Evolution of the Uniform
By War Planning and Training Division, O.Q.M.G.
The Quartermaster Review – March-April 1928
The word “uniform” is derived from the Latin words “unus,” one, and “forma,” form, and includes the different styles of dress adopted by the Military and Naval services to secure the distinction required. Since the military profession has always been an honorable one, except in pre-modern China, the uniform has been a badge of honor and a means of improving the morale and esprit de corps of its wearers in addition to its original purpose of distinguishing friend from foe.
Although in ancient history we occasionally meet with uniformed soldiers, such as the white and crimson Spanish regiments of Hannibal, it was not until the beginning of large standing armies that uniforms were introduced in modern times. Before this, armed bodies were of two sorts, retainers and mercenaries, and while the former often wore their master’s livery, the latter were dressed each according to his own taste or means. The absence of uniforms accounts very largely for the significance attached to the colors and standards, which alone formed rallying points for the soldier and his comrades, and thus acquired the sacred character which they have since possessed. A man who left the colors wandered into the terrifying unknown, for there was nothing to distinguish friend from foe. Even if the generals had ordered the men to wear some improvised badge such as a sprig of leaves, or the shirt outside the coat, such badges as these were easily lost or taken off. The next step in advance was a scarf of uniform color, such as it is supposed was worn by the “green,” “yellow” and other similarly named brigades of the Swedish Army under Gustavus Adolphus.
Frederick the Great could not have developed his infantry fire power if his soldiers had worn tight sleeves, but in his old age the evil of sacrificing comfort for smartness gradually crept in.
The same tendency existed in the French Army after the Battle of Waterloo and the soldier was more showy and less comfortable than ever before or since.
In George IV’s time in England the coatees of the life guards were so tight that the men were unable to perform their sword exercise.
Until the formation of the Continental Army, the troops in the American colonies wore uniforms similar to those of the European states to which they belonged. Hence, after the Battle of Quebec, in which the French lost Canada, the British influence in uniforms was paramount in North America.
After the Revolutionary War the anti-British sentiment combined with the fact that France had been our ally caused the French influence in uniforms to be predominant.
At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, as the hunting dress was the cheapest and most easily procured, General Washington recommended its adoption by the soldiers of the Continental Army. It was a dress consisting of the shirt, leggins, rifle, bag for bullets, and the powder horn. His personal uniform was represented as being a blue coat with red facing, red waistcoat and breeches, although another description of it states the facings were buff, and the waistcoat and breeches buff. He also wore a cocked hat and knee-boots.
The following extract is taken from General Orders, Headquarters, Cambridge (Mass.) August 17, 1775: “The General also recommends it to the Colonels to provide Indian boots or leggins for their men, instead of stockings, * * * especially as the General has hopes of prevailing with the Continental Congress to give each man a hunting shirt.”
The enlisted men of the First Virginia Regiment of Infantry in 1775 were uniformed at their own expense, in hunting shirts, leggins, and with white bindings on their hats.
On December 27, 1776, the Continental Congress empowered General Washington to appoint a Clothier General for supplying the Army. The duties of this office, however, did not at that time pertain to the Quartermaster Department.
Congress, by resolution on March 23, 1779, “authorized and directed the Commander in Chief, according to circumstances of supplies and clothing, to fix and prescribe the uniform, as well with regard to color and facings, as the cut or fashion of the clothes, to be worn by the troops of the respective States and Regiments, woolen overalls for winter and linen for summer, to be substituted for the breeches.” It should be noted, however, that the officers and men appeared in every imaginable type and style of uniform, often wearing uniforms taken from the British, which they dyed brown if time permitted, but sometimes worn without change, which led to serious and fatal mistakes on the battlefield. Uniforms furnished by the Continental Government were charged against the pay of the men. Not until after the war was the Quartermaster Department able to provide and furnish suitable and proper uniforms for the personnel of the Army.
During the Revolutionary War the hat seemed to be the most difficult article to obtain and the one dearest to the soldier’s pride. Those who could get it, cocked it, and decorated it, according to the regimental design. Officers and soldiers wanted to appear “swank” and were very fond of strutting around in their full regalia, when they were fortunate enough to own such. This was only natural, since history relates that in the older countries of Europe, they strutted about and vainly displayed themselves. In this new country, just because they were fighting for freedom, men’s vanity had not changed. Field officers were ordered to wear red or pink colored cockades in their hats, the Captains yellow or buff, and the Subalterns green. The First Virginia Infantry wore white binding on their hats, while Massachusetts troops wore a cocked hat with a silver button loop and a small button with the number of the regiment thereon. Large numbers of the soldiers wore leather hats and caps, while others wore those of fur skin.
