How the Armed Forces Changed the Way We Dressed

Blame Louis XIV. There he went about his stately business when he met some Croatian mercenaries who worked for the French army during the Thirty Years’ War. They wore daringly patterned strips of cloth around their necks, ostensibly as a sign of their camaraderie. But Louis preferred to adopt the idea himself and as king he wore fashion. The tie – and later the tie – was born.

Pity the pacifist – he has nothing to wear. Look over the men’s wardrobe and there are few civilian garments that haven’t gone through the military camp first. Or the officers’ mess for the more refined items. Practical and durable military clothing appeals to the utilitarian in all of us. It’s working. It takes. And yes, it also looks good. Today, military recruits proudly serve not only on the home front, but also at work and in the game.

German armed forces in khaki uniform

Anything typically khaki, you would expect such a start in life. Like khakis, for example: ‘khaki’ comes from the Urdu for ‘thinly colored’, a more practical alternative to the striking blood-red uniforms worn by the British army until the late 1800s. The trouser style, now often referred to as chinos, comes from the Chinese-made loose-fitting trousers worn by the Philippines and adopted by the US military during the Spanish-American War.

Sometimes the clue is in the name: the bomber jacket for example. Or the trench coat, loved by noir-esque detectives and an everyday sight during the approaching bad weather. It was first conceived by Aquascutum and Burberry for men of appropriate wealth and rank – not the humble grunts – and was designed to protect them from the mud and guts of the World War I dugouts from which it takes its name. derives. In fact, it has retained certain distinguishing features long after its original use has disappeared. We assume you don’t need the storm flap on the shoulder to, for example, soften the recoil of your rifle.

Men in uniform

Elvis in full military uniform during his enlistment

Even that most peacetime garb, the fitted suit jacket, is a descendant of the frock coat, which in turn had its origins in the uniform of cavalry officers. Indeed, the most innocuous garments have military beginnings. The belt also comes from 19th century Prussian cavalry officer uniforms. Made for the United States military, the cotton T-shirt is derived from an amalgam of the short-sleeved woolen underwear worn by most British men in the early 20th century, and the Union Suit-style cotton underwear with long sleeves that in the US.

The pea coat – check. The blazer – check. The blucher boot – check. Wellington boots – you may have heard of Waterloo. Combat pants – definitely no surprises there. Aviator sunglasses – again, so it says on the tin.

Even clothes that you honestly don’t wear that often — the balaclava, the kilt, maybe the vest — all have military origins. If it weren’t for sport, that other great source of menswear classics, there are few staples of the modern men’s wardrobe that don’t come from the military, navy, or air force. And even if it originated in sports, there’s a chance it actually originated in the military. For example, the baseball jacket is derived from the US Army’s WW2 Winter Combat Jacket.

Many iconic menswear pieces started life in the military, including the MA-1 bomber jacket

Many military garments have not shaped menswear, but have been sold wholesale to become a mainstay. The MA1 jacket, the M43 field jacket, the M51 parka: they all have a proud track record. On the rare occasions when the reverse has happened and the military has embraced civilian design, it has done so with such enthusiasm that the beginning of peacetime has been almost forgotten.

The duffel bag, for example, was designed in 1890 by John Partridge, the Staffordshire-based outfitter, in 1869, also the makers of the donkey jacket. Field Marshal Montgomery adopted it almost as a trademark in World War II, and officers and naval men followed his lead. But it was precisely the use by the military that gave these clothes charisma.

Fighting spirit

Perhaps all this is not so surprising. Of course, these military looks live on in part because menswear adores a masculine archetype, and what – traditional thinking goes – could be more macho than a soldier, despite the sexual undertones a “man in uniform” offers? Then there is the military detailing. An epaulette there, an extra pocket here, a touch of camo everywhere… These are trends in almost every season.

But the influence also lives on for one simple, overriding reason: military clothing works, not least because governments could hardly afford not to. Today, as in the run-up to World War II, R&D expenditure on U.S. military uniforms dwarfs even the wildest fantasies of any designer brand. It is those gigantic expenditures that also mean that there is so much surplus.

Today, the military has a huge influence on streetwear

That has allowed youth subcultures and streetwear to make the value in military apparel not only affordable, but also easily tailored. There is also political commentary on undermining, or in some cases exacerbating, military origins. Peace protesters, punks, clubbers, break dancers, Black Panthers and neo-Nazis have all worn combat pants.

Such large spending by defense contractors doesn’t mean they always get it right. Developed for the US Navy, a camouflage of varying shades of blue and gray was phased out from 2016 after only a few years of service, when it was grimly acknowledged that it was only useful if you wanted to hide while lost at sea.

Nor should this suggest that the transition from military to fashion is something new. The Roundhead style of the English Civil War (1642–1651), initially adopted as a poor means of distinguishing them from enemy Cavaliers, simplified civilian dress after the conflict. Years later, the introduction of shoulder straps as a sign of officer rank became mainstream. A brim that lifted up to make shooting easier became the popular stitch hat…

The military has access to the strongest, most advanced, most functional fabrics, to ways to test ideal pocket size and placement, to means to perfect the fit or amplify stress points. Being rationalistic in design – rather than commercial – means military designs have strength and clarity.

And that’s something men admire in so many things. It’s often what gives those things a certain coolness. Like our tools, gadgets, cars, wristwatches – another military idea – and everything else that makes men feel more like men, we like clothes that work. Clothing wise, we’re all in the military now.

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