Military Uniform Basics

Updated: February 15, 2021
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    Those considering a career in the military will ask their recruiter a lot of questions about pay and benefits, career choices, overseas travel, and life in uniform. But one question that doesn’t get asked right away involves that uniform itself–what do service members wear and why?

    Military Uniform Basics The origins of the American military uniform go all the way back to traditions found in 18th century British troops, who wore standardized uniforms including a regimental coat, standardized hats and other items.

    The wear of a standardized uniform is said to improve unit cohesion, create better conditions for teamwork, etc. The uniform is also a quick visual guide to friend and foe alike on the battlefield.

    Military Uniform Standards

    Unlike the private sector, where a uniform is sometimes no more than a suit and tie, military rules state that all uniforms worn by any member of the uniformed services must meet specific requirements for cut, appearance, utility, and other regulations.

    You cannot simply show up for duty wearing a camouflage outfit that approximates the current utility uniform or in a suit and tie that approximates the colors and cut of dress blues, Navy whites, etc.

    The uniform you wear must meet the exact physical and design specifications spelled out in military regulations. And the rules are different for each branch of military service. Did you know that Navy troops must wear an all-black dress uniform or an all-white dress uniform depending on the time of year, and/or local directives?

    Even the basic choices of uniform are dictated by the chain of command. Your uniform of the day may vary depending on the nature of the job (aircraft maintainers won’t wear dress blues to work on their planes, but Public Affairs officers may be required to wear dress blues every day) and the commander’s preference in some cases.

    Uniform Regulations

    Each branch of the military has its own rules for the manufacture, use, and wear of military garments. The U.S. Army version is called Army Regulation 670–1, Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia. The rules in AR 670-1 include the following requirements:

    “Soldiers purchasing uniforms, uniform items, or heraldic items from establishments other than the MCSS must ensure that the items are authorized for wear and that they conform to appropriate military specifications”

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    The Different Types Of Uniform

    There is no single-purpose uniform for any branch of military service–there are utility garments, formalwear, and multiple iterations of both.

    For example, the Army and other branches of military service have a dress uniform, but also an enhanced version of that dress uniform for more formal occasions. This is often referred to as “mess dress” and is popular for military traditions such as dining-in ceremonies, certain promotion or retirement activities, service birthdays, etc.

    The Combat Uniform And Dress Uniform

    As utilitarian as they come, the combat uniform has been known in a variety of names depending on the iteration, time period of service, etc. For example, in the Vietnam era, there was a uniform that had no camouflage, was basically olive green, and viewed as a utility garment.

    These were called “fatigues”. When the combat uniform was modified to include a camouflage pattern, the garments were known as BDUs or Battle Dress Uniforms. Nicknames for these garments, often service-specific, vary among the services. Combat uniforms are common and worn when working in situations where utility wear is required. The very term “combat uniform” is misleading for that reason, but it’s easy to see why the name stuck.

    When it comes to dress uniforms, some make a distinction between “everyday” uniforms that consist of a button-down shirt, the accompanying trousers, and (depending on circumstances) an optional tie. That’s the “office utility” uniform. The addition of a jacket and a tie (when otherwise not worn) makes the ensemble “full dress”.

    And as mentioned above, these clothing items must be manufactured and worn according to specific regulations. Remember AR 670-1, Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia, which we quoted earlier? On this issue, it advises soldiers, “Commercially purchased items that are authorized for wear in lieu of military-issued items must conform to the basic specification of the military-issued item, unless otherwise specified in this regulation”.

    That section also reminds soldiers that they are responsible for “verifying with their chain of command which items are authorized for wear by Army personnel”.

    Wear Of The Uniform

    Regulations exist not just for the design, presentation, construction, and use of the military uniform, but also under what circumstances it may be worn. In the pre-9/11 DoD, the wear of utility uniforms was discouraged in certain circumstances such as official air travel. But after 9/11, these requirements were relaxed for a variety of reasons. Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen are not allowed to attend political functions in uniform lest their presence lend the impression of an endorsement by the DoD; and you cannot wear certain uniforms even when on duty unless authorized to do so. For example, a unit that has dress blues as their uniform of the day would not allow its workers to wear the utility uniform instead unless specific provisions are made.

    You also cannot wear just any old accessories with your uniform–each branch of service has specific requirements for sunglasses, backpacks, and winter outerwear that dictates how and where each may be worn. There are even regulations for what type of earrings, makeup, and other accessories are acceptable while in uniform.

    And to make things even more complex, being “in uniform” means wearing the ENTIRE uniform–you cannot skip the necktie if you are ordered to wear your full dress uniform, and you can’t wear your low quarter shoes (worn with dress blues) with your BDUs.

    Military Uniforms: Not Just The Overgarments

    There are regulations for EVERYTHING associated with military uniforms. Did you know that in the 1990s there was a mini-controversy in Air Force and Army circles because one branch of service authorized more than one undershirt color that could be worn underneath BDUs? That is the sort of attention to detail paid to uniform issues in the military.

    You cannot report for Air Force duty simply wearing a cotton/poly blend blue jacket, a light blue button-down shirt, necktie, etc. The uniform has a specific cut, standardized materials and construction, and all uniforms must include accoutrements such as rank insignia, name tags, service or U.S. lapel pins where applicable, etc.

    And those accessories are a vital part of the United States military uniform. For BDUs, military members have to have their rank and (where applicable) officer insignias sewn onto the overgarments, plus name tapes, a tape identifying the branch of service, and certain combat badges or service-specific identifiers such as Airborne designation, ROTC (where appropriate), etc.

    Body Armor, Hazard Suits, Scrubs, And More

    Yes, military uniform standardization extends all the way to body armor, nuclear/chemical/biological (NBC) hazard suits, medical wear, and more. Like the regularly worn uniform items we’ve mentioned above, standardization is required for these items, too–there are guidelines, rules, and regulations covering the wear of medical scrubs, for example, and requirements for display of name and rank on NBC gear.

    These items must be manufactured and designed according to specifications provided by the DoD.

    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

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