For several years following the Revolutionary War the troops continued to wear cocked hats, although the four Sub-Legions wore caps, with colored bindings, plum’s, and hair, each Sub-Legion having its own distinctive color. Helmets were also worn following this war by certain of the troops. The three-cornered hat of the Revolutionary War disappeared in 1802 and the officers wore chapeaux bras, while the rank and file wore round leather hats with a bearskin crest. All plumes were white.
About 1810 the style of the officer’s hat changed to the chapeaux type and that of the enlisted men to a pattern something like that of our civilian silk dress hat worn today.
Caps, too, of every style and description, were worn extensively from 1841 to 1898. The style was changed frequently from that time up to the present, when the “Pershing” type is the authorized cap to be worn by all ranks.
The hat worn by officers and men just preceding the Civil War and until 1898 was a black felt, with a fairly wide brim, the crown worn creased in the middle, the only difference being that the officer’s hat had a one-half inch binding on the brim, while that of the enlisted men had a double row of stitching instead of the binding. Straw hats, it seems, were also worn, from the following: “Whenever, in extreme latitudes, straw hats are worn by enlisted men, the officers must in like manner wear them.” (G. O. 76, 1879.) However, the straw hat had to be purchased by the soldier out of his personal funds from the local merchant or trader. The authorized hat was to be worn in the field, and in garrison only on fatigue duty and at target practice. For dress and ceremonies, officers and men wore helmets with plumes, or caps. The helmet was ornamented with brass, including a spike, and a plume of the color of the branch of service of which the wearer was a member. In 1898, when the cotton khaki field uniform was adopted, a hat of similar color was also adopted with the crown creased in the middle. This hat was succeeded by the present-day Montana peaked hat, for all officers and men, when a hat is prescribed to be worn.
Every imaginable type and cut of blouse or tunic of the then prevailing styles were worn by the officers and men during the Revolutionary War. We find blue, brown, red, green, and white coats, some very elegant as to style, while others were “plain jacket,” fringed with fur. Brown was a favorite color for the coats. It was ordered by the Continental Congress and was adopted by several of the Colonies. Brown dye was obtainable on every farm and was the prevalent hue cloth manufactured in this country.
With certain of the coats, waistcoats of the same or different color were worn. Where the troops w fortunate enough to be equipped with the coat fashioned somewhat along the lines of our present-day cutaway the artillerymen had red collars, cuffs, and tumbac and the coat was lined with red, while the trimming the Infantry was white. Today if we should see such coat on a person together with the other parts of the uniform, we would probably think we were looking some foreign potentate or other high dignitary. It was a pleasing sight to the eye and the soldier looked I part, but for comfort and fighting, he was out of luck and an easy target for the enemy.
It was during the Revolutionary War that the service stripe or war chevron had its origin. Any soldier who served more than three years “with bravery, fidelity and good conduct” was to wear on his left sleeve stripe of “angular form.” If he had served more than six years, he was to wear two stripes. The stripes we to be of the color of the “facings” of the corps to which the soldier belonged.
From about 1813, the enlisted men wore “coatees which were fashioned somewhat along the lines of the present-day civilian full-dress coat, except that they had stand-up collars, and buttoned tightly down the front. The facings, collar, and cuffs were colored, according to the branch of service of the wearer. The non-commissioned officer’s “coatee” had, in addition to the colored facings, collar and cuffs, gilt lace on the collar, cuffs, and epaulettes. The private soldier won straps instead of the epaulettes. Musicians’ coats were red, lined with white, and the tumbacks were white. The members of the United States Marine Band still wear such red coats. In 1821, a jacket for riflemen was adopted, of green cloth, cut hussar fashion, with braid terminating in crow’s feet, three rows of nine brass buttons on the breast, wide cuffs with three brass button on each cuff. Vests were worn by officers and waist coats by the enlisted men, made of white cotton drilling. In 1825 a “frock coat” was authorized for officers, in addition to shell jackets for both officers and men. In 1841 a short double-breasted coat of dark-blue cloth was authorized for enlisted men of Dragoons, and a single breasted frock coat of dark-gray cloth for foot riflemen both with double rows of brass buttons on the breast and in 1851 a single-breasted frock coat of dark-blue cloth, with a skirt extending one-half the distance from the top of the hip to the bend of the knee, for all enlisted men. In 1857, the Clothing Department of the Army decided that a fatigue jacket of sky-blue cloth might be issued to troops of all arms. It was in 1861 that the dark-blue flannel blouse was adopted for use in the field. In 1874 the skirts of the coat adopted in 1851 were shortened, and the garment was designated in orders as a “basque.” The Infantryman’s coat was trimmed with sky blue on the collar, cuffs, and skirt that of the Artilleryman with scarlet, the Cavalryman with yellow, etc. Only minor changes were made in the uniform from this time up to the Spanish-American War in 1898. Shortly after the outbreak thereof, the cotton khaki uniform was adopted for wear in the field in suitable climates and is worn today, except, however, that the color has been changed to olive drab. Woolen olive drab was also adopted several years later for wear and both it and the cotton are worn by all troops, according to climatic conditions.
