The Minute Book
Saturday, 3 May 2014

British Military Uniforms
Topic: Militaria

British Military Uniforms

British Military Uniforms, James Laver, 1948

We have now followed, in a necessarily abbreviated and inadequate fashion, the history of British Military Uniforms from their beginning, with the rise of professional armies, to their virtual extinction under the conditions of modern, mechanized warfare. What conclusions, if any, can we come to at the end of our enquiry?

An attempt has been made elsewhere to establish the fundamental principles governing the evolution of all costume. These would seem to be -

  • The Seduction Principle
  • The Hierarchical Principle
  • The Utility Principle

The first attempts to make the wearer of clothes as attractive as possible to the opposite sex. It is, in general, the governing principle of female costume, but it is not without influence on men's, and particularly on soldiers' dress. It widens the military man's shoulders, narrows his hips, puffs out his chest, lengthens his leg and increases his apparent height. It plays, therefore, before the days of conscription, an important part in recruiting. Many a man who took the King's shilling did so in the firm conviction that there is nothing like a smart uniform to attract the girls; nor was he often mistaken. The heightening of masculine characteristics might also be considered of value, at least in early days, in intimidating the enemy, but such considerations have long been obsolete. The second principle establishes social position. It is the general principle governing male dress. In military costume it shrinks into a rigid ritualism of rank.

The utility principle has comparatively little influence on civilian costume. In modern male civilian dress it produces a succession of 'sports' clothes which gradually formalize themselves until they are too uncomfortable to be worn for any active pursuit and have to be replaced by something 'easier'. The same is true of military costume.

In considering military uniforms, therefore, we can (having made due note of the succession of stars and crowns and stripes on sleeve and shoulder) ignore the hierarchical principle. Military uniform is a tug of war between the seduction principle (in the sense of the heightening of masculinity, and 'martial' bearing) and the utility principle. Given a long peace, the seduction principle triumphs and soldiers become more and more gorgeous, but a war, especially a long war brings the utility principle once more into operation. The invention of long-range firearms and the raising of immense armies have enormously increased the weight of the utility principle until to-day we may say that the lone tug of war over, at least so far as fighting troops are concerned.

We may therefore attempt to tabulate the following conclusions:

1.     Military uniforms are the appurtenances of Kings' Bodyguards and the professional armies that developed from them. Their history is therefore very short – little more than than two hundred years.

2.     They are founded on contemporary civilian dress, somewhat modified in the direction of toughness by the utility principle, and nearly always modified in the direction of gorgeousness by the seduction principle.

3.     Once established they seem to develop a life of the own, exaggerating all their characteristics to a degree fantasy not known in male civilian dress since the time of Charles II (that is, precisely, the period when uniforms began to develop).

4.     Every war tends to drag uniforms back to the utility principle, expressing itself in looseness (for ease in battle) and in camouflage. Modifications, therefore, are likely to be first seen in the dress of Light Infantry and auxiliary troops generally, and in those engaged in colonial warfare.

5.     Every army engaged in actual fighting is compelled, sooner or later, to develop its own battle dress. The uniform which it has discarded then becomes 'walking-out' dress, that is a 'smartened ' version of the battle dress' of the previous war.

6.     Ceremonial uniform is often the battle dress (formalized and fantasticated) of the last war but one. In the days of huge conscript armies this is only retained by Household troops (that is by the King's Bodyguard).

7.     The general colour of national uniforms (red for Britain, white for Austria, etc.) seems to be determined by accidents of history. That soldiers ever wore red because it did not show blood' (it does show it very clearly as a black stain) is a vulgar error. Once the utility principle has triumphed the colour of all uniforms is an attempt at camouflage.

8.     Military fashions are extremely imitative. The dress of any successful troops will be copied, especially in unessentials, and any victorious nation tends to impose some detail of its uniform on the armies of the world.

9.     Military headgear has two purposes: to protect the soldier's head and to increase his apparent height. The second purpose ruled almost exclusively, from the abandonment of the Cromwellian 'pot' to the First World War. The protection of the head (that is the utility principle) has now triumphed completely (the steel helmet once again) and the only consideration about the soldier's 'hat' is: how quickly and easily can it be stowed away?

10.     Cavalry uniforms follow certain peculiar lines of their own. They strive always for gorgeousness and display, and frequently develop decorations which make it impossible for their wearers to function as cavalry.

11.     All cavalry tends to become 'Heavy' cavalry, and as 'Light' cavalry is always needed in war, recourse is had to the services of 'Auxiliaries'. These have, in the past, generally come from the less settled lands of Eastern Europe, and as their skill on horseback is admired their uniforms are copied, first slavishly and then with increasing fantastication (as, for example, in the astonishing history of the Hussar).

12.     Mounted troops other than cavalry (for instance horse artillery) tend to adopt cavalry uniforms, with a marked preference for that of the Hussar.

13.     Modern uniforms are vestigial in two senses of the term: they have become on the one hand a parade, or walking-out dress, and on the other have shrunk to mere insignia of rank or to miniature badges of territorial or regimental loyalty – a button and a pip. Before an actual assault even these are often discarded. In modern warfare, therefore, the utility principle has triumphed completely and the dress of commandos and tank crews is no more a 'uniform' in the proper sense of the term than are the dungarees of factory hands.

14.     It is probable, however, that uniforms will continue to exist, paradoxically, as the costume of a soldier when he is not fighting.

The Senior Subaltern

Posted by regimentalrogue at 12:01 AM EDT

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