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9 interesting reasons behind US military uniforms

Have you ever been sweating the details of an inspection or searching the rack at the PX and wondered how your branch's uniforms came to be? Here are 9 reasons behind the uniforms in seabags and footlockers worldwide today:


1. Why are there three white stripes on a sailor's jumper?

Joaquin Phoenix in "The Master." (Photo: The Weinstein Company)

The three white stripes go back to the U.S. Navy's origins and the service's ties to the British Royal Navy. Each stripe represents one of Lord Nelson's major victories (the wars of the First, Second, and Third Coalition, which included the Battle of Trafalgar).

2. What's the flap for on the back of a sailor's jumper?

(Photo: U.S. Navy, Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Scott Pittman)

Jumper flaps originated as a protective cover for the uniform jacket because sailors greased their hair to hold it in place. (In those days showering wasn't an every day thing.) (Source: Bluejacket.com)

3. Where did a sailor's black neckerchief come from?

(Photo: U.S. Navy)

The black silk neckerchief was originally a sweat rag. Black was chosen as the color because it didn't show dirt. (Source: Bluejacket.com)

4. Why do sailor's wear bellbottoms?

(Photo: U.S. Navy Historical Command)

Bellbottoms are easier to roll up than regular trousers, and sailors have always had occasion to roll pant legs up whether swabbing decks or wading through the shallows when beaching small boats. (Source: Bluejacket.com)

5. Why does the eagle face to the right on emblems?

World War II-era officer's crest. (Photo: Navy archives)

The eagle on an officer's crest actually faced left until 1940 when it was changed to conform with "heraldic tradition" that hold that the right side of a shield represents honor, while the left side represents dishonor.

6. Why is the Army Service Uniform blue?

Anybody know where we're going? (Photo: U.S. Army, Eboni Everson-Myart)

The origin of the blue Army service uniform goes back to the earliest days of the nation when General George Washington issued a general order October 1779 prescribing blue coats with differing facings for the various state troops, artillery, artillery artificers and light dragoons. The Adjutant & Inspector General's Office, March 27, 1821 established "Dark blue is the National colour. When a different one is not expressly prescribed, all uniform coats, whether for officers or enlisted men, will be of that colour." (Source: Army.mil)

7. What is the meaning of the symbol on top of a Marine Corps officer's cover?

(Photo: AntiqueFlyingLeatherneck.com)

The quatrefoil -- the cross-shaped braid worn atop an officer's cover— represents the rope pre-Civil War era officers wore across their caps to allow sharpshooters high in the rigging of a sailing ship to identify friend from foe in a shipboard battle.

8. What does the Marine Corps' Eagle, Globe, and Anchor emblem represent?

(Photo: U.S. Marine Corps)

The eagle represents the United States. The globe represents the Corps' willingness to engage worldwide. And the (fouled) anchor represents the association with the Navy as an expeditionary fighting force from the sea.

9. Why doesn't the U.S. Air Force have much in the way of uniform traditions like the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps?

Somewhere in this picture is a four-star general. Nope, not her. Good guess though. (Photo: U.S. Air Force, Michael J. Pausic)

The USAF is a relatively young service, having been formed from the Army Air Corps after World War II.  That lack of heritage has made creating meaningful uniform symbology a challenge, and Air Force leader's attempts to improve uniforms have generally caused confusion or been met by the force with a lack of enthusiasm. In fact, at one point in the 1990s the Air Force actually had three authorized versions of the service dress uniform. The result of all of this has been a fairly straightforward (read "boring") inventory of uniforms over the years.