The United States Army wanted a spiffy new service uniform, one that would stand out in a tough recruiting environment and polish the Army’s image after a generation of grinding and divisive wars.
So it turned the clock back. Way back.
It chose a new uniform that looks almost exactly like the old green gabardine wool field coat and khaki trousers that officers wore in World War II. Probably not by coincidence, that’s what the Army was wearing the last time the nation celebrated total victory in a major war.
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“We went back and asked, when is the most prominent time when the Army’s service to our nation was universally recognized, and the answer came very quickly,” said Daniel A. Dailey, the sergeant major of the Army, the highest-ranking enlisted soldier in the service. “That victory, that impact on the nation, is still felt today by the sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters of the ‘Greatest Generation.’”
The troops who beat the Axis powers in the 1940s gave the service uniform, with its slightly rose-hued trousers or skirt and distinctive belted olive coat, an affectionate nickname: “pinks and greens.” This time around, the Army has decided to just call them Army Greens.
At a White House event for veterans in April, President Trump praised the style.
“Those beautiful new uniforms with the belt — it was a big deal, the belt,” he said. “And if you think those uniforms were inexpensive, they were very expensive. They were very. But they wanted it, and we got it.”
Army Greens will be the military equivalent of a business suit, which the Army largely stopped using during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just as civilians have been dressing more casually in professional and social settings, troops have been wearing camouflage fatigues in situations that used to call for a jacket and tie, like office work or travel between bases. Even in the Pentagon, officers spend a good deal of their time in combat boots.
With far fewer troops deployed in combat operations now, though, the Army has signaled that it wants to get back to the old spit and polish. It is hoping that reintroducing an iconic service uniform from the days of the Band of Brothers and Rosie the Riveter will help reframe its public image.
The new service uniform is currently in field tests with a few military bands, recruiting battalions and other highly visible troops. With Sergeant Major Dailey overseeing the process, the Army plans to roll out the new uniforms to all soldiers starting in 2020. Soldiers will even be given the option to buy a retro-styled leather bomber jacket to go with the uniform.
The Army says that while the new service uniform will cost more than past models to make, it will also last longer, making it cost-neutral overall.
In recent years, when the Army has wanted to look sharp, troops have been wearing blue. The current dress uniform (which will be retained for ceremonial use) includes a dark blue coat with light blue trousers or a skirt — colors chosen to evoke the Continentals who fought under George Washington and the Union Army of the Civil War.
If that uniform has not caught your eye, it may be because Army Blues can be hard to distinguish, not just from similar Navy and Air Force uniforms, but also from a sea of blue-clad civilians: police officers, firefighters, commercial pilots, even doormen, said Kenneth O. Preston, who served as sergeant major of the Army from 2004 to 2011.
“People think you’re a cop,” Mr. Preston said. “They are always stopping you and asking you for directions.”
As it happens, that is the same problem that had originally prompted the Army to retire the pinks and greens. After the war ended in 1945, millions of demobilized troops gave away the olive drab uniforms they no longer needed, and heaps more were sold by the Army as surplus. Before long, they were everywhere in civilian life, and had become drab in every sense of the word.
Durable and dirt cheap, they became the de facto uniform for field hands, road gangs and trash collectors. An Army major named A.M. Kamp Jr. lamented in the 1954 edition of the Defense Department’s Quartermaster Review that they could be widely seen on prisoners, drunks and “any tramp or derelict who at once adopted the new clothing as his Sunday best.”
“The soldier, being constantly confronted with the debauchment of his uniform,” Major Kamp wrote, “soon loses his pride in wearing it.”
So that year, the Army began issuing a sleek, modern-looking gray-green polyester-blend service uniform, based on 1950s business suits. Both officers and enlisted soldiers wore that service uniform for the next half-century, until the style was phased out in 2007.
“That 1950s was my favorite uniform, very modern, very smart, very American,” said Bruce Bassett-Powell, a historian of military dress and a British Army veteran who now lives in Texas. “But it’s too tied up in associations with Vietnam. And it became the prototype for the uniform of nearly every dictator in South America and Asia. So I suppose it’s best to move on.”
Trying to ride the triumphant coattails of past generations through military dress is hardly new. Mr. Bassett-Powell noted that when Napoleon III of France declared war on Prussia in 1870, he dressed his soldiers to look like the army that his much more famous uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte, had led decades before to conquer much of Europe. The nephew’s war didn’t turn out so well — he was defeated and captured at Sedan, and his imperial regime collapsed.
Change the uniform too much, and you risk losing the continuity, legitimacy and authority communicated by an Army’s traditional design. “Plastic buttons or a Peter Pan collar simply wouldn’t feel right,” she said.
On the other hand, change the uniform too little, and you risk continuing to blend in with the doormen, the pilots and other fashion usurpers.
“The right uniform immediately exudes trust and power — it’s a shorthand that says, ‘Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing,’” Ms. Craik said. “Imagine the opposite: If you got on a plane and the pilot turned up in jeans and a T-shirt, you might get right off.”
An effective military uniform, she said, has to be distinctive but also immediately recognizable, and the best designs should reflect an institution at its best.
“That’s why I think they decided to go back to the old style,” she said. “World War II is seen as a just war, a good war. This uniform says, ‘We are the good guys.’”