Organizing Theory & Artistry

“Real” Washington Style: Military

"Obama Visits Pentagon." (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released). Posted by U.S. Army. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

This week we have been discussing real Washington style, starting with the Democratic and Republican fashions dominating the city. There is one other key style to understand when living in Washington – military style.

Washington is the official headquarters for the top leaders of the four branches of the armed forces: Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard. If you are living or working in the Washington area, chances are you are going to come across someone in a military uniform at least once a week.

While military style isn’t something that you can copy if you are a civilian (and is actually against the law to do so! (10 U.S.C. §771)), it is important for both personal and professional reasons to have a basic understanding of military uniforms. The uniforms convey a lot of information about the wearer and you can show respect and appreciation for those who serve our country by understanding what those messages are.

Below is my quick photo guide to U.S. military uniforms. While I don’t think you can become an expert on military uniforms without years of study, you can learn some basic principles. Also, learning about military uniforms helps explain some of the standard dress codes you see in corporate America as well as in the political arena.

General Uniform Scanning Tips

When you meet someone dressed in full military dress uniform, your eyes can be overwhelmed with the number of colors, badges and insignia.  Here are a few easy tips to guide you.  First look to the shoulders or collar of the person.  If there is any decoration on top of the shoulders (i.e. epaulettes) or on the collar, you are probably speaking with an officer.  If you see a star on the collar or shoulders, you are speaking with a very senior officer, likely a general or an admiral.  On a dress uniform, there will also be a section for “ribbons” on the wearer’s left, right above the heart.  The ribbons can signify a variety of things.  They can be awards for bravery, such as the Purple Heart or the Medal of Honor.  They can show a campaign, i.e. places where the wearer has served.  In general, if there are a lot of ribbons on the uniform, the wearer has been in the service for a long period of time.  You might also spot a name badge on the wearer’s right side.  If you see stripes on the upper arms of the uniform, these typically signify enlisted service members.


While we may tend to think of the Army’s color as green, I was a bit surprised to discover that it is actually dark blue!  According to the U.S. Army Service Uniform site, President Washington chose dark blue as the national color of the Army in 1779 and today’s Army uniforms honor that choice.  While the standard uniform used to be green, dark blue was chosen as of 2008 and all Army service members will be expected to adopt the dark blue uniform by 2014.  Some of the changes implemented in the new uniform standard include heavier and more wrinkle-resistant fabric, a more tailored, “athletic” cut, and “low waist trousers” for men.

The Army uniforms are designated “Class A” for the formal dress uniform, “Class B” for a formal uniform akin to a business suit and “Class C” uniforms are the uniforms worn for the majority of everyday activities, including the “BDU” or “battle dress uniform.”   There are different standards for men and women and there is even a prescribed maternity uniform for women.

Usually, commissioned officers wear blue pants with a gold stripe running down the leg and a white shirt.  Noncommissioned officers wear the same if they are ranked a corporal or above and if below a corporal, they wear blue pants without the stripe and a white shirt.  Female soldiers of all ranks can wear either a blue skirt or pants.

The list of Army uniform guidelines is extremely long and detailed.  For women it goes into details about hair scrunchies, earring size, makeup colors and fingernail length.

Do Army soldiers ever try to get a little creative with the uniform?  From reading the regulations, it appears yes and the Army does not like it.  Here is a section from the maternity uniform guidelines (which sound extremely unflattering) that give you a hint at the kind of fashionable variations to the uniform the Army tries to eliminate:

4–5. General guidelines

a. This uniform is designed to fit loosely; alterations to make the uniform fit tightly are not authorized. A tight fit reduces the airflow needed for ventilation and cooling. The coat is worn outside the trousers. Soldiers will not wear a belt with this uniform. Soldiers will wear the trousers bloused, using the draw cords or blousing rubbers, if the trousers are not tucked into the boots. Personnel will not wrap the trouser legs around the leg tightly enough to present a pegged appearance. Soldiers will not blouse the boots so that the trouser leg extends down to the ankle area. When bloused, the trousers should not extend below the third eyelet from the top of the boot. When soldiers wear the sleeves of the coat rolled up, the camouflage pattern will remain exposed. Personnel will roll the sleeves neatly above the elbow, no more than 3 inches above the elbow.

–Army Regulation 670-1 Section 4-5(a): Maternity Work Uniform: General Guidelines

"Class A" Army uniforms. Official U.S. Army Photo.
"Class B" Army Uniforms. Official U.S. Army Photo.
"Spc. Eddie L. Williams, a computer detection repairer at Fort Belvoir, Va., models the new MultiCam Army Combat Uniform, which will be issued to Soldiers deploying to Afghanistan beginning in July." Photo by U.S. Army. From the Flickr Creative Commons.
"Maj. Gen. Robert Kasulke’s visit to Caserma Ederle: Army Reserve medical support March 2010." Photo by U.S. Army Africa. From the Flickr Creative Commons.


