"So, a while back my mom sent me a couple of small, rectangular pieces of cloth with mermaids embroidered on them. I set them aside after admiring them for a bit, and forgot about them.
I recently learned that these little bits of cloth are called "liberty cuffs," which old-school Sailors used to sew into the inside of the cuffs on their Dress Blues. They'd flip the cuffs when out on liberty, since all Sailors had to wear Blues on liberty until the 1970s or so, when the Navy quit making Sailors wear Dress Blues on liberty. I had no idea!"
This instantly piqued my curiosity. As singers of Shanties and Maritime songs we learn a lot of history and tradition of the sea, but here was a tradition that I'd not come across before.
I delved into the interwebz to see what else I could find out about this tradition. The information is scarce, but here is the basic story.
Liberty Cuffs first appeared approximately the late 1890s. They were found all over but were most commonly made in Asian ports or may have been individually embroidered. The cuffs would be sewn inside the dress blues, using hidden stitching, so the uniform appeared regulation from the outside. As soon as the sailors were allowed to leave the ship and go on "Liberty" they would flip their sleeves or roll them up a little, displaying the Liberty Cuffs instead.
Common designs for the cuffs were Dragons, mermaids, Nautical themes such as Neptune, and various other designs.
In the late 1950s machine made mass produced Liberty Cuffs appeared but the cuffs started disappearing in the early 1970s when the lower pay grade, enlisted personnel were allowed to wear civvies from shipboard liberty.
Visit Navy Dress Blues, Taylor Mades and Liberty Cuffs for more information or to see pictures of many examples of Liberty Cuffs.