The Sartorial Splendor of the Air Force That Was

June 1, 1991

Some thirty-five years before US forces were ordered to the Persian Gulf, the Air Force unveiled the uniform for just such a parched environment. Fortunately for the troops in Operation Desert Storm, it had a mercifully short life.

The Air Force’s original idea was to allow short pants as a clothing option. What emerged in the 1950s, however, was a full tropical wardrobe, complete with Bermuda shorts, knee-length socks, bush jacket, and optional pith helmet.

When freshly pressed, the outfit didn’t look bad on the models in the uniform manual. In the field, particularly on stocky men with knobby knees, it looked ludicrous. Noncoms fumed that the outfit made them look like oversized Boy Scouts. Wives said that, just to keep it presentable, it had to be washed and ironed every night. Several generals said they wouldn’t be caught dead in the thing. After going through a brief trial run, the Air Force gave the outfit a decent burial.

Ironically, that ill-fated uniform had grown out of the Air Force’s effort to correct the unmilitary state of dress that had prevailed in the old Army Air Forces. As one general officer put it, “the exigencies of war and undesirable practices have permitted officers to deviate from a prescribed uniform to the point where they have been designing their own and the name ‘uniform’ has lost much of its meaning.”

That trend began long before World War II. From the beginning of military aviation, flyers outfitted themselves in ways that distressed their ground-bound superiors. In a sense, the “aviator look” had become a metaphor for their struggle for independence.

It hadn’t begun as a revolt. The first airmen simply wanted something practical to wear in their open-frame aircraft. The old Army uniform, with leg-hugging breeches and high-necked blouse, was adequate to a point, but it had its limitations. In warm weather, many preferred light civilian clothes. In the cold, they piled on sweaters, hunting jackets, and even fur coats.

Bugs and Goggles

Flying posed unique hazards, such as colliding with flying bugs and being pitched out of the machine head first. To guard against these perils, pilots adopted the goggles used by race drivers and the helmets worn by football players and motorcyclists. Soon civilian garment makers were offering a full line of gear designed specifically for aviators. What the Army didn’t buy for them, military flyers bought on their own.

On the ground, airmen conformed fairly well to regulations. By World War I, however, they were mixing bits of flight gear with their service uniforms. In combat zones, at least, the Army chose not to notice if a pursuit pilot wore his flight boots and woolen muffler into the mess.

Even the regulation uniform took on a distinctive, if not always legal, Air Service flavor. By 1917, insignia makers were bootlegging collar insignia with a winged propeller superimposed on the crossed flags of the Signal Corps. These became so popular that the Army authorized them. By war’s end, the flags were gone altogether and only the winged propeller remained, later to become the official Air Corps insignia.

The Air Service approved silver wings for pilots, observers, and balloonists. Those who flew with British or French forces wore their foreign wings as well. Some mixed RAF flight caps and blouses with their US uniforms. Others, including Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, wore pins bearing the emblems of their wartime squadrons.

Between the wars, pilots continued to fly in whatever mixture of military and civilian clothing served the purpose. On the Army’s 1926 goodwill flight to Latin America, Capt. Ira Eaker landed in Rio de Janeiro in helmet, goggles, and shorts. Three years later, when Question Mark set a week-long endurance record, Captain Eaker and other crew members wore plus fours, baggy knickers favored by golfers.

When enclosed cockpits gave flyers something like a shirtsleeves environment, they were more willing to fly in prescribed uniforms. In the early 1930s, the Air Corps introduced a light, horsehide jacket that created a whole new set of problems. The aviators fell in love with the A-2 jacket, and the Army spent the next decade trying to convince them it wasn’t part of the service uniform. (The jacket was retired after World War II, but it made a comeback in the 1980s, not only in the Air Force but also in the civilian market. It sold for $17 during World War II. Replicas now cost up to $250.)

By 1939, the Army Air Forces had authorized an array of distinctive insignia. Besides their lapel pins, AAF members could wear the patch of the Air Corps on one shoulder and that of a numbered air force on the other. More than a dozen types of wings existed. There were sleeve patches for aviation specialists and dangling badges for mechanics and technicians. The uniform was still Army, but the adornments made it unmistakably AAF.

Still, some airmen, particularly aircrew members, felt compelled to make their own fashion statements–for example, with footwear. Some favored high-heeled cowboy boots, pants legs stuffed into tops. Others, flying the southern route overseas, picked up gaudy gaucho boots in Brazil. Still others “borrowed” jump boots from paratroopers or thick-soled brogues from British colleagues. Everything from sandals to sneakers was acceptable so long as it wasn’t government issue.

The A-2 jacket remained the outer garment of choice for almost all occasions until Gen. Dwight Eisenhower appeared in a British-style, waist-length blouse. Before the Army could make the Ike jacket official, airmen were having local tailors chop the tails from regulation blouses and turn them into stylish, if not always authentic, copies. With wings, shoulder patches, and even combat ribbons embroidered into the fabric, some creations were works of art. Others were surrealistic nightmares.

