The United States provides clothing to enlisted members of the armed forces, while officers outfit themselves. Although tradition remains central, uniforms constantly evolve: cost, efficiency, fashion, comfort, and critical materials all affect pattern and use.
Although the U.S. Army is the oldest service, its uniforms include some of the newest. They reflect frequent changes in mission, logistics, and public opinion. During the Revolutionary War, blue was chosen as the primary color for the uniforms of Continental army soldiers, in contrast to British red and Royal French white. In the eighteenth century, the American soldiers' blue coats had button‐back lapels and cuffs forming contrasting facings, adapted from gentleman's attire by European armies, with artillery yellow or infantry white metal buttons and lace and crossed white shoulder belts to attach cartridge box and bayonet. The influence in the next century of Napoleonic warfare reduced the coat with a cut‐in skirt and exchanged the three‐cornered or cocked hat for a cap (shako), on which metal branch insignia appeared in 1832.
Sky blue trousers replaced white to avoid the winter mud, and the French full‐skirt frock coat with black ac coutrements added branch colors by 1851. During the Civil War, the Union forces continued to wear blue, but the Confederate forces chose gray, the economical color of state units and West Point since 1816. From the Union army, the blue sack‐coat fatigue blouse and French for‐age cap emerged as postwar duty wear, with officers adding the national eagle to their caps in 1895, and moving branch insignia to their collars, along with “U.S.” for the regular army.
In 1902, need for a seasonal service uniform and enhanced concealment from rapid and smokeless‐rifle fire led to field uniforms of cotton khaki and wool olive drab, limiting army blue to dress uniforms only. The forage cap became the service cap, and the blouse became the pocketed service coat, worn with pegged breeches, leggings, and russet footwear.
World War I added the colorful shoulder‐sleeve insignia, British‐pattern steel helmet, and French pocket‐size overseas or garrison cap. Britain shared the belt created and named for one‐armed Gen. Sam Browne and the contrasting‐shade officer uniform, “pinks and greens.”
World War II G.I.s had the M‐1 steel helmet and liner, cargo pocket “fatigues,” parachute‐jumper combat boots, and the olive drab‐7 cotton M‐1943 field jacket with its layering arrangement.
Beginning in 1956, Army Green‐44 replaced olive drab, while seasonal khaki lasted until 1985. The 1946 Doolittle Board ended distinctive officer and enlisted uniforms, and the 1949 Uniform Board separated garrison from field uniforms. Black accessories now matched the other services, and a black trouser stripe, with gold chin strap and visor cap embroidery, identified officers. The Cold War saw starched olive green‐107 fatigues, with name tapes and US ARMY added by 1954. Tropical combat clothing with subdued insignia was adopted for the Vietnam War. A military beret in green distinguished the Special Forces by 1961, followed by ranger black in 1975, and airborne maroon in 1980.
Navy uniforms, which vary in cut according to rank, resemble the dress of other seafarers rather than any national identity. Their dark blue and summer white reflects British influence. Traditionally similar, Coast Guard uniforms, identified by a national shield, changed to a distinctive light blue in 1973.
Naval officers dress as military commanders. Prescribed a blue coat faced red in the Continental navy, they obtained blue with gold lace in 1802. Their service dress evolved from an 1852 jacket into the double‐breasted blue coat by 1919, adding the line star to the gold cuff stripes in 1863. The cloth cap replaced the cocked hat for duty in 1841, displaying the current device by 1883 and the gold‐embroidered visor in 1897. The summer white coat with shoulder marks appeared in 1901. Finally, shipboard officers had khaki working dress by 1941.
Sailors in the U.S. Navy, except for senior petty officers, dressed in open‐neck occupational clothing. Early slops (wide‐legged breeches) stores provided blue jackets, vests, shirts, trousers, black neckerchiefs, and canvas hats. Their frocks or jumpers had deep collars decorated with white tape by 1879. An overcoat (Dutch “pea coat”) eased out the round jacket in 1885. The blue broadfall trousers gained their 13 buttons in 1902. The stitched white hat arrived in 1885, replacing the 1859 blue cloth cap (“flat hat”) by 1963. World War II brought blue denim and chambray dungarees for working seamen, while the postwar bell‐bottom (“cracker jack”) uniform yielded to a coat and tie in 1975, only to return, by sailor demand, in 1978.
Marines are seagoing soldiers whose dress reflects both military and naval service. Nicknamed “Leathernecks” (soldier's neck stock) by open‐collar sailors, the U.S. Marine Corps is a small, proud organization that has helped maintain its identity by establishing strong uniform traditions.
