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Air Force uniform variations through the years

The United States Air Force uniform is the standardized military attire worn by Airmen of the United States Air Force. Specific Air Force Instructions address standardized wear that is identical for members of both the Active Component (i.e., the Regular Air Force) and that of the service's two reserve components that comprise the Air Reserve Component, that being the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard. This includes personnel in the Air Force's sole enlisted accession program, Basic Military Training (BMT), and the three USAF commissioned officer accession programs: Officer Training School (OTS) officer trainees, college/university level Air Force Reserve Officers' Training Corps (AFROTC) cadets and United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) cadets. Provisions are also included for authorized wear on certain occasions by honorably retired career members of the Air Force, to also include retirees of both the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard.

Wear of modified versions of the Air Force uniform is also authorized for the service's civilian auxiliary, the Civil Air Patrol, provided its members adhere to military grooming and modified weight standards. Similar provisions are provided for civilian teenaged high school students participating in the Air Force Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps (AFJROTC) program.

Proper wear of the U.S. Air Force uniform is outlined in Air Force Instruction 36-2903 (AFI 36-2903), Dress and Personal Appearance of Air Force Personnel.


Early designs

When the U.S. Air Force first became a fully separate branch in 1947 personnel continued to wear uniforms nearly identical to the U.S. Army. The first Air Force-specific blue dress uniform, introduced in 1949, was in Shade 1683, also dubbed "Uxbridge Blue" after the former Bachman-Uxbridge Worsted Company.[1][2] An Ike jacket, inherited from the Army Air Forces but in Shade 1683, was an optional uniform item.

In the early 1960s the blue uniform, including headgear, transitioned to a new and slightly updated version known as Shade 1549. The Ike jacket gave way to a long sleeve winter blue shirt with epaulettes and ties in Shade 1549. In the case of this shirt, which would continue in use until the early 1980s, epaulettes were unadorned, with officers wearing small rank insignia on the collar and enlisted personnel sewn-on cloth insignia on the sleeves. Service cap devices, "U.S." collar insignia and occupational insignia worn on the left breast had a satin nickel finish, while officer rank insignia had a mirror finish.

Gen Merrill McPeak wearing the short-lived uniform redesign he proposed as Air Force Chief of Staff, 1993

Tan service dress uniforms and tan long sleeve shirts nicknamed "silver-tans" for the sheen of the particular shade continued into use into the early 1960s. Tan short sleeve cotton shirts and trousers for males also continued in use until the mid-1970s, while females wore light blue combinations. In the early-1970s, a light blue Shade 1550 short sleeve shirt or blouse and Shade 1549 dark blue trousers replaced these. Early versions of the short sleeve Shade 1550 shirt in the 1970s were characterized by small pin-on metal rank insignia for officers, similar to what had been the case for the Shade 1505 shirt, while enlisted personnel continues to wear sewn-on cloth sleeve rank insignia. This variant was later replaced by a new short sleeve shirt in Shade 1550, plus a long sleeve shirt in Shade 1550 with dark blue (Shade 1549) tie, both of which incorporated buttonable shoulder epaulette straps. For officers, a dark blue slip on "soft rank" shoulder loop was created to slide over the epaulettes, with rank insignia consisting of embroidered metallic thread on a dark blue background, while enlisted personnel continued to wear cloth rank insignia on the sleeves with the shoulder epaulettes unadorned. This 1550/1549 uniform combination replaced earlier duty uniform variants and the blue service dress uniform became the single form of service dress.

The first proposals for a service uniform featured minimal ornamentation, at the request of top commanders. However, many lower-ranked officers requested more specific badges and insignia. This debate continued into the 1980s, at which point the viewpoints in favor of greater badges and insignia had generally prevailed, and badges were issued for almost all occupational areas.[3]

Prior to 1993, all Air Force personnel wore blue service uniforms (Shade 1549 coats and trousers and Shade 1550 shirts) very similar in appearance to the green Service Dress "A" and "B" uniforms of the U.S. Army. A short-lived "ceremonial blue" uniform and "ceremonial white" uniform was also implemented in the mid-1980s and discontinued by 1 August 1994 and 1 March 1993 respectively.[4] Mandatory for field grade officers and above, the blue version was identical to the blue service uniform with the exception of silver metallic sleeve braid replacing the dark blue mohair sleeve braid and hard "should board" insignia from the officer's mess dress uniform worn in lieu of large metal rank insgnia. The white uniform was identical in cut and style to the blue version and also incorporated the metallic sleeve braid and shoulder board rank insignia.

