“We don’t do this to wear fancy embroidery” – Why uniforms are important

Whether on a ship or an airplane, an officer’s uniform immediately shows everyone who’s in charge. This is especially important – and can even be a matter of life or death – in emergency situations. What’s more, uniforms strengthen the sense of cohesion on board and make their wearers proud to be part of a particular company.

Arnold Lipinski can still remember what it felt like to put on his new blue uniform for the first time, the one of a chief officer at Hapag-Lloyd with two golden stripes on its sleeve. He was “a bit proud” back then, as he modestly puts it. But you can hear in his voice that it marked a milestone in his career.

Today, Lipinski is Head of Marine Personnel at Hapag-Lloyd and responsible for the crews of the 112 containerships in the company’s fleet. After starting off as a deck boy at Hapag-Lloyd, he climbed the ladder to become a master. “I still have my captain’s uniform,” says Lipinski, who has been wearing civilian clothes to his job on the Ballindamm since 2001. This shows just how valuable such uniforms are for almost all their owners.

The dress code on board container- and cruise ships as well as on airplanes is still based on early naval uniforms with their often golden insignia. They aim to foster a sense of cohesion, to make their wearers proud and, most importantly, to signal authority and command – especially to outsiders – in a way that is clearly visible to all. “A good captain or officer doesn’t need any stripes to assert himself internally in his role on board,” Lipinski says. “But it’s important to clearly show external individuals who calls the shots.”

What’s more, a uniform often also has an unconscious effect on the person wearing it. “A uniform makes it easier to identify with your function or even with your company,” says Elisabeth Hackspiel-Mikosch, a professor of fashion theory. And, as Lipinski explains, “We don’t do this to wear face embroidery. We do it to represent Hapag-Lloyd.”

For this reason, there have been clearly defined clothing regulations on all Hapag-Lloyd vessels for a long time. “We want our officers and ratings to be clearly recognisable as Hapag-Lloyd employees,” Lipinski continues. “Uniforms are always supposed to be worn in port and pilotage areas, when pilots are on board. Appropriate attire is expected when eating and in the mess room.” In return, Hapag-Lloyd foots the bill for the uniforms of everyone on board.  

The picture shows Arnold Lipinski (third from left) in between other active captains from Hapag-Lloyd at the traditional captain's day in Bremen

A major conversion process is currently underway at Hapag-Lloyd. Around 290 officers and 475 employees (ratings) sailing on ships formerly owned by UASC, the Dubai-based shipping company acquired by Hapag-Lloyd in 2017, are being newly outfitted from head to toe. “Many of them were still running around deck wearing overalls with ‘UASC’ or some other company’s name on the back,” Lipinski explains. “We don’t want that, as we want to show everyone that we are one in Hamburg and Dubai.” The crews are now being gradually outfitted with safety shoes, hearing protection, T-shirts and three pairs of Hapag-Lloyd overalls. In addition to strengthening their sense of belonging, the work clothes are also supposed to offer a mandatory safety standard.

Things get a bit more complicated when a Hapag-Lloyd officer is completely outfitted “with the blue uniform and distinctive cap” from scratch. And it’s expensive, too. In fact, Lipinski says that completely outfitting a new officer costs the company about €1,100. And more money flows into a so-called “uniform account” every month. The higher-ups at sea have to use these funds to replace any parts of their uniform that are subject to wear – and sometimes to get completely new uniforms, as well. According to fashion professor Hackspiel-Mikosch, the cap in particular ensures that “you can tell from a distance who you’re dealing with”.

When it comes to designing and procuring its uniforms, Hapag-Lloyd relies on tradition. “The uniforms have hardly changed in several decades,” Lipinski says. “Only the emblems and epaulettes have been modified here and there.” Officers on European commercial vessels have been wearing standardised uniforms since about 1918. The British were the first to do so. The goal was to be able to clearly distinguish between passengers and ship personnel at a time when there was a booming passenger shipping industry. What’s more, shoulder epaulettes, golden stripes on jacket sleeves, and hat insignia made the responsibilities of the various crew members visible at a glance. Since this boosted efficiency on board, the owners of European commercial vessels soon introduced such uniforms on their own ships.

Hapag-Lloyd’s very traditional uniforms are still usually ordered from one of the oldest suppliers in Hamburg. In 1875, the merchant Hehl and the master tailor Steinmetz began selling maritime uniforms and clothing in the Port of Hamburg directly from a barge on their own quay. Steinmetz + Hehl has been supplying uniforms to Hapag-Lloyd for decades, says Dagmar Erren, the company’s current head, who proudly adds “and to most other Hamburg-based shipping companies”. And it goes without saying that the female officers and captains on board Hapag-Lloyd ships are outfitted with appropriate service uniforms.

In Dubai, a local supplier has been found to provide officers there with their uniforms. The supplier was provided with sample uniforms from Hamburg, and had to guarantee to reproduce the colour, fit and quality of the Trevira wool fabric before the order was placed. This is very important to Hapag-Lloyd’s executives in Hamburg. As Andy Warhol once said, “People in uniform always look so great.”  

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