BRITAIN’S NEW AMBASSADOR TO THE HOLY SEE, Her Excellency Sally Axworthy, presented credentials in 2016 wearing a specially designed diplomatic uniform for female ambassadors. Diplomatic uniforms are a rarity these days, but the Vatican is one of the few postings where envoys are expected to wear full diplomatic dress for formal occasions.

Anne Leahy, former Canadian ambassador to the Holy See, recalls that every January in the Sala Regia of the Apostolic Palace, the Pope presents his foreign policy statement to Ambassadors. British Ambassador Axworthy shines in her uniform but has competition. It is one of those rare moments where formal or national dress with full decorations is in order, and the diplomatic corps fills the scene with sashes and ribbons of all colours. The Canadian Ambassador, Anne Leahy informs, cuts a rather modest but dignified figure in such company.

Diplomatic uniforms have a long history, as long as diplomacy itself. Around 1500 BCE, the Hittites exchanged what came to be known as diplomats with the Canaanites and Jebusites essentially on case-by-case bases, to negotiate interstate agreements and treaties. Indeed, the diplomatic term “protocol”, in its early incarnation, represented the introduction to a treaty from the Greek prōtokollon or “first sheet glued onto a manuscript”. The concept of swapping representatives evolved over the centuries until the profession became more institutionalized in northern Italy in the 13th century. The first live-in or permanent representative occurred when Spain assigned a full-time representative to the Court of England in the late 15th century. By the late 1600s, diplomats comprised a network of permanent outposts, first across Europe, then through Central Europe and to Russia. Diplomats were traditionally drawn from nobility or the aristocracy in order to confer an element of legitimacy on their negotiating enterprises. As such, the clothing worn by those practising this opulent lifestyle was finely tailored, of rich textiles and silks and exotic designs, drawn from the courtly fashions of life surrounding their respective monarchies.

Her Excellency Sally Axworthy wearing the specially designed diplomatic uniform for Britain’s female ambassadors.

And then a spanner in the works: the French Revolution (1789) with its Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité calling card, cast its influence on the diplomatic profession. Folks drawn from the ranks of commoners moved in on the conduct of French diplomacy and the matter of fancy clothing was no longer seen as de rigueur. It was around this time that diplomatic uniforms were conceived – like school uniforms, good quality but all the same, representing significant cost-savings and the sparing of stylistic imagination.

The custom of dressing diplomats in standardized livery spread through Europe around 1800 and later to non-European nations such as the Ottoman Empire and Japan. Swanky hats (bicornes with feathery adornments) and tailcoats with braiding became universal. Even consular staff had uniforms though less ornate.

Fashion conscious diplomats began to compete with each other by affixing all manner of add-ons, knee-breeches, patent-leather pumps with silver buckles, ceremonial swords and gold braiding of complex intertwinement.

Staff of the Canadian Legation in Tokyo, Japan (1929). From left to right: Kenneth Kirkwood, Hugh Keenleyside, The Honourable Herbert Marler, and Mr. J.A. Langley. Makita Kogabo, Ueno / Library and Archives Canada / PA-120407 rs.

Janice Cavell of GAC’s historical division advises that diplomatic uniforms were worn by Canadian officials, when conditions called for it, up until the second world war. Canadian tunics were dark blue with gold embroidery, sometimes covering the entire chest area as depicted in the photographs, one showing colleague Sir Herbert Marler, then envoy to Japan. The uniforms that Canadian diplomats formerly wore were based on the British court uniform and were sometimes accompanied by knee breeches, or occasionally, with trousers that had stripes down the sides.

American diplomats in contrast tended to stick to evening dress (white tie and tails), which was considered “Non-U” by many if sported in daylight hours.

Former Chief of Protocol of Canada, Rick Kohler, informs that dress code for new ambassadors to Canada, when presenting credentials to the Governor General, consisted in the 1990s of formal tail-coat/striped pants attire. Today, it is less formal – business attire or national dress is all that is required.

Russia’s Peter the Great introduced civil and military uniforms in the 18th century as part of his transformation of Russia. Uniforms are still important today. In Foreign Affairs Minister Lavrov’s words, they reflect recognition of service and pride of those who wear them. Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MID) diplomats have worn the uniform since the 19th century. There are three versions: dress, work and travel. The Soviet diplomatic uniform was fixed during WWII, and the current modern one by decree of President Putin in 2001 – no small matter! Anne Leahy, a former ambassador to Russia, shares a special recollection dating back to 1992, of a Soviet/Russian Ambassador in uniform at the levée of the President of Cameroon. It took place about two weeks after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Russian Ambassador’s rather drab blue military-like suit paled in comparison with the flamboyant livery of the British Ambassador. 

Like the specially tailored diplomatic uniform fashioned for British Ambassador, Her Excellency Sally Axworthy, in 2016, some foreign service organizations maintain the practice for special, ceremonial occasions. And remnants continue to prosper in other domains, an example being the Académie Française that goes back to the mid-17th century. These 40 “Immortals” who protect the integrity of the French language to this day wear what is called l’Habit Vert consisting of a long black coat, a bicorne hat with black feathers, and covered all over with lush green embroidery in the shape of leaves.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, wearing the modern Russian diplomatic uniform, congratulates diplomatic service officials on the occasion of their professional holiday in 2007
Vincent Massey in diplomatic uniform, 1927

Probably one of the best known Canadian diplomatic uniforms was that allegedly worn by His Excellency Vincent Massey. “Allegedly” because there is no proof that the uniform discovered in a cedar chest in the attic at the Canadian residence by Glen Bullard – a Canadian, locally engaged, who worked at the embassy in Washington, DC for 48 years (1966 to 2014) – was actually Mr. Massey’s. Glen made the find in the late 1960s while Ed Ritchie was ambassador, but the uniform stayed there until Glen was showing newly-arrived ambassador Derek Burney around the residence’s holdings. When he saw the uniform, he determined it should take pride of place, mounted in the lobby of the Ambassador’s sixth-floor reception area. When Ambassador Burney left, it was relocated to the embassy’s theatre lobby, until wear and tear regrettably relegated it to a return journey to storage in the Chancery basement.

Anyone wishing to look into more detail surrounding diplomatic uniforms – there is plenty of reference material on library and Amazon bookshelves – a special gem is Uniforms of the World, published in 1929 by Fred Gilbert Blakeslee.

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