Future plans

Gen. C. Robert Kehler models a test version of the proposed Air Force service dress

On 18 May 2006 the Department of the Air Force unveiled two prototypes of new service dress uniforms, one resembling the stand-collar uniform worn by U.S. Army Air Corps officers prior to 1935, called the "Billy Mitchell heritage coat," and another, resembling the U.S. Army Air Forces' Uniform of World War II and named the "Hap Arnold heritage coat". If the stand-collar coat was selected, it would be the first stand-collar "everyday" uniform to be issued since the 1930s (the U.S. Navy's and U.S. Coast Guard's male service dress white and full dress white and the U.S. Marine Corps' male service dress blue and full dress blue uniform stand-collar coats are worn for formal occasions only).[3][5] In 2007, Air Force officials announced they had settled on the "Hap Arnold" look, with a belted suit coat, but with narrower lapels than the original prototype.[6] However, in 2009, General Norton Schwartz, the new Chief of Staff of the Air Force, directed that "no further effort be made on the [Hap Arnold] Heritage Coat" so that the focus would remain on near-term uniform needs.[7] While the evaluation results of the heritage coat would be made available to the Air Force's leaders should they decide to implement the uniform change, the uniform overhaul is currently on hold indefinitely.

Current uniforms

Standard uniforms

Service dress

Current Service Dress uniforms worn by senior general officers and the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force

The current U.S. Air Force Service Dress Uniform, which was initially adopted in 1993 and made mandatory on 1 October 1999, consists of a three-button coat, similar to that of a men's "sport jacket" (with silver mirror-finish "U.S." pins on the lapels), matching trousers, and either a service cap or flight cap, all in Shade 1620, also known as "Air Force Blue." This is worn with a light blue shirt (Shade 1550) and a herringbone patterned necktie (Shade 1620). Metal buttons on the dress uniform were also changed at this time, transitioning satin finish buttons that employed the contemporary U.S. Air Force seal to a historically significant retro insignia that had been used by the U.S. Army Air Forces as a shoulder patch during World War II. This change was also applied to buttons on service hats retaining the chin strap and to buttons on mess dress uniforms, to include mess dress shoulder board insignia for officers.

Enlisted airmen wear cloth rank insignia on both sleeves of the jacket and shirt, while officers wear metal rank insignia pinned onto the epaulets of the coat, and Air Force Blue slide-on loops ("soft rank" shoulder insignia) on the epaulets of the shirt. Officers also wear a band of dark blue cloth sleeve braid loops 3 inches from the cuffs of the sleeves of the coat. Braid is worn in a 1/2-inch width for officers in the rank of colonel and below and in a 1-inch width for general officers.

The service dress uniform currently worn is a modification of the original version envisioned by former Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Merrill McPeak, which featured no epaulets for any rank, and silver sleeve braid loops on the lower sleeves denoting officer rank (see also: United States Air Force officer rank insignia). This style of rank insignia for officers, while used by British Royal Air Force officers and air force officers of other British commonwealth and former commonwealth nations, is also the style of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard service dress blue uniforms, as well as those of navies of nearly all other nations. The insignia was unpopular and many senior Air Force generals commented that the uniforms of the Air Force now looked identical to those of commercial airline pilots. The McPeak Uniform was abolished in 1999 and remains the shortest issued military insignia series in the history of the United States armed forces.[citation needed]

Epaulettes were put back on the coat for metal officer rank insignia and braiding returned to the bottom of the sleeves. But the compromise uniform continued to be unpopular, primarily from its civilian-style cut. Several additional changes were made to make the jacket seem more military in appearance.