The dress uniform was modified somewhat from time to time after the Spanish-American War, and was worn on parade, after retreat, on furloughs, and on passes to town, etc., until 1917, when after our entry into the World War, it was abolished by order of the Secretary of War. White uniforms are still authorized for officers in the tropics and on certain occasions in the United States.
The present coat authorized in 1925 for all officers and men has the lapel collar and is more comfortable than any coat heretofore prescribed.
During the Revolutionary War, many of the troops wore white breeches, others wore buff colored, but they were generally made of natural colored buckskin. Some were made of buffalo leather, but as a considerable number of the troops were farmers, they were mainly clad in their working garb. The breeches of many of the men were worn gaiter fashion about the legs.
Very little mention is to be found in General Orders during this period on the subject of breeches, and generally they were spoken of as “underclothes.”
In 1796 a little more attention was paid to the Army and there was a brief revival of military spirit in consequence of the growing difficulties with France. Under orders issued by Alexander Hamilton in 1799, the uniforms, which up to that time were patterned largely after the French, were somewhat changed, and breeches gave way to tight pantaloons which reached to the quarters of the shoe. The Cavalry breeches were of white leather.
In 1813, a longer step was taken toward the military dress of today. Trousers were blue for winter and nankeen for summer for foot troops. Dragoons wore white cassimere or buckskin for parade and dark blue for service. Knee-breeches, agreeable to the uniform, with yellow knee-buckles, by the order of 1813, were authorized to be worn on social occasions “where etiquette requires shoes.” The gray uniform also appeared at this time for riflemen but was abandoned shortly after the Mexican War by the Regular Army, although it’s use was continued by numerous militia companies. It is still worn by the Corps of Cadets at the United States Military Academy. About 1821, trousers for officers remained blue for service, and white or buff for parade with the exception of those for company officers, who wore trousers of the same color as their men. These were gray for service, and of white woolen or cotton drilling, according to season, for parade. The riflemen however, wore green trousers.
In 1835 other important changes were made in the uniform, and officers of the line wore sky-blue trousers while those of the staff wore dark-blue ones. Welts were worn by officers except generals on the outside seam of the trousers, and cords by the men, of the color indicative of their respective branches of the service. Minor changes were constantly being made and more and more with the view to comfort as well as service. No material change was made in the trousers from the time of the Civil War until the blue uniforms were done away with in 1917, except that welts and cords gave way to stripes. Cotton khaki trousers were authorized and worn during the Spanish-American War in 1898, these were later changed to breeches. Then came the olive drab, both wool and cotton, which is the present-day uniform breeches. Trousers, olive drab, wool and cotton, are also authorized for wear now under certain conditions.
No article of wearing apparel is of more importance to the soldier than his footwear. Regulations are very strict as to how a soldier’s shoes shall be fitted to his feet by means of a shoe-fitting device, under the personal supervision of a commissioned officer. A soldier can attend to his routine duties, march, and fight in almost any kind of clothing, but unless his shoes are properly fitted, to insure freedom of movement and comfort, he is of little value to the service. Nothing is so hopeless as a lot of men with foot trouble. In peacetime the Army carries in stock ninety different sizes of shoes, and in war time one hundred and ten, in sizes ranging from five to fifteen and in width from A to EE. If, however, a soldier cannot be fitted from any of these sizes, “special measurement” shoes are made up that will fit him.
Revolutionary War soldiers were equipped with all kinds of footwear. High top boots, if available, were generally worn by horsemen, while a large number of the men wore moccasins. One must not get the idea, however, that this Army was well shod. All are familiar with the distressing plight of these forces during the winter at Valley Forge, when the soldiers were compelled to swathe their bruised and bleeding feet in strips of blankets, or in whatever other material was to be had. These conditions were due in a great measure to the limited facilities for producing shoes in large quantities, since at that time they were made entirely by band, which was a slow, laborious process.
