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The Basics of Military Uniforms

Uniforms help promote a sense of cohesion and belonging among service members and communicate power and discipline to our allies and enemies alike.

For service members, uniforms are a form of communication; they covey rank, years of service, occupational specialty, special assignments and specific awards won, all in a glance. Uniforms also serve a practical purpose, making it easy to quickly identify who is in charge in every situation – from a formal briefing to a firefight.

Your service member will have a number of uniforms, some which look very different from each other. Uniforms differ by service branch, season, gender, occasion and many other factors. The truth is there are hundreds of variations across the military – much more information than can be covered here.

Service members are required to memorize all of the uniforms, insignia and ribbons during basic training. For friends and family, just a basic understanding of uniforms can help you understand the organizational structure and connect with the rich history of the military.

What are the different types of uniforms?

As a beginner, it helps to know that each uniform serves a specific purpose and falls into one of three general categories: the combat uniform, the service uniform or the dress uniform.

  • Combat or “working” uniforms are more informal and easier to move in. They are most often made up of a tunic – a heavy-duty jacket – pants, t-shirt, a cover (hat) and boots. Combat uniforms are patterned in green or tan camouflage. Service members do wear this type of uniform in combat, but it is also common for them to wear it while performing day-to-day duties in non-combat settings. Insignia – symbols identifying a service member’s rank – are present, but subdued, on combat uniforms.
  • Service uniforms are “every day” uniforms. Green, white, blue or khaki, these uniforms include a button-up shirt, slacks or skirt, dress shoes and cover. Service uniforms are similar to business dress – intended for office environments and for service members interacting with the public. Insignia are prominently displayed on service uniforms. Service members may also wear “awards” or “decorations” above their right breast pocket. These small, color-coded stripes are awarded for specific duties, missions and accomplishments.
  • Dress uniforms are more formal and can be elaborate. These uniforms include a formal jacket or jumper, slacks or skirt, a cover and dress shoes. Dress or “mess” uniforms may be white, blue, green or black. In some branches, there are different types of dress depending on the formality of the event. Insignia are prominently displayed on dress uniforms, as are awards, decorations and medals.

Military Uniforms by Branch

Though the uniforms for each branch of military service are all different, to an untrained eye it can be tricky to identify which branch a service member is a part of at first glance.

Army Uniforms add
Marine Corps Uniforms add
Navy Uniforms add
Air Force Uniforms add

Military uniforms are a central part of military culture. You may notice your service member acts a little differently while in uniform. That may be because there are strict rules of conduct and etiquette that apply to service members when they are in uniform.

It’s best to follow your service member’s lead and embrace the long and proud history of military uniforms, and the service members who have worn them, past and present.