by Tech. Sgt. Pat McKenna


Today, some Americans can distinguish an airman from a soldier, but back in 1948 telling the two apart was a whole lot harder. That's because airmen and soldiers dressed almost identically for several years after Sept. 18, 1947 -- the date the Air Force became a separate service.

It wasn't until January 1949 when the Air Force adopted its shade 84 blue uniforms; however, most airmen didn't have a set of "blues" hanging in their wall lockers until late 1950. In the interim, officers wore the Army's "pinks and greens" and airmen wore ODs (olive drab).

The Army began planning how it would clothe the independent Air Force in 1946 by conducting clothing studies, convening uniform boards, and making prototype outfits. The Army entertained several color proposals for the new uniform including dark gray, chocolate brown, medium green and sapphire blue.

One challenge facing the Air Board: designing a uniform that would appeal to the younger generation while appeasing the old-fashioned sensibilities of the service's leaders. John P. Langellier and Robert L. Sanders wrote in the fall 1987 Aerospace Historian that some feared "the Air Force uniform would be too somber instead of colorful with eye appeal. Lt. Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg went on to note that Secretary of the Air Force [W. Stuart] Symington even exclaimed at one time, 'For God's sake let's not have ODs because it means olive drab. And it means drab. That's the thing we ought to stay away from.'

"Another general further underscored the desire to establish a positive image contending, 'young soldiers want some class, want something with pep in it; old clowns like us maybe want something subdued, but the vast majority of enlisted men and young officers want some color to these things.'"

Secretary Symington and Gen. Carl Spaatz, Air Force chief of staff, gathered a panel of fashion designers in September 1947 to tackle the problem of designing a uniform that would please both camps. What they agreed upon was a color known as Uxbridge 1683, later referred to as Air Force shade 84 blue, and silver buttons emblazoned with the Air Force seal instead of the gold color worn by members of other branches.

General Spaatz favored a braided rank insignia on the sleeve for officers, much in the same fashion of the U.S. Navy and Royal Air Force, and silver wing chevrons on the upper sleeve for enlisted troops. The Air Board, however, recommended keeping the Army rank insignia as a stopgap to expedite production of the new uniform.

Historians credit Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold as one of the original architects of Air Force insignia and badges. He sketched out designs for the first military aviator badge or "wings" when he was a major in 1917, and he also championed distinct garb for fliers.

Many of the unique badges and special clothes previously worn by aviators in the Air Corps and Army Air Forces were removed from the new Air Force uniform, because the Air Board advocated an uncluttered, plain blue suit. Even the propeller, a longtime symbol of military aviation, was jettisoned. Maj. Gen. Hugh Knerr, then Air Board secretary general, said, "You don't want any propellers in a jet age."

The "Air Force Public Relations Letter" (Feb. 11, 1949) urged commanders to explain to their troops and the public "that the uniform is NOT gaudy 'glamour' type ... BUT is plain, distinctive, practical garb which symbolizes Air Force personnel -- men and women who are technically trained specialists, average citizens, members of a highly proud service organization. Uniforms will be identical for officers and airmen, with exception of insignia."

The material used for the jacket and slacks of the Air Force blue uniform was a wool serge. Between then and now, uniform fabrics have also included cotton, 100-percent polyester and the current polyester-wool blend.

From 1955 to 1977, retired Master Sgt. Dave Menard wore almost every combination of the Air Force uniform except for bush jacket and matching shorts.

"It was despised ... it was hideous. Nobody working on the flightline would've been caught dead wearing them," said Menard, a 32-year veteran machinist from Chicago. "It didn't say 'Air Force' to me. You had this khaki bush jacket with big ammo-pouch pockets, khaki shorts, a big belt, black knee socks, and to top it off, you wore a pith helmet. You looked like a big-game hunter in that outfit."

Menard was no fan of khakis either. The original tan khakis, called 505s, were composed of 100-percent cotton trousers and shirt.

"You'd starch the hell out of them until they had razor-sharp creases, but after a couple of hours of wear, they'd look like you'd been on a three-day drunk," said Menard, 60. "As soon as you could afford it, you got rid of the issue khakis and bought what were called 'officer material' 505s, which held a crease longer."

The Air Force later replaced the 505s with "1505" khakis, which required less starch and elbow grease to maintain. The service eventually mothballed 1505s and also removed from its closet herringbone twill coveralls, which were worn by maintainers, mechanics and other airmen who got their hands dirty for a living. Menard said during basic training the quartermaster issued him two sets of "HBTs," as they were called.

