What Makes a “Military Uniform”?

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My sincere thanks to Brent Becker (again) for his vast uniform knowledge. I sent him a message years ago and he gave me the information for this article, Creating Your Own Exhibition Drill Uniform. Brent has done it again. Providing information and educating the military drill world is only going to help us all. We need to understand all aspects of our history to help us understand where we are going.

Identity and Intended Use

Military uniforms grew out of fashion preferred by French Nobility of the 17th Century – civilian overcoats adapted and mass-produced for enlisted and conscripted soldiers. The purpose of uniforms 300+ years ago was to help soldiers identify with King and Country – to represent the ruing power by wearing their colors, which also helped combatants distinguish friend from foe on the battlefield – not unlike sports teams today.

So, first and foremost, there’s a symbolic element: By incorporating the colors and marks of one’s homeland, the military uniform becomes a vestment of patriotic nationalism. This notion of symbolism could be applied to contemporary drill uniforms – incorporating colors significant to the wearer or their institution/team can create both a sense of identity and esprit de corps without detracting from the decorum of the event…

Then there’s the idea of uniformity itself – the desire for sameness; standardized attire that, that to some degree, equalizes all servicemen & women serving in the armed forces. I feel the effect is twofold: There’s a (positive) “humbling effect” to uniformity as well as a unifying bond created – the proverbial “common thread” uniting all who have served, are serving, and will serve in the future. In this way, the military uniform is not just part of the nation-state’s identity, but can become a huge part of the wearer’s identity as well – again, we find an impetus for significance here that can create added relevance for all involved…
Consider also the effect and impact uniforms and uniformity can have on the human psyche: The notion of standardized cut & color for a standing, regular army was revolutionary in late 17th Century Europe – and seeing hundreds, if not thousands of smartly-dressed soldiers outfitted in the same jacket and colors must have been downright intimidating to one’s enemies! In modern times, and as the nature and technology of warfare evolved, military uniforms became less about creating a striking, imposing visual impression and more about disrupting and obscuring one’s self from view – camouflage is the desired impact on the battlefield today. But formal (symbolic) uniforms maintain a ceremonial role for formal, solemn, and ceremonial occasions.

Ultimately, I suppose any garment can be used as a “uniform” – but with over three centuries of tradition influencing European Military styles, the mold is very much set and based on the overcoats preferred by French noblemen in the mid-17th Century. And while nations have risen and fallen and the length and silhouettes have shifted in that time, the three-part core concept of a blouse/shirt, tunic/coat, and leggings/trousers remains very much intact as the foundation for military uniforms in the Western World.

Mandatory Parts?

Not as such, at least not in my experience. What constitutes “military style” varies from region to region and even across generations – although there are elements which feel “more military” or immediately read as more formal and martial to the civilian eye. For me, in my work, this is almost always buttons – rows of polished brass or nickel buttons on a jacket immediately recalls timeless pageantry, strength, and a certain armored and rugged masculinity to my mind. Decorative but austere braiding, especially in bars across the chest with tasteful flourishes, is always reminiscent of the ubiquitous West Point Cadet uniforms and has been the hallmark of any musical unit wishing to convey a military presence since at least 1930. Belts and buckles, like buttons, bring to mind an armored element – in fact, the buckle of today’s cross belts are a lingering remnant of armored breastplates designed to protect soldiers from early artillery and ancient projectile weapons.

Again, anything can become a uniform if worn uniformly – but much of how one dresses should be informed by the gravity of the occasion. For a drill meet or contest, a certain professional decorum is likely expected. In that case, whatever is worn should be properly tailored and pressed to present a polished image appropriate for drilling. Personally, I’m a firm believer that any special occasion is worth dressing up for – if you believe what you’re doing is important, your outward appearance should reflect that. Look important, feel important, be important – how one dresses can impact how one feels and subsequently performs!

Visual Effects

Contrast is the “secret sauce” to creating visual impact! Dark vs. light colors used strategically can help draw attention to areas of emphasis while concealing areas of less significance or those parts of the body still developing in skill. Dark or dull colors tend to recede or will be subordinate to light and bright colors. For example, if one’s footwork is particularly strong and significant to their routine, consider white bucks or spats; perhaps even white shoes to emphasize the feet. A bright color stripe on dark trousers will do the same for well-trained legs. The same concept can be applied to any shiny or metallic accessories – helmets, cords, or badges can catch light and draw attention to those areas. This can be leveraged to draw attention away from other areas that are not as strong – think of it as a “smoke-and-mirrors” strategy; the ol’ “Razzle-dazzle”, as it were. I always advise younger, developing groups to consider dark, undecorated (no stripe) pants and lighter-colored tops; symmetry while keeping the focus on the upper body until they develop the strength and control to showcase the lower extremities effectively.

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