Military Uniforms and Civilian Dress

Military uniforms exist for nearly the opposite reasons of fashionable civilian, or non-military, clothes. Civilian clothes are intended to flatter the wearer, to keep up with current trends in cut and fabric, and generally to be beautiful. Military uniforms, on the other hand, are intensely practical. They are meant to provide protection from the elements, to offer storage for the many items soldiers carry, and to identify soldiers in the chaos of war. Despite these vast differences, advances made in the manufacturing of military uniforms had a direct impact on civilian dress during and after World War II (1939–45).

Though designed to protect and identify soldiers, military uniforms came to have an enormous impact on the manufacture of civilian clothing. Reproduced by permission of © .

As first the major European countries and then the United States entered the war, they each found it necessary to clothe thousands and thousands of soldiers in durable, reasonably well-fitting uniforms tailored to the special needs of different kinds of activity. European countries found that their clothing producers were not able to keep up with demand. Most clothing makers made hundreds of batches of clothes, but the military needed thousands. Standards for determining sizes and for determining what it cost to make an item were very rough.

In the United States, however, clothing manufacturers had become very skilled at making ready-to-wear clothes in the 1920s and 1930s. Feeding the large American market, they had learned how to make huge numbers of well-fitting clothes at competitive prices. When the United States entered the war in 1941 these manufacturers stepped in to make uniforms for American soldiers. The United States also sent teams of clothing experts to Britain to help their allies employ better manufacturing methods. American skill and productivity at making all manner of war supplies, including uniforms, surprised the world and was one of the keys to eventual victory in the war.

The skills gained in producing military uniforms had a direct impact on civilian clothes manufacturing after the war. Clothing makers had learned how to make many thousands of an item at a low price, and they improved the quality and sizing of the garments they produced. As fabric supplies gradually returned to normal after the war, clothing manufacturers in Europe and the United States were able to offer a steady supply of comfortable ready-to-wear clothes to consumers eager for new products. The quality of these garments narrowed the gap between the clothes worn by the wealthy and those worn by the poor, making good clothing available to more people than ever before.


Baker, Patricia. Fashions of a Decade: The 1940s. New York: Facts on File, 1992.

Darman, Peter. Uniforms of World War II. Edison, NJ: Chartwell Books, 1998.

Ewing, Elizabeth. History of Twentieth Century Fashion. Revised by Alice Mackrell. Lanham, MD: Barnes and Noble Books, 1992.

Fussell, Paul. Uniforms: Why We Are What We Wear. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

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