"No matter what size they were, HBTs never fit right. The crotch of those things were always hanging down around your knees. They were green and faded pretty quickly. You could line a bunch of guys up on the flightline and no two pair of HBTs would be the same color," said Menard, now a historical researcher for the U.S. Air Force Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.

The item Menard missed the most after it was scrapped from the Air Force wardrobe was the battle, or "Ike," jacket. "It broke my heart when they took it away," he said. "If you had to travel, and you had to wear wool, that was the way to do it. It was cut short so you weren't sitting on it and wrinkling it. It was a lot better than the service jacket, which, when combined with the wheel cap, made us look like bus drivers."

Menard said that during the early years of his career, airmen were required to wear ties when off base. Many GIs would tuck their ties in between the second and third buttons of their shirts, because tie clasps and tie tacks weren't authorized at the time. This fashion custom is said to have begun with soldiers wanting to avoid getting their neckwear snagged in the breeches of firing howitzers and rifles. The style, however, was considered dapper by the public and became the vogue, possibly because people like Spencer Tracy and Gregory Peck modeled it in Hollywood war movies.

Menard said civilian fashion trends oftentimes influenced military dress and grooming. "Hem lines changed with the times," said Menard. "But the WAFs [Women in the Air Force] never went for the mini-skirt craze. You'd only see skirt hem lines change a few inches either way, at the most. But there were always a few people trying to get away with bending the rules."

Like bobbing skirt lengths, hairstyles have also come and gone ... and returned again. The 1950s flattop made a brief comeback a couple of years ago and then faded. From the mid-1960s until the mid to late 70s, long locks were the trend, and the Air Force even relaxed its grooming standards during this period to allow airmen to sport slightly shaggier hair.

Airman 1st Class Don Allred wrote in the February 1971 "Airman" about the service's revised reg and the elaborate techniques some airmen used to disguise their derelict "do." With tongue in cheek, he wrote, "[The regulation] provides a middle ground between military decor and the hairy civilian trend that has everyone from janitors to corporation presidents wearing infinitely long sideburns and hair, endless thatches that flow over the ears and down the neck, to points unknown. . . . Before the reg, people who stuck rigidly to Air Force policy had so much skin showing they had to give the head an "X" rating. Fortunately, the policy wasn't too strictly enforced, so most airmen practiced what was politely called 'hair-styling duplicity.'

"The duplicity arose from an effort to look decent on duty and still be cool with the local chicks. From this came the phenomenon known as hair hiding, accomplished in many ways. Foremost was the Grease-Ball look. You took two jars of paste wax, one bottle of glue, two sticks of paraffin and three packs of chewing gum, mixed 'em in a pan and brought 'em to a boil over a low flame. The mixture was then allowed to cool.

"In about 30 minutes, the concoction condensed to a mucky consistency, which was then troweled onto the hair. This hairstyle proved very effective if you worked outside in the wind. Your hair simply would not move, man."

The practice of grooming duplicity is still witnessed today by a minority of male airmen attempting to hide developing pierced ears. To prevent their punctures from plugging, these fashion slaves must leave studs in their earlobes until their skin heals. Since the Air Force bans men from wearing earrings while in uniform, these airmen must disguise the illicit adornments -- usually by covering them with a Band-Aid -- during a month of cosmetic convalescence.

And with the new rage in body piercing, we may see Band-Aids covering more and more exterior parts (pierced tounges, lips) of airmen.

Recent trends in Air Force grooming and dress concern Menard. He especially detests society's embracing of political correctness and its fallout on the military. On a glass partition in his cubicle is a bogus cloth badge that says "Politically Correct Squadron Patch," which is illustrated with a plain black-and-white bar code.

"What I've heard is that many squadrons aren't allowed to have patches that show demons, skulls or anything that implies death. Some of these squadrons have worn these patches through three wars, and now they're having to change them because someone's afraid others will be offended," said Menard. "The worst story of political correctness I've heard is about a squadron symbolized by a buccaneer wearing an eye patch. It was suggested the squadron remove the pirate's eye patch, because it might upset people who are 'visually impaired.' Give me a break!"

The 1993 uniform change -- the biggest modification to the Air Force wardrobe in its nearly 50-year history -- also disappointed the historical researcher. "The blue is too dark on the pants and jacket. It looks almost black. So from a distance, I can't tell whether I'm looking at a sailor or an airman. I'm glad they decided to get rid of the sleeve braid."

Menard does have one suggestion if and when the Air Force plans to alter the uniform of the future.

"Please, no Spandex," Menard said. "If the guys I used to work with wore Spandex, we would've never got any work done ... we'd be too busy laughing at each other."

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