For years following this war officers and mounted men wore boots while the others wore shoes. When the Civil War broke out machinery was used, particularly the McKay sewing machine, a then recently perfected invention for attaching the bottom of shoes, which permitted their manufacture with greater rapidity and in larger quantities. Previous to the introduction of this machine, shoes were of the hand-pegged or hand-nailed type, while by the use of this machine the outside, upper, and insole were united by a waxed thread. Since the ridge of stitches laid on the insole by the latter process was a frequent cause of discomfort to the wearer, this type of construction was considered unsuitable for Army shoes and was displaced shortly after the Civil War by the hand-welt shoes, which also possessed greater flexibility. By this method the welt and upper are sewed to the channeled insole, leaving an inside surface on which no stitching appears, but as the process was slow and expensive its use in Army shoes was discontinued about 1878 and the so-called standard screw shoe adopted. This method made an extremely rigid bottom, and as the metal fastenings acted as free conductors it had the additional disadvantage in cold climates of causing great discomfort, if not actual suffering to the wearer.
The welt shoe was again adopted, and while the welt was still sewed by hand, the outsole was attached to the welt by use of the Goodyear lock-stitch machine, which had in the meantime been developed.
When the Spanish-American War broke out, in order to facilitate production, the specification was changed to permit both the welt and outsole stitching to be done by machinery. T his proved to be the most satisfactory method yet devised from the standpoint of both durability and rapidity of production. This method of construction having been definitely decided upon, efforts were then directed toward improving the Army last.
In 1912 a board of officers was appointed, headed by Maj. E. L. Munson (now Colonel) Medical Corps, which designed an experimental shoe, the last of which differed considerably from those heretofore used. The results obtained from the testing of this shoe were so satisfactory that both the shoe and last were adopted for Army use and have ever since been referred to as the “Munson.”
During the World War, since the development of trench warfare seemed to require a shoe of heavier and more waterproofed construction than the “Munson” shoe then in use, the Army adopted a shoe copied largely from those used by the Allies. This was commonly known as the “Pershing,” a very heavy shoe, the soles of which were metallic fastened and which is probably more waterproof than the regular welt shoe, and therefore suitable for trench warfare or for use where very little marching is required. The lack of flexibility and the conductivity of its metal fastenings make it unsatisfactory for a general purpose shoe, especially where rapid marching is necessary. It is capable of being rapidly manufactured and economizes in material in that it gives longer wear. Since the signing of the Armistice, however, the shoe has again reverted to the Goodyear type. It is of heavier construction than the former welt shoe, yet it provides comfort, neatness, and durability, which may be increased by the insertion of hobnails and heelplates, for use in the field. This shoe is known as the “service shoe,” but the War Department has again authorized the lighter “Munson” or “garrison shoe” for wear in addition to the “service shoe,” which will shortly be ready for issue to the troops.
No army in the world is as well shod as the United States Army and certainly no army can be found where the men are more free from foot trouble than in ours.
Some of the troops during the Revolutionary War wore half gaiters, while others had breeches made gaiter fashion held down by a Strap under the bottom of the shoe; others wore leggins of buckskin and other skins, but not until about 1885 were leggins adopted for general use in the service. Many of the soldiers on the march and in campaign tied pieces of cloth around the bottoms of their trousers or tied the trousers with a piece of cord at the bottom to keep out dust, etc., and to make it easier to pass through fields, underbrush, swamps, and rocky places. From this came the canvas leggin adopted about 1885, which was short and only extended about halfway between the ankle and the knee. In 1898 it was made longer and came up almost to the knee.
Since 1898 various types have been used, including leather puttees for certain non-commissioned officers, and canvas puttees for the others. At present mounted troops wear a canvas leggin which is leather covered on the inner half, while the foot troops wear spiral woolen puttees, wrapped around the leg. This spiral woolen puttee was universally worn by our Army abroad during the World War. This will shortly be replaced with a canvas leggin for all except mounted troops. They are held down by a leather strap which passes underneath the shoe. Officers wore the canvas leggins during the Spanish-American War of the same pattern as the enlisted men, but today wear boots and leather puttees.
To get a proper picture of the uniforms of the American Army from its organization to date, the reader will be greatly assisted by securing a book portraying all the uniforms in their actual colors and styles. Such a book may be found in most public – libraries. Word description is limited but the pictorial view brings a pleasing comparison to the eye as well as to the mind. Since the Boer War the attempt to wear a dress uniform on active service has been practically given up by all countries. While the evolution of the uniform from one of pomp, show, and discomfort to the present simple type is one of the best things ever done by the War Department for those in the service, it is necessary during peacetime to brighten up the uniform with a view to instilling a desire to wear it when not on actual duty. At present the attempt to make the uniform more attractive is by bright brass buttons and insignia, light breeches for officers, medals and decorations, shoulder sleeve insignia and by regimental insignia and trimmings. A real pride in uniform and a feeling of privilege in wearing it are unsurpassed factors in improving the esprit and morale of both officers and enlisted men.