The military of the world have had an unmistakable impact on fashion. Whether it be the varied terrain, weather encountered, or nature of living in one’s uniform, over the last several hundreds of years these factions have become responsible for pieces that don’t just merely take up real estate in the closet, they are cornerstones of menswear. Here are but a few staples that deserve a crisp salute.
According to The New York Times, “During the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), Croatian mercenaries arrived in Paris dressed for battle with bright scarves tied so tightly around their necks that the men often fainted during maneuvers. The French, naturally, adapted the look, looping the scarves rather more loosely in a style that became known as ”La Croate” and later ‘La cravate.”’ Though the cravate is regarded as the true forerunner to the modern tie as a fashion statement, it would take a few hundred years for the tie to evolve to the narrow strip of cloth we think of today as a necktie.
Following their defeat to the United States in the Revolutionary War, the British continued to wear brightly-colored outfits of their “Redcoat” brethren despite many clamoring for a change in tactic. It wasn’t until the 1840s when Harry Lumsden, a commanding officer in a unit of the Bengal irregular cavalry, introduced the highly unorthodox notion ”that a tight scarlet tunic with a high stock was not the most suitable garment in which to wage war in the plains of the Punjab in the hot weather.” According to The New York Times, “Lumsden gave his men coarse cotton smocks and pajamas, wrinkled cotton jackets and turbans all dyed with mazari, a local plant that turned everything a sort of dull brownish gray. The leather goods were dyed with mulberry juice, which produced a more yellowish tone, but both colors became known as khaki, from the Persian word “khak,” which means earth, dust or ashes. Once institutionalized, khaki’s official name became “drab.”
As new airplanes of the 1930s were allowing people to fly higher and farther, so too arose a problem associated with the advancement in altitude: Many U.S. Air Force pilots were reporting that the glare from the sun was giving them headaches and altitude sickness. Thus, a new type of eyewear/goggles was commissioned by the Army Airs Corps to Bausch & Lomb, which was then ultimately brought to the public for consumption in 1937. It featured plastic frames and the classic aviator shape, which reduced the sun’s intensity on pilot’s faces and instruments. A year later, a slight remodel in the form of metal frames and the official designation as “Ray-Ban Aviators” solidified what is now considered both a utilitarian and stylish statement. Over the years, research and development resulted in innovations such as the gradient mirror lens – which featured a special coating on the upper part of the lens for enhanced protection, but an uncoated lower lens for a clear view of the plane’s instrument panel – further suggesting that they’re every bit as tactical as they are practical.
No other item of outerwear embodies heritage British style as much as the trench coat. While the piece has become synonymous with the Burberry brand, the roots are debatable and include another label, Aquascutum. For the latter, the history goes back to 1853, when the company produced practical coats for officers fighting in the Crimean War using its patented waterproof wool. For Burberry, Thomas Burberry entered a design to the War Office in 1901 for an officer’s raincoat made using his very own patented cotton gabardine fabric and featuring large lapels, convertible collar and epaulets.
The name “Cardigan” is attributed to James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan and British Army Major General, who led the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War (which as you may have guessed it, also birthed the creation of the balaclava – a town near Sevastopol in Crimea). From a fashion perspective, 17th century fishermen in France and the British Isles are said to be the early adopters of heavy knits which could withstand blustery conditions, but still retained a regal silhouette inspired by the British waistcoat.
Designed by Klaus Martens – a German doctor in World War II who was on leave from the army due to an ankle injury suffered while skiing in the Bavarian Alps – who noticed that his bum foot needed extra comfort that his military-issue boots couldn’t provide. After tinkering with softer leather and cushioned soles, his partnership with Dr. Herbert Funck may best be remembered for counterculture connotations, but their roots were indeed authoritative in the company’s infancy.
The word camouflage is said to have originated from the Parisian slang term camoufler (meaning “to disguise”) after the French army began employing artists to paint their artillery and observation posts in the now ubiquitous pattern, instead of their more traditional white gloved and pantalons rouges attire in World War I. In a 1917 Op-Ed in The New York Times pertaining to the relatively new practice of camouflaging oneself, they offered, “It is a wonderful opportunity, this game of hokus-pokus.”
