The Evolution of Military Style

Michael Jackson's custom red wool military-style costume mixed theatricality with familiar pomp.
Michael Jackson's custom red wool military-style costume mixed theatricality with familiar pomp.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Judging by current fashion news, the "military trend" can seem just that -- a trend. Epaulets are a fad that will eventually go the way of Members Only jackets and poodle skirts. But those who've done their homework know different: Fashion has loved the military look since gold buttons and braid first graced an officer's jacket.

It can seem an odd pairing, fashion design and the trappings of battle, but on closer inspection it starts to make sense. Yes, fashion design dictates cuts and colors, but it also reflects the zeitgeist of an era -- note Yves Saint Laurent's gasp-worthy introduction of women's pants in the 1960s.

The love affair goes back at least to the 18th century with the Spencer jacket, a cropped version of formal outerwear worn by British officers. Napoleon's fingerprints were also all over 19th century French fashion.

But the relationship found solid, lasting ground with the Great War. In the early 1900s, the eyes of the world rested anxiously on the cold, wet battle trenches of Europe, where soldiers desperately needed coats that would keep them dry. Thomas Burberry, it turned out, had just the thing ...

War and Fashion: Practical Roots

Before World War I, fashion's use of military elements was mostly decorative: buttons and brocade; intricate mohair braiding; short, stiff collars. Beginning with World War I, however, the relationship started to take practical form. The British boys in the trenches needed warm, heavy, water-resistant coats, and Thomas Burberry offered to make them. (Actually, the Aquascutum fashion house may have designed the trench coat first, but that's a whole different battle.)

The fashion industry, like every other one, was affected by and involved in the war effort, and the famous Burberry trench coat was on the battlefield before it ever graced Fifth Avenue.

The jump to civilian fashion came later, when the war ended, and it turned out Burberry's gabardine coat, with all its military bells and whistles, did well in peace time, too. By the mid-1940s, the trench coat was utterly stylish.

Both of the World Wars were fashion fodder when it came to outerwear. Bomber jackets, field jackets and pea coats all started as military issue. Fashion designers, attracted to the military-grade function, adopted the forms and adapted them to suit civilian style -- adaptation that grew increasingly artful as peacetime set in, fabric supplies were renewed, and designers returned full-force to their stylish day jobs ...

War and Fashion: An Aesthetic

The singer Monica rocks epaulets on a military-inspired coat.
The singer Monica rocks epaulets on a military-inspired coat.
Michael Buckner/WireImage/Getty Images

By the late '40s, runways were back in business. Designers were back at their studios. Fashion editors were dictating. And "military style" became an art.

In the hands of high-fashion, uniform elements were transformed by feminized shapes, bright colors, soft fabrics, cut-outs, sequins and bustier structuring never seen in any foot locker. Creative interpretation in haute couture surely contributed to the look's remarkable staying power.

Hollywood's insistence on a cause-effect relationship between World War II-era trench coats and deep, desperate kisses probably didn't hurt, either. (Nor did the later appearance of "M.A.S.H" character Hot Lips Houlihan in some very flattering olive-drab tees.)

"M.A.S.H.," in fact, coincided with a turn toward the military-authentic that helped the trend become a full-fledged fashion statement. By the '70s, wearing a U.S. Army jacket said something about the wearer -- more often than not, something ironic. Canvas, military-issue rucksacks paired with tie-dye took on college-uniform status.

In the 21st century, it's desert-camouflage doing the talking, though its message (if there is one) can be difficult to read. But no matter: What camouflage clothing, and military-influenced fashion in general, says about a wearer's politics is secondary to what it says about the wearer, which is pretty consistently this: I am an individual. I do what I like. I don't much care what you think.

It's ironic, but so appealing, and in the end, it may be the strongest thread running through military style in modern times. Lady Gaga's human-hair epaulettes; 1990s Seattle-export combat boots; Old Navy cargo pants; Ralph Lauren's beaded field jacket circa 2012 -- maybe it all just signals an abiding desire to take fashion beyond the "merely" fashionable. To humanize it.

That, and it sells.

For more information on military trends, fashion history and current style, check out the links on the next page.

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More Great Links


  • La Furla, Ruth. "Fashion's Military Invasion Rolls On." The New York Times. Feb. 19, 2010. (Sept. 3, 2012)
  • "Military Influence." Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) Museum. Feb. 24, 2010. (Sept. 3, 2012)
  • "Military Trends to Resurface in 2010." Daily Fashion Tips. (Sept. 3, 2012)
  • "Most Recent Collections." The New York Times Fashion & Style. (Sept. 3, 2012)
  • Topor, Lauren. "War and Fashion: Political Views and How Military Styles Influence Fashion." Masters Theses and Doctoral Dissertations. Department of Technology: Master of Science in Apparel – Textile Merchandising. Eastern Michigan University. Jan. 1, 2008. (Sept. 3, 2012)
  • "The Trench Coat: A History." Aug. 17, 2011. (Sept. 7, 2012)