This site contains information on the order of flags used when Royal Navy ships "Dressed Overall" on ceremonial occasions between 1889 and 2006. It is meant to show the results of my research into the subject as an interested amateur and should not be regarded as an"official" study.

There appear to be very few official files in existence. From 1898 to 1913 the Official Dress Diagrams were printed in the Fleet Signal Book. Sometime after WW1 they transferred to the Admiralty Reference Book OU Series then, about 1943, to the BR Series. I have not been able to locate any of the OU or BR series publications nor their diagrams.( They may be held in the Nat.Archives in Kew, UK.)

I have relied mostly on over 200 photos that show part or most of the patterns. Where possible I have compared them with the Official Diagrams of the pattern that I have and RN Flag Charts of the various periods. These patterns were also used by the RAN, RCN, and RNZN.

It should be pointed out that even though Official Patterns existed, some ships, particularly smaller craft, still made up their own patterns.

I would like to thank Miles McLaughlin for supplying so many photos from his collection. John Perryman of the R.A.N.Historical Section for his encouragement and locating numerous photos and old Signal Cards. Tony Lovell of the "Dreadnought Project" for supplying most of the the Admiralty Dressing Line Diagrams. The numerous people who kindly gave their time in what sometimes, for them, was a frustrating and fruitless search for information.



Care should be taken when trying to identify the colour of flags from black and white photos of ships up to the 1950s. Most of the black and white images of RN ships of that time seem to have been taken using Orthochromatic film.

If orthochromatic film was used, red for example, could appear darker than blue. A classic example is the Spanish Civil War neutrality stripes painted on the turrets of RN warships. Most black and white photos of RN ships show the dark color on the forward stripe and the lighter colour on the aft stripe - so you would think it was Blue nearest the bow and Red nearest the bridge. In fact the actual colors were Red forward and Blue aft.

A helpful way to check if the photo was taken using orthochromatic film is to compare, if visible, the tone of the red crosses on the Union Flag or the White Ensign with the tone of the blue background. (See photos below)

The red parts of the Union Jack shows up much darker than the blue background

The funnel stripes on a destroyer of the 3rd flotilla match the tone of the forward stripe on the turret. They appear to be blue but in fact were red.

The stripes on this French cruiser are actually Blue at the front and Red nearest the bridge
Another French cruiser this time shot on a B&W film that reproduces the tones correctly - Blue to the front and Red nearest the bridge




This means decorating a ship with flags from stem to stern. Usually these flags are permanently attached to lines called "Dressing Lines". Ships dress in the morning at "Colours" and undress again at sunset.

Ships underway do not dress overall. Those underway should dress with masthead ensigns only until clearing port.

When any dressing date falls on a Sunday the ships will dress overall but the salute will defer until the following day when ships will dress with masthead flags only.

Ships may also dress by order of the Senior Officer present when in the presence of a Royal or Imperial Standard or visits by Royalty or Imperial persons.
( Signalman's Handbook 1949)


FORE - DOWN: Runs from Bow to Foremast
FORE - MAIN: Runs from Foremast to Mainmast
MAIN - DOWN: Runs from Mainmast to Stern


Official Patterns commenced in 1889 and the order of flags for each pattern was set out in Admiralty publications issued to the ships.

There were four different time frames:

1889 to 1898 (Approx)
1899 to 1918 (Approx)
1919 (Approx )to 31st Dec 1948
1st Jan 1949 to Today


Obviously there are gaps in the information I have presented on this site. If anyone has any photos, diagrams, or other information that they could make available to add to the site I would be very grateful. I will return any photos etc. if requested.

Bruce Constable
April 2012
Email: hmasperth1(At)