The “Fifty-Mission Crush”

Flyers took even more outrageous liberties with the AAF headgear known officially as the garrison cap. The desired look was the “fifty-mission crush,” attained by spending long hours aloft with radio earphones clamped over the crown of the hat. In practice, most combat flyers spent so much time in helmets and oxygen masks that their caps didn’t see that much wear, at least not enough to become authentically “crushed.” To achieve the desired raunchiness, therefore, caps had to be conditioned.

One wartime service journal prescribed six steps for speeding the process: Remove metal stiffener; soak cap overnight, in sea water if available; stuff with folded towel and wrap with string; leave cap in direct sunlight until only slightly damp; remove string and stuffing and wear until dry; for added character, sprinkle with light engine oil and run over with Jeep.

Ground officers, particularly those from the prewar Army, shuddered at such desecration. But what could they do when such senior generals as Jimmy Doolittle, “Tooey” Spaatz, and “Hap” Arnold were wearing the same disreputable headgear

Stateside discipline was tighter, but the flyers still managed to cut a distinctive figure. The most popular uniform for AAF officers was the Army’s standard “pinks and greens,” an olive-drab blouse or battle jacket with gray trousers of a slightly reddish cast. Embellished with wings, shoulder patches and other adornments and crowned with a well-crushed cap, the outfit fairly sang of “the wild blue yonder.”

When the Air Force gained independence in 1947, members still wore the uniforms of their “brown shoe” days. Air leaders two years earlier had begun planning a separate USAF wardrobe, but their efforts were slowed by disagreements and other problems. In one early effort at consensus, Brig. Gen. William Hall, then deputy assistant chief of the Air Staff, issued a lengthy memo offering various possibilities for discussion. For color, his shop favored dark gray but offered such alternatives as medium green, cocoa, and sapphire blue.

General Hall also proposed a duty uniform with a short battle jacket and a dress outfit with a single- or double-breasted blouse. The double-breasted model, he noted, would hide a protruding stomach, while the single- breasted would add an illusion of height. He suggested Navy-style rank stripes for officers. For enlisted men, he favored chevrons that wrapped halfway around the sleeve. Otherwise, he said, the uniforms should be identical for all ranks.

No Identical Uniforms

Other staff officers disagreed, to put it mildly. Some wanted a two-tone outfit like the old pinks and greens. Most vetoed the proposed rank insignia. Brig. Gen. Francis Griswold, another deputy assistant, flatly rejected the idea of identical uniforms for all grades. “Good enlisted men,” he said, “respect officers of superior appearance.”

There was almost unanimous agreement on one point. Maj. Gen. Lauris Norstad, assistant chief of the Air Staff, put it this way in a memo: “‘Heartily concur in the necessity for discouraging any attempt to destroy the neat and military appearance of the uniform by deforming the headgear. Witness the absolutely unacceptable top pieces now worn by many of our officers.”

By the time the leaders agreed on a basic blue uniform and went to Congress for funding, they faced another problem. The Defense Department had been established to unify the services. Many lawmakers, rather than being enthusiastic about giving the Air Force its own uniform, wanted to put all services in a single suit. USAF leaders rallied the other services to oppose the “purple suit” idea and assured Congress that having their own uniform would make Air Force members no less loyal to the overall establishment. Newly installed Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington told the lawmakers, “Airmen need and are entitled to that feeling of pride of organization which is engendered by the wearing of a distinctive uniform, whether it be Army, Navy, or high school band.”

On the second try, the Air Force got its funding. By April 1949, the new blue uniform was ready for distribution. It opened to mixed reviews. Some members liked the outfit’s no-nonsense simplicity. Others thought it dull. When they tried to give it more character by shining the buttons and “processing” the new service cap, they were frustrated. A process of oxidation had permanently dulled the buttons. Worse, the cap had a foam rubber ring sewn into it that resisted the best efforts to produce a fifty-mission crush.

If the blue suit lacked the dash of the old pinks and greens, however, there was some consolation in the new summer combination. It included the old Army khakis set off with a blue cap, blue belt, and black shoes. The two-tone effect became even more satisfying when the khaki was replaced with a “silver tan” material. Even the blues weren’t so dreary when they were decorated with enough badges, patches, and other insignia.

The Pentagon had something else in mind. Officials wanted a “plain blue suit,” and they began systematically to strip off the offending hardware. Some members thought it ironic that the generals, with chests full of ribbons and caps covered with lightning bolts, wanted everybody else to wear an uncluttered uniform.

The first adornments to go were the relics of the Air Force’s Army past. Unit emblems, shoulder patches, overseas stripes, service bars, marksmanship medals, specialty badges all disappeared. Pilots’ and crewmen’s wings survived, but the badges for other aeronautical ratings were redesigned or made obsolete.