The current USAF service dress uniform continues to include the three button blue coat. However, as a matter of practicality for daily duty, particularly in warm weather climates, USAF personnel will typically wear the short-sleeve or long-sleeve Shade 1550 light blue shirt (for men) or short-sleeve or long-sleeve light blue blouse (for women) as an outer garment, with or without a tie or tie tab, with applicable rank insignia, speciality badges and a blue plastic name tag (ribbons are optional). A variety of alternate outer garments are also authorized for this uniform combination such as blue pullover sweater, blue cardigan sweater, lightweight blue jacket, or brown leather A-2 flight jacket (A-2 flight jacket wear is limited to aeronautically rated officers, enlisted aircrew, and officer and enlisted space and missile operations personnel only).[8]

Women's service dress uniforms are similar in color and style to the men's service dress uniforms, but can also include additional articles including a skirt, stockings, and women's style flight cap. A maternity uniform is also authorized.

Mess dress

Mess dress for general officers (left) and officers(right).

The Mess dress uniform is worn to formal or semi-formal occasions such as Dinings-in, Dinings-out, the annual Air Force Ball, weddings and other formal functions where civilian "black tie" would be prescribed. Until the early 1980s, this uniform differed from the current version, previously consisting of separate mess jackets, a white mess jacket worn in spring and summer and a black mess jacket worn in fall and winter, combined with black trousers and ties for males and an options of a black cocktail length or black evening length skirt for females. Black cumberbunds for males and females and white and black service hats for males were also proscribed, although wear of these hats was often optional. The current mess dress uniform in use since the early/mid-1980s consists of a dark blue mess jacket and mess dress trousers for males and a similar color evening length skirt for females. The jacket features ornate silver buttons, and is worn with the service member's awarded medals in miniature size, wings in miniature size, or other specialty insignia over the left breast, command insignia over the right breast for colonels and below (if applicable), satin air force blue bow-tie for males or tab for females, and a satin air force blue cummerbund. Cufflinks are to be either shined or flat round silver, or have the air force star and wing emblem, dark blue suspenders may also be worn, but remain hidden while the jacket is on. Commissioned officers, USAFA and AFROTC cadets, and OTS officer trainees wear hard shoulder epaulets (i.e., shoulder boards) similar to those worn by commissioned officers of the U.S Navy. Cadets and officer trainees wear insignia on their shoulder boards as applicable to their pre-commissioning rank position in their respective officer accession programs. Commissioned officer shoulder boards for colonels and below feature an officer's rank insignia in raised metallic thread, bordered by two silver vertical metallic stipes similar to sleeve braid. General officers wear shoulder boards covered nearly the entire length and width in silver metallic braid, with silver stars in raised metallic thread in number appropriate to their rank. Enlisted personnel wear the same large rank insignia that they would wear on their service dress coats. Officers also wear a single silver metallic sleeve braid on the lower sleeves of the Mess Dress coat, with sleeve braid coming in two widths, in a 1/2 inch width for colonel and below, and in a 3/4 inch width for Brigadier General and above. Enlisted personnel wear no sleeve braid. No hat or nametag is worn with the Air Force Mess Dress Uniform.[8]

Utility uniform

U.S. Air Force airmen in the Airman Battle Uniform

U.S. Air Force utility uniforms, also known informally as "fatigues," have continuously evolved since the Air Force became an independent service in 1947. Until 2011, USAF utility uniforms were the same as those of the U.S. Army, with the exception of unique USAF insignia. In the 1960s, this was a solid green uniform, differing from its Army counterpart with cloth white insignia on an ultramarine blue background for "U.S. AIR FORCE" and last name nametapes above the pockets, white collar rank insignia on a green background for officers (with the exception of yellow thread replicating gold for rank insignia for 2nd Lieutenants and Majors) and blue and white sleeve rank insignia for enlisted, a full color patch of the major command (i.e., SAC, TAC, MAC, ATC, etc.) worn on the right pocket, and a blue belt. As the Army transitioned to black and brown subdued insignia on a green background on their utility uniforms in the late 1960s and 1970s, the Air Force effected a similar transition to subdued insignia in the 1980s, transitioning to blue or brown on a green background and with subdued major command patches also employing subdued reds and black.