The “pea” in pea coat is derived from the Dutch word “pije,”which refers to the type of cloth used – a coarse kind of twilled blue cloth fabric with a nap on one side, first made popular in the 16th century and favored by the Dutch who were a naval power. It was aesthetically pleasing, but durable and warm thanks to the double-breasted nature of the construction, large lapels and vertical pockets. The coat was quickly mimicked and modified slightly according to the amount of wool needed, depending on the region where one was sailing.
During World War I most airplanes didn’t have enclosed cockpits, so the daring sharpshooters of the sky had to be outfitted with coats suitable of the high-speed and icy climates at altitude. While the Royal Flying Corps – the air arm of the British Army – favored long leather coats, the U.S. Army established the Aviation Clothing Board in September 1917 and began distributing heavy-duty leather flight jackets. They featured high wraparound collars, zipper closures with wind flaps, snug cuffs, and waists, which we now equate with the instantly recognizable bomber. According to Midwest Vintage, “In the early 1930’s, years before WWII, the U.S. Air Corp was issued the A2 Bomber Jacket and it became standard issue in 1931. These jackets were made of seal skin leather and cotton lining. However, as the requirement for these jackets grew, supplying seal skin was considered impractical. The department of war went on to start making the Type A2 Bomber Jacket out of horsehide which at that time was plentiful. The A2 was a waist length leather jacket that featured two front patch pockets, and webbing attached to the bottom of the jacket and at the end of the sleeves to close out the air in addition to shoulder epaulets.”
The White T-Shirt
The white T-shirt was officially designated as a part of the U.S. Naval uniform in 1913, as a means to both beat the heat in tropical climates and aboard submarines, and to avoid soiling their uniform while doing dirty jobs.
The concept of the fishtail parka design was to offer flexible protection during extreme cold weather through the detachability of all parts, with the “fishtail” designed to be tied around the legs for extra insulation. Used by U.S. troops during the Korean War, the M51 (named after the year it was put into mass production) was the result of previous attempts to create the perfect version of the coat during WWII, such as the OD-7 and the M-4. Needing to be warm but not cumbersome due to the wet climate they were encountering, the resulting waterproof nylon and cotton construction certainly did the trick.
The Wellington Boot
While the Duke of Wellington instructed a shoemaker, Hoby of St. James’ Street, to make modifications to his 18th-century Hessian boots, production of the “Wellington” was dramatically boosted during World War I due to the flooded trenches in Europe and the need for a boot that would be suitable for the conditions. Crafted out of technology invented by Charles Goodyear, who had managed to understand the vulcanization process for natural rubber, (instead of employing knee-high leather like the earliest versions) the success of the prototypes in keeping soldier’s feet dry resulted in 1,185,036 pairs being made to meet the British Army’s demands.
The Clarks Desert Boot was designed in 1949 by Nathan Clark and launched at the Chicago Shoe Fair a year later. While he was stationed in Burma as an officer in the Royal Army Service Corps in 1941, he couldn’t help but notice the shoes favored by off-duty Eighth Army officers, who were keen on crepe-soled boots made from rough suede from Cairo’s fabled Old Bazaar, and which performed well in the arid climate. While other pieces of footwear with military influences relied on their rugged versatility, the birth of the Desert Boot was distinct in that it drew from “off-duty” sensibilities.
According to Ben Grant of the University of Oxford, “Cargo pants were first worn in 1938 by British military personnel. These cargo pants were part of their Battle Dress Uniforms (BDU). The original cargo pant style featured one pocket on the side thigh and one on the front hip. Cargo pants were first worn in the United States on military uniforms in the 1940s. The side cargo pockets initially were only on paratroopers’ uniforms, providing them with easy access to ammunition and radios.”
The Cartier Tank Watch
Louis Cartier created the Tank watch in 1917 and presented the prototype as a gift to General Pershing – an officer in the United States Army who led the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I – some years before the watch was introduced into the market in 1919. Designed after the modernistic Renault tank, the watch’s brancards are undoubtedly like the parallel treads of a tank, making it “the first elegant wristwatch destined for the modern man of action.”