November 11, 1997 in Features

Modern Warriors Prefer Their Uniforms

Shanna Southern Peterson Correspondent

My 10-year-old son Ian uses an interesting technique when embroiled in an argument. If things are not going his way and he fears victory is about to be snatched from his grasp, he simply says, “Oh, yeah? Well my ancestors fought naked.”

No matter the topic, no matter the venue, this is his sure-fire method of disarming his opponent and winning the battle. I have watched him use this strategy repeatedly and it works almost every time. His stunned opponent is left speechless.

An interesting tactical move, but where, I had to know, did he get this notion that his ancestors - primarily northern European - waged war wearing nothing more than a grin? A little research turned up some interesting information.

Since time began, people have formed groups of allies to protect their territory and invade that of others. For centuries these were loose-knit allegiances. A friend today might be a foe tomorrow. As civilization began to develop, the need to protect and defend became more important and the groups called upon to perform the task became more organized.

The early Greeks and Romans waged war almost constantly, vying for power through better trade routes. The Goths, barbarians who started out in the Scandinavian countries, slowly moved southward, pillaging and plundering along the way. These early warriors did indeed occasionally engage in battle sans the encumbrance of clothing.

As the Middle Ages progressed, chain mail became the most common form of protection. With the increasing use of gunpowder in the 16th century, groups discarded their cumbersome metal armor in favor of cloth.

Gustoavus II of Sweden is credited with outfitting the first national militia. In the 17th century he decided it would present a more united front to have his army dressed alike rather than wear their regular clothing. This set a standard for what military uniforms still accomplish today:

Distinguish members of the military from civilians.

Foster a sense of pride in belonging to the group.

Identify superiors and opponents.

At first, uniforms were brightly colored and elaborately decorated. The French cavalry invaded Russia in 1812 wearing helmets adorned with ostrich feathers, a collar, stirrups, pink trousers, a belt of gold, yellow boots and a cape made of leopard fur trimmed in bright red. As weapons became more accurate, the need to be concealed became an important consideration. The British were the first to introduce camouflage for their rifle soldiers.

Most modern militaries have taken to using two varieties of uniforms: non-conspicuous colors for battle and more decorative outfits for ceremonial purposes.

In 1812, detailed regulations were adapted by the U.S. Army which dictated variations to the chevron sleeve patches identifying the ranks of noncommissioned officers. The U.S. Civil War divided the military into blue uniforms for the Union soldiers and gray uniforms for the Confederate army. At the conclusion of the war, the reunited military resumed the use of the blue uniform.

By the end of the 19th century, as U.S. troops began fighting battles in more tropical climates, uniforms were changed from traditional dark wool to lighter colors in cooler cotton.

Since World War II, military leaders and scientists have used the latest technology to continually improve uniforms to be functional, lightweight and durable with the maximum in protection.

A quick tour of Fairchild Air Force Base reveals members of a modern Air Force dressed in various uniforms depending on their jobs. Pilots wear flight suits, maintenance workers wear battle dress uniforms (camouflage), and administrative personnel wear blues (blue shirt and slacks). For more formal occasions they may choose to wear their mess dress, which looks similar to a tuxedo.

Surprisingly, fashion has played a role even in the development of military apparel. And Ian was right. Long, long ago in a land far, far away his ancestors did indeed fight naked.

Shanna Southern Peterson is a Spokane writer and home economist. The Clothesline appears weekly. Ideas for the column may be sent to her c/o The Spokesman-Review Features Department, P.O. Box 2160, Spokane, WA 99210, or e-mail

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