Monday, December 31, 2012

BACK TO BLUE - After 108 Years the US Army Returns to Blue for its Service Uniform

By Mark E. Hubbs

“When a Soldier can be brought to take delight in his dress, it will be easy to mold him to whatever else may be desired, … therefore every method should be pursued to accomplish what may so justly be looked on, as the foundation of order and economy in a Corps.”

The United States Army announced on June 6, 2006 that the suite of Army dress service uniforms would be streamlined to one blue dress uniform to be known as the Army Service Uniform.  The change was begun in 2008 and is expected to be fully instituted in the regular Army, Army Reserve and National Guard by 2014.  The Army green uniform will be phased out and the uniform previously known as “dress blues” will become the new “Class A” uniform.  It will be authorized for wear for any situation where the old green uniform would have been appropriate and will also continue to be worn for formal occasions in a slightly different form.  For many, this may seem like a break from tradition, but the shift back to blue is actually a return to the uniform colors that have been in use in America since before the Revolutionary War.

In the generations leading up to the change, a soldier’s uniform was intended as both a dress uniform and combat uniform.  When most of the European powers began to experiment with green and gray-green uniforms at the end of the 19th Century, the U.S. Army followed their example.  Blue for field uniforms began to be phased out in 1898 for khaki tan.  In 1902 a new olive drab uniform was introduced.  Soldiers began to receive it in 1906 as stocks of the old blue uniforms ran out.  By the time our Doughboys sailed for France in 1917 all blue uniforms for field and dress had been eliminated.  The shade of green has changed through the years, from the olive drabs used until after World War II, to the deeper green used in the current dress uniform.  Also, by the time of World War II, the dress uniform became separate from the more practical garments used for field and combat wear.

The American association with blue as a uniform color began in colonial times when many militia units chose blue for their uniforms instead of the red of regular army British troops.  This was most likely done to ease logistics, as indigo for blue dye was grown in the colonies, where most red dyes were imported from Europe.

The first standardized uniform used by the fledgling American Continental Army was also blue.  In early 1777, the Continental Congress allocated funds to procure 30,000 “ready-made” uniforms from French contractors.  Dr. Benjamin Franklin was part of the American commission in France who made arraignments for the uniforms to be made.  Franklin, and fellow commissioner Silas Deane, designed a uniform equal in quality, but unlike the design used by the French Army.  The American uniforms were built with cold American winters in mind.

The first of the French contract uniforms arrived in March, 1778 and immediately caused a stir in the Continental Army.  A shortage of blue wool broadcloth resulted in the delivery of only half of the uniform coats in blue.  The rest were made in brown wool.  Both were constructed with red lapels and cuffs.  They came only in small, medium and large, with the largest size similar to our medium size of today.  An Army inspector reported, “The greatest part of what I have seen of them are exceedingly good. . . the coats well cut, have a tasty air and that great quality of being at the same time large and warm. . .

Courtesy: Todd Post, 2nd Virginia Regiment
 The troops, however, desired blue uniforms and detested anything other than blue.  As a result, General George Washington,“in order to prevent disputes & jealousy among the Troops of the Main Army. . .  and to give them all an equal chance,” decided that lots would be drawn to determine which of his regiments would receive the blue coats and which would receive the hated brown.  In the end, the allocations were made by state.  Nine states were represented in Washington’s army at the time.  Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire were stuck with brown until additional blue uniforms could be made.  Washington later issued a general order in 1779 which standardized all government issued uniforms to be blue, with cuffs and facings of various colors to indicate the home state of the soldier.

Blue became so associated with the U.S. Army and our new nation that The Adjutant & Inspector General's Office on March 27, 1821 stated, "Dark blue is the National colour.  When a different one is not expressly prescribed, all uniform coats, whether for officers or enlisted men, will be of that colour."  
As the uniform evolved throughout the 19th Century, the enduring constant was the color blue for the uniform coat.  The trousers emerged as light blue in the 1820s.  The wool cloth used for trousers was called kersey and was a coarser, cheaper cloth compared to the expensive wool broadcloth used for uniform coats.  The cheap kersey cloth could not take a consistent deep blue dye as the better quality broadcloth could.  As a result, kersey was dyed a lighter shade of blue.

This tradition in the difference in shades of blue between the coat and trousers is carried on in the modern Army blue service uniform.

So, in the near future when you begin to see our young soldiers in their blue uniforms, don’t think of it as a break from tradition.  Consider it instead, a return to our heritage of the “National Color.”

I originally had this article published in the Spring 2011 issue of The Infantry Bugler, the journal of the National Infantry Associaiton.

Courtesy: US Army



  1. Blue also had political connotations as it was associated with Whigs in 18th c England, to my understanding. Facinating about Kersey not taking the dye-

  2. Going back to a blue dress uniform was definitely a step in the right direction for the Army. A dress uniform should be the repository of an organization's roots, history and traditions.

    The problem with the blue ASU is that it still doesn't quite succeed in doing that. Just take a look at the uniforms from the nineteenth century. All of the jackets have a belt around the waist, which served a functional purpose to the troops who wore it. Those uniforms would have been incomplete without the belt; it would have been just like not having your LBE. The blue ASU has no belt around jacket's waist, and is incomplete as a result.

    Also, the standard headgear for the ASU should not be the black beret, but rather something that would have conceivably been worn by the troops of old, such as a peaked cap or a forage cap.

    1. M.clifford, thanks for your comment. I've been told that the waist belt on class "A" uniforms disappeared after WWII because of the changing nature of American physiques. The belted waist looks sharp on a trim waisted soldier, but most of the troops were much fuller in the waist than earlier generations. The cloth waist belts on the WWII Class "As" were purely decrotive BTW, and did not serve concurrently as load bearing equipment support. I also agree on the beret. Most troops hate them. They should go back to the garrison cap or overseas cap for the ASU.

  3. There is also another reason the top is darker....When the cavalry was first being formed way back when, Soldiers riding horses would take off their jackets and place them in their saddle bags. With most Soldiers only receiving one uniform a year, the pants took quite the beating while the jacket was protected in the saddle bag. This would result in the fading of the color on the pants but not on the jacket. As an honor to our Soldiers of history, this “faded” trouser idea was kept in the uniform. Thus light blue pants and a dark blue jacket... I like this reason more

    1. Eric, yes I heard that bit of military myth though out my Army career. It conjures up romantic vision of the rugged west and hard riding cavalryman. But alas, it is pure myth.