it was actually first seen on Russian soil worn by Dutch sailors on the merchant ships that docked in the White Sea ports of Kholmogory and Arkhangelsk in the 17th century. It’s also associated with France, of course, popularised by the French Navy after they’d seen it worn by Breton fishermen. In Russia, merchant seamen began to sport the distinctive shirt in the 1840s, having swapped or purchased them while docked in Western European ports. Known as the telnyashka, it became part of the Russian naval uniform in 1874 when the Grand Duke and Admiral Konstantin Nikolayevich Romanov decreed its formal adoption.
These days, this striped undershirt is worn under the jacket of not only the Russian Navy but also other branches of the country’s armed forces. All that’s different is the colour used for the stripes. Typically, a black stripe indicates the Naval Infantry (Marines) while dark blue signifies the Navy. A version with light blue stripes is worn by the VDV, Russia’s Airborne Troops (Paratroopers), while light green is associated with border guards. The colour might vary, but its commonly agreed that the comfort and practicality of the garment is as good for everyone.
Some say that the horizontal stripes create the illusion of there being more troops or sailors than in reality, though this can’t be formally proven. It is documented, however, that Soviet sailors and marines fighting in the Second World War were nicknamed the “Striped Devils” by their German opponents. So the saying goes: “Нас мало, но мы в Tельняшках!” Roughly translated, it means “There aren’t many of us, but we are wearing telnyashkas!”
Unlike some items of uniform, you’ll be pleased to hear that there’s no rule saying that civilians can’t wear these distinctive vests and T-shirts. Both winter and summer weight garments are available and are very popular both for their stylish design and their practical qualities. Will you be wearing one this month? Which colour will you choose?