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Uniforms, Military


UNIFORMS, MILITARY. The American model for uniform military dress is derived from concepts in tactics

and weaponry introduced into European armies in the mid-seventeenth century. Uniforms became a vital element in these new European national standing armies with large numbers of soldiers. Brightly colored, distinctive uniforms made soldiers recognizable on crowded and smoke-filled battle fields. Equally important, uniforms shaped actions and habits, imposing a discipline that transformed individual strength into collective power in these modern, permanently mobilized armies. Uniforms embodied a hierarchy of organization within the military and overt political references outside of it.

Styles of uniforms did not change as often as civilian fashion until late in the twentieth century. The military wardrobe expanded to accommodate a larger, modern, and less-isolated armed force with styles often indistinguishable from civilian casual dress. Distinctive military features have been sustained over long periods, however, or have reappeared in tribute to the heritage of the population from which the armies are drawn. Epaulettes, for example, were first used on army and navy uniforms to attach a shoulder belt for a sword or a bugle and to protect the shoulder while carrying a musket. Later they were decorated with rank or service insignia. Now epaulettes are used primarily for ceremonial dress. Shoulder boards with rank insignia are a derivation of epaulettes and are a feature of most contemporary uniforms. Likewise, horizontal rows of braid on the chests of the uniform coats of West Point cadets, band uniforms, and other "full dress" uniforms descend from the Hungarian national costume via Hungarian Hussars serving with the Austrian army in the late-seventeenth century.

In America, when pre-revolutionary militia units and the independent volunteer companies wore uniforms, they wore British uniforms. British and French officers garrisoned in colonial America often followed the example of Native Americans and colonial irregulars like Rogers' Rangers, wearing indigenous clothing such as fringed shirts, moccasins, leggings, cocked hats (with brims later swept up to become bicorns and tricorns), and deerskin trousers. American Indian feather headdresses may have inspired the striking Scots Highlanders' feather bonnet that appeared when the Highlanders were serving in colonial America. The frontier style, worn by some American forces through the War of 1812, introduced features that would later emerge in post–Civil War martial wear: the buckskin coats of George Armstrong Custer and his officers; the Indian Scout uniform that in the late nineteenth century combined traditional Indian leggings and moccasins with regulation army uniform items; and at the turn of the twentieth century leggings and puttees, precursors of World War II paratrooper boots.

From 1776 until late in the nineteenth century, standard uniforms for American armed forces followed the styles of European uniforms. Blue uniforms, British in appearance, were officially designated for the American army during the Revolutionary War, and blue remained the national American uniform color for more than a century. The American navy and marine services, like virtually all maritime services, followed a tradition set early by the British navy, issuing dark blue winter apparel and white summer apparel. Unlike the army, which authorized special summer wear only intermittently before the twentieth century, from the start the navy had separate winter and summer clothing. Naval uniforms were formally regulated in the late nineteenth century.

The colorful close-fitting jackets, tight trousers, and outsized headwear of the Napoleonic style of military uniform swept Europe in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Although subdued in American uniforms, the Napoleonic influence is evident in the design, if not the color, of the first West Point uniform in 1816 and of American uniforms during the half century that followed.

Another colorful French contribution to military apparel, the Zouave uniform, reached America in the mid-nineteenth century. First adopted by French colonial soldiers in North Africa in the 1830s, the popular costume with balloon trousers and cropped jacket quickly spread worldwide. In the Civil War, dozens of Zouave units fought for and against the Union. Most Union soldiers wore an unstructured sack coat modeled after fashionable informal civilian jackets, foreshadowing modern American uniforms. Worn with the celebrated French-styled forage cap or kepi, sack coats were the comfortable and

popular predecessors of the fatigue and multiple-function uniforms of the expanding armed forces in America.

Women's uniforms also appeared during the Civil War. Dorothea Dix's appointment to superintendent of women nurses, charged with organizing and overseeing nurses in military hospitals, extended official sanction to women's age-old support role in the military. Dix immediately issued directives for nurses to dress uniformly in brown or black frocks with no adornment or hoops, following a standard set by Florence Nightingale little more than a decade earlier. Civil War veterans proudly wore their wartime uniforms at regular reunions until the uniforms of organized veterans' associations became popular. By the late nineteenth century, versions of military uniforms were worn in many veteran, quasi-military, and fraternal organizations, as well as in some women's associations and drill corps.

Still strongly influenced by the smart, tight uniforms of European armies, the army uniform of the 1870s and 1880s was Prussian in appearance. It was topped by a version of the famous 1840s Russian-Prussian spiked helmet, the pickelhaube, that projected the aura of military repression in America it had already gained in Europe.

The U.S. Army first wore khaki military uniforms in the Spanish-American War. Olive drab service uniforms followed in 1902, standardizing colors and styles that would change only superficially during the twentieth century. While blue remained the general color of navy uniforms and the primary color of army dress uniforms, the new drab-colored field uniforms represented a concession to the increased range of modern small arms and the greater battlefield visibility afforded by weapons using smokeless powder.

By the mid-twentieth century, patterned camouflage field uniforms obscured soldiers from the air as well as on land. More recently, camouflage uniforms have been worn by military men and women for fatigue dress and by civilians for hunting and casual wear. U.S. Army Captain Anson Mills developed woven webbing that was used during the early twentieth century for wear with khaki uniforms as waist and cartridge belts. It shortly became integral to military field wear, transforming the way a wide range of military and civilian equipment was safely attached—parachute straps, belts and straps for sports equipment, automobile seat belts, infant car seats, and others.

Patriotism, progressivism, and a widespread concern for military preparedness at the beginning of the twentieth century triggered a proliferation of civilian organizations in which members, women and men, wore uniforms with overt military features. The wearing of uniforms reached its apogee during World War I. Women volunteers officially served in the armed forces for the first time in World War I; the uniforms authorized for them by the War Department closely resembled those worn by women volunteers in the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, YMCA, YWCA, and the many other secular and religious groups that participated in war service.

New technologies spurred innovation in the development of fabrics and more practical uniforms used during World War II. A variety of special-function and field uniforms were introduced for ground troops, the army air corps, paratroopers, and mountain units. These included layered uniforms suitable for widely varied climates, special jungle boots, and cotton olive drab fatigues and coveralls. This trend continued through the late twentieth century with highly specialized apparel for special forces, high-altitude pilots, and astronauts, along with more new materials—kevlar helmets, lightweight moisture-wicking fabrics, high-tech footwear, and more.

At the start of the twenty-first century, standard military uniforms have become more casual. Military apparel retains drab colors even as it expands into the realm of civilian casual wear. Undress uniforms serve for duty and off-duty, while dress and service uniforms are less frequently worn.


Abler, Thomas S. Hinterland Warriors and Military Dress: European Empires and Exotic Uniforms. New York: Berg, 1999.

Mollo, John. Military Fashion. New York: Putnam, 1972.

Roche, Daniel. The Culture of Clothing: Dress and Fashion in the "Ancien Régime." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.


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