Military uniforms have influenced almost all other uniforms. They have, in turn, been influenced by different physical and social environments, changing radically over time.
Tailored red tunics were designed to be seen on smoky battlefields – and to show soldiers at their best. Uniforms made from khaki, and later camouflage, were introduced to conceal troops when combat terrain became more exposed and weapons more efficient. In New Zealand, army uniforms feature Maori motifs, reflecting the importance of Maori culture in the military.
Military uniforms help shape and discipline the wearer's mind and body. They can enhance a wearer’s pride, and reinforce a feeling of unity and solidarity. The authority, status, and power uniforms convey also affects onlookers. They can impress and even terrify the enemy.
On a practical level, military uniforms help distinguish friend from foe. They indicate a wearer's rank, protect them, and assist them in performing their role.
Early military uniforms
Military uniforms began to emerge in Europe in the 17th century as regular armies were established and economies of scale were required to clothe soldiers cheaply and efficiently. Brightly coloured uniforms helped create cohesion and recognition on smoke-shrouded battlefields. Badges, emblems, and sashes were added to help identify the allegiance of troops. There was little to distinguish these early uniforms from civilian dress except for colour. Colours eventually became associated with countries – such as red for Britain.
Over time, variations occurred in colours, choice of fabric, the cut of coats and pants, insignia denoting rank, badge design, epaulettes, the number of buttons, etc. But constant elements emerged – brass buttons and leather, buttoned pockets for practicality, and the use of badges and gold braid and trimmings to indicate status.
Uniforms were at their most glorious during the Napoleonic era in Europe (1793–1815). Officers wore elegant tight-fitting uniforms with extravagant gold or silver braiding, multitudes of gold buttons, and polished leather. They were designed to allow the wearer to cut a fine figure regardless of any impracticalities. Such uniforms conveyed authority, status, power, and glamour, and provided impressive and alluring displays.
Regular soldiers wore less extravagant versions, but were still dressed in smart, tightly-fitting uniforms. Until the end of the 19th century, soldiers would parade and fight in the same uniform, despite even though it was often restrictive in battle. Posture and tight-fitting colourful clothing were the elements that distinguished a soldier.
From colour to camouflage
Camouflage and concealment became concerns in the second half of the 19th century as warfare and weapons changed, expanding and clearing battlefields. There was a huge increase in the efficiency and range of weapons (for example, long-range rifles, smokeless powder, machine guns, and quick-firing artillery). Less restrictive clothing in drabber colours was slowly adopted in response.
British regiments first started wearing khaki in India in the 1840s for practical reasons (‘khaki’ is a Persian word). From 1902, all British soldiers wore khaki ‘service dress’, which was based on more comfortable sporting dress styles. Other armies began to follow suit. Their traditional colourful and tight-fitting uniforms were retained for ‘full dress’ ceremonial duties only.
World War I
Khaki and other drab colours dominated the uniforms of all armies in both World Wars. The demands of modern warfare as well as financial economy saw colours and many traditional embellishments disappear by 1916 during World War I (1914–19). Armies were clothed in monochromatic shades of khaki, grey, or sky blue.
World War II
During World War II (1939–45), uniforms were made in varying shades of khaki and grey, and became more utilitarian as the war progressed. Camouflage uniforms were introduced for special military units because they were even more effective than khaki for concealment.
Camouflage was widely adopted during the Cold War period (1945–91) after World War II and refined during the Vietnam War (1959–75). Desert versions were introduced during the Gulf War (1900–91). Camouflage remains an essential military tool today, with hundreds of patterns used by armies throughout the world.