The nature of war has changed dramatically since George Washington crossed the Delaware. And the way soldiers dress reflects those changes.
Those who have never served in the military would find it hard to believe the attention placed on a soldier's appearance. Army Regulation 670-1 governs the wear and appearance of the Army uniform and is constantly revised. But it goes far beyond just uniforms. It covers shaving, haircuts, and hairstyles; fingernail polish, length, and cleanliness; tattoos, piercings, and dental work; and even extends to off-duty appearance. AR 670-1 is the reason you won't find soldiers with their hands in their pockets.
This degree of micromanagement is one of many reasons many, including myself, decide not to make the Army a career. During my nine years in the service, I followed regulations like a professional soldier, but after I came back from combat each time I found it increasingly difficult to care about what color gym bag I could or couldn't carry.
And yet, when I joined the U.S. Army in 1999, I starched and pressed my uniform every day with creases so sharp you could cut bread with them. I polished my boots to a shine so high you could see your soul in it. Some soldiers used to soak their uniforms in buckets of starch and iron them until they could stand up on their own. Others used hair dryers to melt and re-melt their boot polish. A few used floor wax. Many would turn their uniforms in to the cleaners every week to be pressed. Some even bought their own industry-grade machines. Every Monday morning at 9:00 a.m. there was a showdown to see which platoon had the sharpest looking troopers.
After I came home from Iraq the first time in 2004, a pressed uniform and shined boots just weren't that important to me anymore. Some leaders I'd known seemed more impressed by a "squared away" uniform than a soldier's actual ability to do their job at war. Many of my former colleagues privately felt leaders should be focused on fighting wars, not looking good in garrison. These arguments will never die.
Yet U.S. Army uniforms remind us of our history, an ever-present sight during our national holidays. There are the blue and grey coats of early America; the browns of WWI; the olive drabs of WWII and Korea; the "tigerstripe" of Vietnam; the Woodland of the Cold War and Balkans; the "Chocolate Chip" of the Gulf War; the desert pattern of the Iraq War; and the grey pixels and "MultiCam" of Afghanistan. The U.S. Army's uniforms have evolved over centuries along with the conflicts they have fought in as the need for camouflage has remained an important constant for the military in the modern era.
Before the 20th century, there was no such need to blend in with the surroundings. Armies fought pitched battles in colorful and often heavy wool uniforms arrayed on opposing sides of a large field. The rationale behind the uniforms of the 18th and 19th centuries was largely identification. Any school kid in America knows the British wore red. The French and Russians often wore blue or white. There was also an element of pride and flash in the uniforms, as Dukes and Counts often paid to maintain their own regiments and wanted them to look sharp. Some of them paraded them about like their own real toy soldiers. They tried to use colors that stood out well in the fog of battle and were easily distinguished from the enemy.
These bright uniforms may seem silly today, but they were worn in a time where there were no electronic communications to relay to commanders what was happening on the battlefield. The brightly colored uniforms allowed generals to look across the field and see where their troops were holding, failing, or advancing. It was not the kind of warfare where anyone took cover when battle was joined, even amid artillery shelling. Armies rarely dug or constructed bunkers or breastworks unless under siege. Imagine Napoleon and Lord Wellington looking across the smoke-filled battlefield with their field glasses. They knew only what they could see or messengers could relay to them. Their staff officers had to track changes in the battle with pieces on a map. Their uniforms were hot, heavy, and uncomfortable, but they served an important function. Military uniforms of the 18th and 19th centuries were made to be seen.
The American colonials largely lacked the funds and time to develop and implement such outfits, or to mimic the European system of designating military units with different colored trims. America's first army under George Washington had no official uniform. The Continental Congress ordered Minutemen to dye their clothing brown, but most didn't have the time or means to do so. As the American experience at Valley Forge showed, they were at times lucky to have coats or shoes at all. The original thirteen colonies fielded their own small organized militias and their uniform styles were as varied as the states they served. Though some were brown, green, or red, those who had uniforms most often wore different types of heavy blue coats with shiny brass buttons, similar to the one famously adopted by General Washington himself.
The U.S. Army of the 19th century largely did away with the big hats, wigs, and ornamental elements of the military uniforms of the past century as time wore on, though they retained mostly blue uniforms of thick wool with shiny metal buttons. The army of the independent Republic of Texas adopted grey uniforms. The Confederacy also chose grey to distinguish its soldiers from the federal blues in the Civil War. It was still generally the kind of warfare where units lined up and marched forward into musket or cannon fire with deadly result, as seen in skirmishes such as Pickett's Charge.
None of the Civil War uniforms were very functional, especially in the climate of the American south and west. During the battle for Atlanta in the summer of 1864, hundreds of soldiers on both sides suffered from exhaustion and heat stroke in their wool uniforms under the Georgia sun. Soldiers suffered similar problems in the wars against Mexico and the Native Americans on the Great Plains and in southwestern deserts.
The turn of the 20th century brought with it the idea that uniforms should be made for utility and concealment. Previous U.S. Army uniforms hadn't taken the climate or terrain much into account, other than perhaps to mercifully adjust the wear or weight of their material for summer. In 1902 the U.S. Army, learning from Britain's experience in colonial Africa and India, adopted the khaki uniform, known as "drab."