In the 1980s and 1990s, as the U.S. Army increasingly transitioned to the Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) in woodland camouflage, the Air Force also followed suit, retaining the USAF versions of the subdued cloth insignia of the previous utility uniform. As the Army concurrently incorporated the first version of the Desert Camouflage Uniform (DCU) at the time of the first Gulf War in 1990/1991, so did the Air Force, followed by its replacement the second iteration of the DCU worn by all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces from the mid-1990s through 2011. In the case of the Air Force, subdued brown insignia on a tan background was worn on the DCU, with the exception of black officer rank insignia for 1st Lieutenants and Lieutenant Colonels.

For work duty today, USAF ground personnel and flight personnel not engaged in flight operations wear the Airman Battle Uniform (ABU). The ABU replaces the Battle Dress Uniform (BDU), the latter having been discontinued after 31 October 2011.[9][10] The ABU is also authorized as an optional item for flight crew and missile personnel when not directly engaged in flight crew or missile launch duties that would typically require a Nomex flight suit. Flight suits for missile personnel replaced a previous ultramarine blue jumpsuit that was not fire retardant.

The ABU was issued to Airmen deploying as part of Air Expeditionary Force 7 and Air Expeditionary Force 8 (AEF 7 / AEF 8) in Spring 2007. In October 2007, ABUs were issued to enlisted Basic Trainees at the Basic Military Training School (BMTS) at Lackland AFB, Texas, and became available for purchase at AAFES outlets by the rest of the Air Force in June 2008.[11]

Airmen wearing the new PT Uniform

Due to its lack of flame resistance, the ABU is no longer considered an appropriate uniform for combat duty. Air Force personnel deploying in support of OEF are also being issued Airman Battle System-Ground (ABS-G) uniforms.[12] Beginning in August 2010, the Air Force began planning to issue Operation Enduring Freedom Camouflage Pattern uniforms for Air Force personnel deploying in support of that operation.[13][14]

Pilots, navigators/combat systems officers, air crews and missile crews will continue to wear olive green or desert tan one-piece flight suits made of Nomex for fire protection when performing, or when in direct support of, flying or missile duties, or when otherwise prescribed. HH-60 aircrew are authorized a two-piece Nomex desert tan flight suit in certain situations. The black leather boots previously worn by flight crew and missile personnel with green flight suits were discontinued on November 2011 and all personnel now wear the same green suede boot with green flight suits as directed for the ABU. The exception to this rule is the desert tan flight suit, where tan suede boots remain the prescribed footwear.

Physical training uniform

The Air Force designed a new physical training uniform that became mandatory for wear on 1 October 2006. The gear consists of shorts, t-shirt, jacket and pants. The shorts are AF blue with silver reflective stripes on the leg, a key pocket attached to the inner liner and an ID pocket on the outside of the lower right leg. The t-shirt is a moisture-wicking fabric with reflective Air Force logos on the upper left portion of the chest and across the back. The jacket is blue with silver reflective piping and a reflective inverted chevron on the back. The pants are blue with silver piping and reflective stripes. The jacket and pants have since been redesigned with a lighter, quieter material.[15] A line of commercially manufactured running shorts is also authorized for wear.

Distinctive uniforms

U.S. Air Force uniform regulations authorize personnel assigned to public duties, and some other, units to wear "distinctive uniforms," a similar concept to the "special ceremonial units" identified in U.S. Army uniform regulations.

Band uniforms

Chief Master Sgt. Edward J. Teleky in the uniform of USAF Band Drum-Major

Personnel assigned to the United States Air Force Band, the United States Air Force Academy Band, and regional bands of the U.S. Air Force wear the ceremonial band tunic: a blue blouse with a choker-style, instead of open, collar, and silver-braided epaulettes. The uniform may be worn with either white or black gloves, at the local commander's discretion. Nametags are not worn with the ceremonial band tunic. As with other United States military bands, drum-majors may replace the blue peaked hat with a bearskin helmet, and add a baldric with campaign ribbons.

