The story of … the military jacket

The Beatles’ bright costumes can be seen as cheeky nostalgia for an empire in decline. Jeremy Chan

The story of … the military jacket

The Beatles’ bright costumes can be seen as cheeky nostalgia for an empire in decline. Jeremy Chan

Fashion and war don’t seem an obvious pairing, but the military jacket is a fashion staple. It may take the form of a double-breasted dress uniform with brass buttons and epaulettes, trimmed in rock star braid, or it may be a khaki combat jacket, worn with Doc Martens and a scowl.

Here I explore how these two forms of the military jacket were frogmarched into fashion.

One of the most enduring of military jackets is the elaborate regimental dress uniform with its rows of horizontal gold braid across the front and gold tasselled epaulettes on the shoulders.

Cornet Henry John Wilkin, a British Hussar from the Crimean War, 1855. Wikimedia Commons

Its origins are the 18th century hussars, the Hungarian light horse troops. Their pelisse, or braided outer coat, was high-collared with fur cuffs and fur lining. Although designed for pomp rather than comfort, this uniform became the model for many forms of military dress uniform.

The tailored style, fur detailing and braid trims of the dress uniform found their way into women’s clothing almost from the beginning, with 19th-century fashionable women wearing clothing inspired by officers’ uniforms. It may have begun as a way to show solidarity with their officer husbands, but the jackets were also very flattering. The braid and brass was bold yet decorative, bringing a certain frisson through being a feminine reworking of styles from a resolutely masculine vocation.

Long after the kinds of wars the hussars fought had ended, fashion and the military jacket met again, when the shop I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet on Portobello Road in London’s Notting Hill began selling antique military uniforms. Eric Clapton was the first rock star to buy from the shop, followed by John Lennon and Mick Jagger. Jagger purchased a red Grenadier guardsman drummer’s jacket and wore it performing on Ready Steady Go.

Rolling Stones - Paint It Black (Ready Steady Go).

Jimi Hendrix, himself a former soldier, famously purchased an antique hussar’s uniform that dated back to the 1850s. Many of Hendrix’s most iconic photographs have him wearing it, bare-chested beneath and with wild hair, a universe away from the upright officer who must have worn it 90 years prior.

Around the same time, military regalia made an eye-popping appearance in Sgt. Peppers-era Beatles. Designed for their mock Edwardian-era military band, their acid bright costumes can be seen as cheeky nostalgia for an empire in decline.

Jimi Hendrix at the amusement park Gröna Lund in Stockholm, Sweden, May 24, 1967. Wikimedia Commons

From there, the many variations of the original hussar’s pelisse became a rock and roll trope. Michael Jackson wore many forms of it in his stage costumes. He was the King of Pop, so he dressed the part, posing like royalty in scarlet dress uniform with gold tassels and braid.

Adam Ant, Chris Martin from Coldplay and Rihanna have all worn variations of the dress uniform, adding another layer of history to the military jacket. Fashion designers from Lagerfeld to Givenchy have offered versions. Wearing it now conjures up not only the pomp and ceremony of another world, but also a subversive, rock-star hedonism.

No doubt the uniform Hendrix wore while serving in the US army was far-removed from the 1850s cavalry jacket he wore as a rock star. But the humbler khaki jacket of the troops has also been absorbed into fashion.

Jackson at the White House being presented with an award by President Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy Reagan, 1984. Wikimedia Commons

In 1940s Britain, the regulations imposed under the wartime Utility Clothing Scheme meant fashions become boxier and less embellished through necessity. The amount of fabric and style of garment were tightly regulated, and extraneous details such as pocket flaps were banned. As women joined the war effort, they wore uniforms just as the men, and these styles found their way into civilian clothing.

Well after the war ended, the utilitarian styles of the troops were embraced in a very different spirit by youth subcultures. Fashion theorist Elizabeth Wilson recalls how in the 1970s, army surplus gear:

was de rigueur if you were in the “alternative” Left, a “Libertarian”, feminist, anarchist or general revolutionary.

This grittier form of the military uniform can be seen as an anti-establishment protest in punk, 90s grunge, and “crusties’” styles.

Courtney Emery

Drawing on this, high fashion and fast fashion alike regularly trip out versions of the khaki military jacket. The 2000s saw “glamourflage” versions (a confection of glitter and fatigues) hit catwalks and shopping centres, while on our TVs we watched the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Now the protest first associated with wearing army surplus gear has slipped away, and khaki jackets and “camo” prints are just another fashion style.

Season to season, military jackets are reinvented, and references to combat fatigues, storybook soldiers and rock stars are all mixed up and made new again.

In new iterations, as a recent US Vogue declares, military jackets are “blasting into the future, with moulded shapes, sci-fi accessories, and Jedi-warrior attitude”.

And so fashion will no doubt keep on co-opting the grit and glamour of military uniforms, both real and imagined.


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