Continental Marines wore green coats faced white or red; but since 1797, French‐inspired blue, faced red, with yellow‐metal buttons has been the custom. The current enlisted blue dress coat with slash cuff appeared in 1892, gaining pockets by 1949. Officers had the blue coat by 1909, now worn with a cloth belt, plus the 1839 sixteen‐button mess jacket and 1825 Mameluke sword from the Barbary Wars.
Since 1912, the Marine Corps has worn a forest green service uniform with pointed cuffs, and cloth belt after 1943. Officers have the quatrefoil on their service caps, and all wear the bronze 1868 globe and anchor and khaki shirts with neckties. The camouflage helmet cover and USMC‐monogrammed utilities appeared for World War II, while the 1944‐pattern utility (“cover”) cap still distinguishes a Marine.
The uniforms of the U.S. Air Force, separated from the army in 1947, look to the future. Like the navy, their uniforms have a stronger affiliation to air forces in general than to national identity. Individual, independent, and often engaged in dangerous missions, pilots have affected rakish appearances since World War I. By 1942, the Army Air Forces permitted the “50‐mission crush” for a pilot's service cap by removing its grommet, and crews decorated their leather A‐2 and B‐3 shearling‐lined flying jackets.
In 1950, the air force selected a distinctive uniform of lighter blue (blue‐84) wool, with notched lapels, bellows pockets, and silver insignia. Senior officers had silver visor ornamentation of lightning bolts, and aircraft markings formed the noncommissioned‐officer blue and gray chevrons. Changes have been few, except for darker shades of blue and the elimination of bellows pockets in 1969. But in 1993, the Air Force Chief of Staff introduced a novel business suit uniform, with silver cuff stripes for officer grades.
The entry of women into the armed forces led to special uniforms that reflect common factors rather than service differences. The challenge remains to comply with male traditions and fashion while reflecting the changing roles and images of women in American society and the military.
For women in World War I, the need for street uniforms was met by the roll‐collar Norfolk suit, worn with felt or straw hat. Army and navy nurses and navy female yeomen wore blue, while female Marines wore forest green uniforms. By World War II, each service chose distinctive headgear. The army nurse had a soft visor cap, and WACs the stiff olive drab or khaki “Hobby hat” (named after the first head of the WACS). The navy nurse wore a visorless cap, while WAVES and Coast Guard SPARS received Mainbocher‐designed sailor hats. Women Marines matched the cords of their forest green service caps with Montezuma red lipstick.
In 1947, Christian Dior's “New Look” calf‐length skirt showed uniforms a need for fashion. Designer Hattie Carnegie created an army taupe‐shade ensemble in 1951, and Mainbocher revised the Marine wardrobe. In 1950, the air force gave WAFS the blue‐84 uniform, with a stitched flight cap, but the 1970s brought a modern double‐breasted box jacket, short skirt, and felt beret. The army changed to green in 1959, adding the “pot hat” in 1963, while the Coast Guard switched to a light blue uniform designed by Edith Head.
Modern armed forces uniforms utilize synthetic materials, nonseasonal schemes, and increased informality, doffing the coat and tie for open‐collar casualness. A common Department of Defense supply system has standardized many items, such as the “wooly‐pully” sweater, zipper windbreaker, shoulder marks, camouflage Battle Dress Uniform, and the female overblouse and maternity uniform.
The future looks both to “one service–one uniform” and to gender‐neutral clothing. Conflicts over tradition and function will continue. But the principles of recognition will surely remain as the appropriate appearance of soldiers, sailors, flyers, and Marines continues to evolve.
[See also Awards, Decorations, and Honors; Doolittle, James; Fashion, Military Influences on; Rank and Hierarchy; Women in the Military.]
James C. Tily , The Uniforms of the United States Navy, 1964.
John R. Elting, ed. Military Uniforms in America, Vols. 1–4, 1974–88.
C. G. Sweeting , Combat Flying Clothing, Army Air Forces Clothing During World War II, 1984.
Donald L. Canney and and Barbara Voulgaris , Uniforms of the United States Coast Guard, 1990.
Jim Moran , U.S. Marine Corps Uniforms and Equipment in World War II, 1992.
Shelby Stanton , U.S. Army Uniforms of the Cold War, 1948–1973, 1994.
Walter H. Bradford
"Uniforms." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 19, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/uniforms
"Uniforms." The Oxford Companion to American Military History. . Retrieved November 19, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/uniforms
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