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Remembering the Fallen: A Legacy in Uniform

Memorial Day is the most solemn of our holidays because it reminds us how quickly life can be lost, while also commemorating the undying strength of the human spirit. We celebrate the courage of those who wear the uniform, and the sacrifice of those who never come home.

Of all the symbols that we see on this day, the most iconic are the flags and uniforms, which signify not only an absolute pledge to duty, but a very long legacy of commitment and sacrifice. The symbols as well as the practices of the military are inherited from those whose sacrifice paved the way for our current way of life. And while we can and should question the governments and powers that send soldiers into the field, we can unambiguously honor the fidelity of the men and women who gave up everything for the causes in which they believed.

Today, in honor of Memorial Day, we want to remember the uniform.

We Honor the Uniform, But Do We Know Where It Comes From?

To think of a soldier, is to think of a person in uniform. But that is a relatively modern innovation. In one sense, military uniforms have been around for thousands of years, but early “uniforms” (such as the loosely regulated armor and clothing required by the Roman military or the army belonging to the first Emperor of China) were handmade, purchased, tailored, and maintained by individual soldiers and their families.

emperor of china uniform

Army recruits who survived initial battles often claimed the weapons and armor of fallen enemies as prizes (a practice that remained popular through the Medieval period), and so there was often significant similarity between the appearances of enemy armies from the same geographical area. Only the officers, who were generally from wealthy or titled families, could afford to purchase very similar or matching insignia, like the distinctive red-crested helmets of the Roman officers.

roman officer uniforms

Military uniforms worn by regular soldiers, with specific colors and insignia to define rank and regiment, only date back to the mid-1600s, as an invention of the forever fashion-conscious French. As elaborate (and cumbersome) as these early uniforms may seem today, they were actually very practical compared to the outfits worn by fashionable men in the same period.

french uniforms

But such regularized uniforms weren’t employed by most Western nations until mass production became more logistically and financially viable during the early days of the Industrial Revolution, roughly a hundred years later.  

Why Uniforms?

As wars began to involve larger and larger groups of soldiers, the obvious answer is that the bright colors and distinctive lines of the early uniforms made it easy to see who you’re supposed to be fighting, who should be considered an ally, and who should be obeyed without question. These early uniforms were meant to be handsome enough to impress civilians and functional enough to be worn on the battlefield.

But the psychological implications of the uniform are far more profound. In a powerful sense, changing into a uniform changes your self-perception: you are an individual, but also visibly part of a powerful whole, with the responsibilities, rights, and authority that the uniform implies.

“Grant glanced down at his khaki jacket. Since he’d slipped on the US Navy uniform in Agent Bounter’s office, he’d felt a confident swagger possess him. His spine lengthened, and his shoulders retracted. He should’ve been wearing this every day, not the stupid dress shirt and slacks of a lounge singer.” 

—Jennifer Lane, On Best Behavior

And Because They Look Good

As other militaries began to adopt the idea of consistent military uniforms, considerable thought went into the tailoring—they were meant to instill pride as well as fear. They wanted the uniforms to stand out, they wanted boys to envy them, and they needed the colors to be enticing enough to serve as recruitment devices—you may be an ordinary chap, but when you put on this uniform, you will be transformed, and everyone will admire you. For that reason, the colors and designs were cued to emphasize the breadth of the shoulder, slim the waist, and lengthen the line of the leg, while the elaborate hats also made the soldiers appear to be imposingly tall.

fancy british uniforms

The obvious flaw in this early uniform design strategy became apparent during the American Revolutionary War, when rebel American soldiers (wearing mostly homespun clothes in various shades of brown, black, grey, and blue), found it easy to ambush the British redcoats, whose uniforms made them easy targets, particularly when the fighting spread into the heavily-forested countryside.

Combat Camo Fatigues

Within a few decades, the red tunics would be replaced by uniforms that were designed more specifically for combat. While early “camo” was generally as simple as khaki dress for fighting in the desert and green for the jungle (simple, but still much more effective than bright red), developments in fabric printing technology led to more elaborate and effective designs.  The fractal designs that you see today were designed to more easily confuse the eye and help soldiers blend even more effectively into the landscape.

types of military uniform camouflage

And the Dress Uniform

But the gorgeous uniform designs of the 18th and 19th centuries never really disappeared. While combat fatigues were made more practical, the brighter colors were reserved for ceremonial dress occasions. Mass manufacturing made it possible to issue multiple uniforms to every soldier, and the establishment of national standing armies made the uniforms of individual military branches and regiments more definitively recognizable.

different types of military uniforms

You can even see the similarities in the relatively stark lines of the corresponding American designs.

American military navy uniforms

And Civilian Black Tie

But even in the 18th and 19th centuries, soldiers returning from the field had become used to wearing highly functional clothing with stark lines, and civilians wanted to echo the styles of military dress. The tailors who crafted clothing for both gradually adapted civilian styles into a more martial mode. In effect, most modern men’s formalwear is descended from the uniform of the French Napoleonic Army, whose three-piece double and single-breasted uniform designs are still visible in the basic lines of the modern three-piece suit and tuxedo.

black tie uniforms and suit

So, while we set this day for remembrance, we must also acknowledge that soldiers, both those that we have loved and those that we never knew, have touched every part of our lives. The next time you dress for a formal occasion, make it a tribute. And take a moment to honor the generations of soldiers who have gone before.

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Who are you remembering this Memorial Day?


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