Men reveal a great deal about themselves with their sartorial choices: their age range, whether they are conservative or free-spirited, whether they approach fashion with humor, and, of course, their economic bracket. The better the garment, the wealthier the man — hence the expression: “the clothes make the man.”
However, in wartime, men have little choice in what they wear. Uniforms are doled out according to a man’s rank, with adornments coming later after experience is gained and promotions earned. Uniforms can make men look everything from intimidating, like an SS Nazi uniform, to feminine, like the garb worn by Louis XIV, King of France. But on a fundamental level, uniforms are meant to protect men from weather, bullets, and the other harsh realities of war.
Throughout the centuries, some uniforms have cost soldiers dearly because of how they were designed and made. Even the choice of color has been known to be deadly.
A “stock,” which was a high, overly stiff neck cover, was not at all suitable for fights on North American terrain. European troops were not able to respond to the enemy’s moves, or turn their heads rapidly. Many men paid for this limitation with their lives.
The coats worn by soldiers during the Prussian Seven Years War were so thin and flimsily made that they did men almost no good. These coats shrunk when wet, and were so ill-fitting that many soldiers could not button them closed. Consequently, instead of dying in battle, they froze to death.
Many armies have used headgear to indicate rank and power, but this could often work against the troops. For example, the Hessian men hired by the British paid dearly for their tall headpieces which got tangled up in tree branches and made them targets for U.S. snipers.
The British red uniforms had a similar effect. Soldiers couldn’t sneak through American forests during the Revolutionary War because their red coats meant they were easily spotted. Red was used by British forces as early as the 17th century, and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that the Army’s uniforms were changed.
The British penchant for white worked against them too, during the campaign at Gallipoli in the First World War. Soldiers were given white bands to wear around their arms, a signal to others who were on the same side. Unfortunately, it made the men easy for the Turkish enemy to see.
The French and Romanian armies wore bright color for many centuries as well. Their uniforms were more fit for celebration than conflict. It was only when their leaders realized that bright colors were getting their men killed that they finally moved to more subdued hues, like grey and brown.
At times, the fault for casualties lay not with design or colors but with pure bureaucratic bungling and ineptitude. For example, many German soldiers marched into Russia in 1941 wearing cardboard shoes, although their Italian allies had luxurious, leather footwear lining their shops.
During the Crimean War, British troops died of exposure, although more than 12,000 greatcoats lay in storage nearby. An inane rule dictated that the men would only get a new greatcoat every three years, so it wasn’t until a national scandal broke out in the press in 1854 that the coats were finally distributed.
The same ineptitude occurred during America’s Civil War. The Confederacy didn’t have enough footwear or clothing for its troops, although North Carolina was a massive textile producer. So when the Battle of Shiloh was over, 60% of the men were found wearing outfits belonging to the enemy, making them an easy target for friendly fire.
Whether vanity, preference, or bureaucracy was to blame, these and other problems have cost many soldiers their lives through generations. Today, practicality rules, and thanks to the invention of nylon and other man-made fabrics, soldiers are dressed in apparel suitable to their tasks, whatever those may be.