The Navy also has an extensive set of uniform regulations and seems to be extremely formal about their uniforms. The Navy currently has a seasonal look to their uniforms.  White uniforms are worn in the summer from the Friday before Memorial Day (May) until the Tuesday after Labor Day (September).  Blue uniforms are worn in the winter months.   This uniform regulation is likely the source of the “Don’t wear white after Labor Day.” fashion maxim in popular culture.

The Navy has numerous varieties of formal dress uniforms, primarily for officers ranked higher than Lieutenant.  There is a Dinner Dress Uniform for white tie occasions, which includes a waistcoat, cuff links and white gloves, a black tie equivalent white and blue dinner dress uniform and even a tropical dinner dress uniform. There is also a ceremonial dress uniform, both a blue and a white version.

Working or “service uniforms” for the Navy include khaki, blue and white versions as well as aviation green.  There are coveralls, sailor uniforms and various shades of camouflage.   The navy uniforms are iconic and have humorous unofficial names, including the “Crackerjack” sailor uniform, the “milkman” white tropical suit with shorts and the “Johnny Cash” winter blues.

The number of uniform combinations is so numerous that the Navy recently undertook a uniform simplification initiative and will be replacing the seasonal white and blue uniforms with a new year-round uniform consisting primarily of a khaki shirt and black pants or an “Aquaflage” suit.  So, interestingly, as the Army is shifting toward navy blue as its color, the navy is shifting toward khaki.

While it would be difficult to understand every variation in the Navy’s uniforms, there are some basic concepts that are easy to remember.  There are three basic divisions in the military hierarchy: enlisted, chief petty officer (a senior enlisted officer), and officer.  Generally, chief petty officers and officers dress similarly.  On formal Navy uniforms, the primary way to distinguish rank is by the number and width of stripes an officer has on the cuff of his or her coat.

"U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his wife Deborah are greeted by CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York City, Oct. 15, 2009." (DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley/Released). From the Flickr Creative Commons.
"U.S. Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Adm. Gary Roughead, chief of Naval Operations depart U.S. Navy's newest Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG 108) at conclusion of the ships commissioning ceremony at Penn's Landing in Phildelphia, Pa., Oct. 10, 2009." (DoD Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley) From the Flickr Creative Commons.
"PNS Inspection-8.jpg, April 13, 2010." Photo by Hector Alejandro. From the Flickr Creative Commons.
"PNS Inspection-83.jpg, April 13, 2010." Photo by Hector Alejandro. From the Flickr Creative Commons.
"100806-N-1082Z-003 ATLANTIC OCEAN (Aug. 6, 2010) Senior Chief Information Systems Technician Justin L. Pendergraph, from Olathe, Kan., inspects Information Systems Technician 1st Class Nicole M. Trone, from Somerset, Mass., during a uniform inspection aboard the amphibious dock landing ship USS Ashland (LSD 48)." . (U.S. Navy photo, by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jason R. Zalasky/Released)
"100805-N-9818V-205 NORFOLK (Aug. 5, 2010) Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON) Rick West holds an all-hands call aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) during his visit to Naval Station Norfolk. West is wearing the Navy Working Uniform Type III during the conformance test phase." (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jennifer A. Villalovos/Released).
New Navy Service Uniform for an Enlisted Female. Official U.S. Navy Photo.

Navy "Aquaflage" uniform. Official U.S. Navy Photo.

Air Force

The Air Force is defender of our blue skies and not surprisingly their color is blue. The dress uniforms are navy blue, the “blues” are formal work uniforms with blue pants with light blue shirts, and the “informal” uniforms are khaki pants with navy blue polo shirts. Officer uniforms are typically distinguished from enlisted by the epaulettes on the shoulders.

The confusing part comes however with the combat uniforms which, like all other branches of the service are camouflage. The Air Force uses green suede boots which help to distinguish themselves.

Like the Army and Navy, the Air Force is currently undertaking a review of some of the Air Force uniforms.  The current Air Force battle dress uniform is decried as “too hot”  and the suede green boots get dirty too easily for some maintenance professions.  Interestingly, many of the Air Force trousers are made with a preference for very tall people.  For the average person, the trouser legs are about 12 inches too long!  (I assume airmen and airwomen do a lot of hemming.)  The physical training uniforms are also being resized to a more standard size.