Command uniforms

Gen. Norton Schwartz, Gen. Mark Welsh III and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James A. Roy wearing command ceremonial uniforms in 2012.

The Air Force Chief of Staff and the Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force are authorized to wear a special ceremonial uniform consisting of a choker-style blouse with silver-braided epaulettes. Blouses for the command ceremonial uniforms are similar to the ceremonial band tunic, however, have different collars and add a silver-braided belt. Each uniform costs $700 with the wearer required to personally pay for purchase.[16]

Equestrian uniform

Maj. Laurie Lanpher in Air Force equestrian uniform

The U.S. Air Force "Equestrian Competition Service Dress Configuration" is a special uniform authorized for wear during formal dressage events sponsored by the United States Equestrian Federation. The equestrian uniform is similar to service dress, but features white riding breeches in lieu of blue trousers. Black gloves, a black helmet, and black riding boots with silver spurs are also worn.

Honor guards

U.S. Air Force SNCO in honor guard uniform with ascot

The U.S. Air Force Drill Team, a special demonstration performance unit, as well as base honor guards, and the USAF marching unit, wear the distinctive honor guard uniform. Modeled on the service uniform, the honor guard uniform adds a silver-braided belt, silver aiguillette, white cotton gloves, and white ascot. Large medals are worn in lieu of ribbons. "Ceremonial headgear" consists of a blue peaked hat with polished black visor.

Informal uniform

Bandsmen, recruiters, chaplains, and fitness center staff are permitted to wear the Air Force "informal uniform" while on duty. This civilian-style dress consists of khaki trousers, a blue Air Force-logo polo shirt, and solid black athletic shoes.

Security forces

USAF Security Forces are authorized, at commander's discretion, to modify the standard service dress with the addition of the blue Security Forces beret, white ascots with the USAF logo, and white cotton gloves. Footwear in this modification consists of bloused, spider-laced, black boots. Security Forces also wear the SF shield on the left breast pocket.

Cadet uniforms

U.S. Air Force Academy cadets wearing parade dress uniforms

Prospective commissioned officers in a pre-commissioning status, for example, U.S. Air Force Academy cadets, college and university AFROTC cadets, and OTS officer trainees, wear slide-on cadet or officer trainee "soft rank" insignia on their shirts and hard "shoulder boards" (similar to commissioned officer mess dress shoulder epaulette insignia) on their service dress coats, again with cadet or officer trainee rank insignia appropriate to their specific commissioning program. The typical headgear for all is a side cap ("flight cap" in U.S. Air Force nomenclature) with medium density silver metallic thread piping.

Cadets at the United States Air Force Academy are also authorized a unique, institutionally-authorized parade dress uniform consisting of blue-grey waistcoats worn with white trousers, and white peaked hats. The cadet parade uniform was designed by Hollywood film director Cecil B. DeMille, who received the Secretary of Defense Exceptional Civilian Service Award for his work on the academy's uniforms.[17]

Civil Air Patrol

Personnel of the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), the all-volunteer civilian auxiliary of the United States Air Force, are permitted to wear certain Air Force uniforms with distinctive CAP markings and insignia. Senior Members (age 18 and older) may only wear Air Force style uniforms if they meet military grooming and slightly modified military weight standards. Cadets (age 12–21) must only meet military grooming standards until their 18th birthday, at which time they must meet both military grooming and military weight standards. Members who don't meet Air Force standards may wear alternate CAP-specific uniforms.

Air Force uniforms authorized for wear by Civil Air Patrol members include Service Dress, Mess Dress (for Senior Members only), the woodland camouflage Battle Dress Uniform (BDU), the green Nomex flight suit, and the CWU-45P green Nomex flight jacket, the latter two items being restricted to aircrew only. CAP distinctive markings include gray "soft rank" shoulder loop insignia for CAP officers for use with the duty uniform, as opposed to the similar dark blue "soft rank" shoulder loops of Air Force officers. This insignia is also worn by CAP officers on the Service Dress coat, whereas Air Force officers wear pin-on metal rank insignia. The CAP Mess Dress uniform is also distinctive in that the parallel braid stripes on shoulder boards for CAP Senior Member officers in the ranks of Major General and below worn on Mess Dress uniforms, and the sleeve braid for all CAP Senior Member officer ranks, are dark blue cloth versus the silver metallic cloth worn on Mess Dress uniforms by Air Force officers.