Where’s the Bus Station

As their uniform was denuded, airmen complained that they were being mistaken for bus drivers. This writer, when stationed in Baltimore, was approached one day by a woman who demanded to know why the transit company didn’t run vehicles north on Charles Street.

The strip-down operation continued until Headquarters committed a tactical error. It ordered members to remove their “US” lapel insignia. That was too much. Outraged troops likened the action to burning the flag. Were we ashamed to be Americans? Did we have to copy the British in everything? Why not just put everybody into pinstripes and derbies and be done with it

Flooded with such complaints, the Pentagon rescinded the order, and the drive to unclutter the uniform ground to a halt. Not long after that, in fact, the trend was reversed. During one of the Air Force’s recurring bouts of poor retention of personnel, somebody decided that specialist badges for a few of the hardest-to-hold skills might help relieve the problem.

It was another miscalculation, but this time there was no turning back. When one group got a badge, six more demanded equal recognition. Soon devices existed for missile men, pararescuers, JAGs (military lawyers assigned to The Judge Advocate General), academy professors, and a flock of medical specialties. Security police, fire fighters, and air traffic controllers received whole families of ratings to identify different levels of proficiency.

Commands added their own touches, including colored shoulder loops for NCO Academy graduates and others in key positions. The Air Force countered that trend by issuing new service ribbons to recognize such achievements.

Then came the beret craze. When the Air Force approved blue berets for special security units, other outfits wanted their own. Soon the floppy headgear, legal and otherwise, blossomed in all colors of the rainbow.

To keep things from getting out of hand, the Air Force allowed members more leeway to decorate flight clothes and fatigues. It limited the number of qualifying badges they could wear at one time and discouraged commands from adding their own devices. The uniform never quite achieved the business-suit look that some officials had in mind, but it stopped short of becoming the Christmas tree that some members seemed to want.

Over the years, the uniform evolved. Summer tans were replaced by all-seasons blues. The Ike jacket, which survived briefly in Air Force blue, was retired. Fabrics became softer; dyes improved. Lightweight shirts with contrasting epaulets were introduced. In a move that convulsed traditionalists, the Air Force even allowed male personnel to wear earmuffs and carry umbrellas.

Interring the WAC Uniform

The men’s uniform was born of the Air Force’s effort to repair the damage incurred during its AAF past. The women’s uniform, however, had a different origin.

The first Air Force women also happened to be former members of the Women’s Army Corps. Many held bitter memories of the WAC uniform. They had reason. Early versions of that outfit were designed and produced largely by men. The result was a scaled-down male uniform, complete with shirt and necktie. The main concessions to femininity were an ill-fitting skirt and a hat that looked like a gun turret.

When recruiting of women slumped and the Army realized that its unattractive uniform was part of the problem, it came out with an improved version. Since officials intended for women to work largely in office jobs, they did not think to provide them with adequate work clothes. Throughout World War II, Air WACs worked on flight lines and in motor pools in men’s fatigues.

When the Air Force began to rework the women’s uniform, it wisely followed the example of the Navy, which outfitted its wartime WAVEs through women’s fashion houses. The new WAF outfit reflected the male uniform but was clearly feminine.

During the early years, the Air Force seemed preoccupied with maintaining a ladylike image in the WAF. At one point, the Chief of Staff ordered the Recruiting Service to accept only attractive recruits. Applicants had to submit full-length photos. In her book, Women in the Military, Maj. Gen. Jeanne Holm, now retired, recalls that “it was a beauty contest, and the commander of the Recruiting Service was the final judge.”

Air Force women were encouraged to wear pumps rather than oxfords or combat boots. They were reminded that ladies did not attend social functions without wearing gloves and never removed their hats on such occasions. Well into the Vietnam War, women in the field still did not have suitable work clothes.

In time, more occupational specialties opened up to women, and the uniform became less a costume and more a working outfit. The Air Force gave ground on small adornments such as earrings, but it held the line against some of the more radical civilian fads. It fought off bouffant hairdos and reached a negotiated settlement on the Afro style.

However, when the “real world” went into miniskirts, Air Force officials were hard-pressed to cope. They eased regulations to let hemlines creep to the top of the knee, but no higher. It didn’t matter. As General Holm recalls, Air Force women simply rolled their skirts at the waist and achieved the look.

In a sense, the short skirt was the Air Force woman’s equivalent of the fifty-mission crush. In the end, both gestures were quashed in the interest of good order and discipline. Both were statements of a sort, suggesting that even in the best-regulated organizations, individuals will still tend to do their own thing.

Between tours of active duty during World War II and the Korean War, Bruce D. Callander earned a B.A. in journalism at the University of Michigan. In 1952, he joined Air Force Times, becoming editor in 1972. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine, “The Aces That History Forgot,” appeared in the April 1991 issue.