"7th Air Force Change of Command: Lt. Gen. Jeffrey A. Remington assumed command from Lt. Gen. Stephen G. Wood as Army Gen. Walter Sharp, the U.S. Forces Korea commander, and Gen. Carrol H. "Howie" Chandler, the Pacific Air Forces commander, presided over the ceremony." Photo by SFC Horacio Lozano. Posted by UNC-CFC-USFK. From the Flickr Creative Commons.
"Gen. Stephen R. Lorenz addresses more than 300 AETC Airmen July 16, 2010, during his induction into the Order of Sword at the Gateway Club on Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. General Lorenz is the Air Education and Training Command commander." (U.S. Air Force photo/Joel Martinez)
"Class of 2010 graduates salute for the national anthem at the commencement of the graduation ceremony May 26, 2010, at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo." (U.S. Air Force photo/Mike Kaplan)

"The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen arrives at the U.S. Air Force Academy's Falcon Stadium for graduation ceremony May 26, 2010." (U.S. Navy photo/Petty Officer Chad J. McNeeley)

"Staff Sgt. Robert George, a military training instructor at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, marches his unit following the issuance of uniforms and gear. Recruits are molded into warrior Airmen through a recently expanded Air Force Basic Military Training program." (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo)

"First Lt. Megan Schafer (from left), Staff Sgt. Antwain Wright and Master Sgt. Scott Wagers show off different combinations of the new physical training uniform while jogging here during the wear-test phase." (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Efrain Gonzalez)


The Marine Corps uniforms are described by Wikipedia as “the most stable and most recognizable uniforms in the American military” as well as one of the simplest.  In general, Marines have three uniforms: “dress blues,” “greens” and camouflage. The dress blues are the most formal and are worm largely for ceremonial occasions. The greens are similar to a business suit and camouflage is worn for almost all other working purposes.

The Marines are administratively a part of the Department of the Navy and have some Navy traditions in their uniform standard. Marines have seasonal uniforms for summer and winter. “Summer season” in the Marine Corps starts with the change in spring to Daylight Savings Time and ends with the end of Daylight Savings Time. Blue-white dress uniforms (i.e. wearing white pants instead of blue pants with the blue coat) are worn in the summer and desert camouflage is worn in the summer and woodland camouflage in the winter.

Officers in the Marine Corps are designated by a red “blood stripe” down the leg of one’s dress trousers. On other uniforms, rank is indicated either on epaulettes or collars.

At one point, there was some confusion between the camouflage worn by the Marines and the Army but now each branch of the service has a unique camouflage pattern. The Marines also roll the sleeves of their battle dress uniforms in a slightly different way than other branches of the service.

"Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. James T. Conway speaks during the 92nd anniversary ceremony of the Battle of Belleau Wood May 30." (Photo by Cpl. Bobby J. Yarbrough). U.S. Marine Corps photograph.
"The Marine Corps Silent Drill Team." Photo by Sister72. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

"Marines from 1st Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Army service members stand in formation on Fenway Park for a pre-game ceremony before the 2010 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, Jan. 1." (Official Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Randall A. Clinton)
"Rear Adm. Margaret Kibben assumed command as the chaplain of the Marine Corps following a promotion ceremony aboard Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall on July 9. Kibben, the first female chaplain of the Marine Corps, was promoted by her father, retired Lt. Cmdr. Bill Grun, and her daughter, Lindsey Kibben, at the Fort Myer Memorial Chapel." Photo by Lance Cpl. Benjamin Harris. U.S. Marine Corps Photograph.

"“In Dress Blues Deltas.” Photo by Jayel Aheram. From the Flickr Creative Commons.
"Sgt. Maj. William R. Sweet, sergeant major of Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Continuing Promise 2010, talks to Colombian Marines at Colombian Marine Corps Training Base Covenas in Colombia, Aug. 10, 2010." Photo by Cpl. Alicia R. Giron. U.S. Marine Corps photograph.

"Cpl. Chelsey Young, 20, from Westland, Mich., recites the Noncommissioned Officer's Creed during a Corporals Course graduation ceremony at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, July 17." Photo by Sgt. Brandon Owen. U.S. Marine Corps photograph.
"Cpl. Lucas J. Bruss and Theodore M. Cothran, MCMAP instructor trainers, lead their class on a beach hike during the Battle-Endurance Course, July 16. This hike led the Marines to the last two events of the day and their graduation ceremony." Photo by Lance Cpl. Tyler L. Main. U.S. Marine Corps photograph.

What has impressed me most about this review of military style is that it is not as easy as you might think to implement a uniform standard and it is even more complicated when you want to change part of the uniform. I also salute any member of the military who gets dressed for work every morning in compliance with the detailed and complicated existing uniform standards. In some ways it almost seems more complicated than having to pick out unique clothes to wear every day.

Do you see parallels between military dress standards and those in the civilian world? Which military uniform is your favorite? Please share in the comments.