Cadet enlisted uniforms also differ in rank placement, with collar pins instead of the sewn sleeve chevrons traditionally worn by enlisted Air Force members. Cadet officers wear dark blue "soft rank" shoulder loops similar to USAF officers on duty uniform shirts, but wear distinctive hard shoulder board insignia on the Service Dress coat in a manner similar to OTS officer trainees and AFROTC and USAFA cadets.

Currently, CAP senior members and cadets also wear the woodland camouflage BDU with white on ultramarine blue service tapes name tapes and, white or yellow collar rank insignia on an ultramarine blue background, similar to what was previously worn by United States Air Force personnel on the since-discontinued solid green Air Force fatigue uniforms of the 1960s and 1970s. These changes are made to reduce confusion in identifying and differentiating the actual military members of the Active Duty Air Force, the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard versus the civilian members of CAP as the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary. With the October 2011 phaseout of the BDU and transition to the ABU by all U.S. Air Force personnel, the Air Force is in the process of determining the distinctive insignia provisions that will permit CAP to also integrate into the ABU.

Special uniform situations

Campaign hats

USAF Military Training Instructor wearing campaign hat

As with the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps, drill instructors in the U.S. Air Force - known as Military Training Instructors - are authorized to wear a campaign hat. The Air Force campaign hat features the Great Seal of the United States on a silver disc.

Highland dress

Airmen of the Band of the Air Force Reserve Pipe Band in highland dress with President Barack Obama in the White House Diplomatic Reception Room.

The U.S. Air Force tartan was issued in 2001, however, the United States Air Force Pipe Band has a separate tartan designed by Strathmore Woollen Company. The ensemble, now officially known as the Band of the Air Force Reserve Pipe Band, wears highland dress, including kilt and sporran, though only when performing together. The Band of the Air Force Reserve Pipe Band is - along with the U.S. Coast Guard Pipe Band - one of only two kilted units in the United States military (other than those maintained by state defense forces and the service academies).

See also


  1. "Getting the Blues, by Tech. Sgt. Pat McKenna". Air Force Link. Archived from the original on 2 February 2007. Retrieved 24 September 2007. [dead link]
  2. "walking tours-Uxbridge". Blackstone Daily. Retrieved 23 September 2007. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Whatever Happened to the Plain Blue Suit? By Bruce D. Callander, Air Force Magazine Online; Journal of the Air Force Association, July 2006, accessed 11 November 2007.
  5. Air Force News. New service dress prototypes pique interest. Retrieved 18 May 2006.
  6. New service coat to better represent Airmen set for testing, by Staff Sgt. J.G. Buzanowski, Air Force Link (official USAF website), 19 July 2007, accessed 11 November 2007.
  7. New uniforms: Comfortable, functional are goals, by Col. Steve Gray, Air Force Link, 15 May 2009, accessed 24 August 2009.
  8. 8.0 8.1
  9. Air Force Link, (2006). Airman Battle Uniform finalized, ready for production. Retrieved 17 March 2006.
  10. Memo from HQ AFPC Sep
  11. Air Force Link, (2006).Battle Uniform available to deploying Airmen this spring. Retrieved 10 December 2006.
  12. U.S. Air Forces Central (2008). [1]. Retrieved 10 Jun 11.
  13. Air Force Link (2010). [2]. Retrieved 10 Jun 11.
  14. Military Times (2010). [3]. Retrieved 10 Jun 11.
  15. Air Force Times. [4]. Accessed 10 Jun 11.
  16. "Formal unis for top 2 leaders bring controversy". Air Force Times. Retrieved 1 January 2014. 
  17. Nauman, Robert (2004). On the Wings of Modernism: The United States Air Force Academy. University of Illinois Press. 

External links

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