13 Fashions Born on the Battlefield

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Some say fashion follows function, and never is that truer than in wartime. Civilian fashion has been borrowing from soldiers’ uniforms for centuries; take a look at the gritty military origins of some of our most beloved fashion trends.


Raglan sleeves are distinguished by a seam that goes directly from the underarm to the neckline, connecting the sleeve straight to the collar and making for a looser, more comfortable fit that’s popular today in sweatshirts and “baseball tees.” Though it's a casual style, its origins are anything but—raglan sleeves are thought to be named after FitzRoy Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan, a British Army officer who fought in the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, resulting in the amputation of his right arm. The special sleeves were specially made for Baron Raglan by the coat makers Aquascutum around the time that the Baron became commander of the "Army of the East" for the Crimean War (where an ambiguous order he delivered resulted in the Charge of the Light Brigade). The sleeve was eventually adopted by for wear by two-armed swordsmen, who liked the freedom in movement the provided by the looser sleeve. (A less popular hypothesis says that a different Raglan during the Crimean War made some showerproof clothing for his men out of a potato sack.)


In 1929, U.S. Army Air Corps Lieutenant General John Macready asked a favor of a Rochester, New York medical supply company called Bausch & Lomb. As the military’s airplanes began going to previously unimaginable heights, aviators started to suffer from altitude sickness and headaches due to the bright, harsh blue and white colors of the sky. MacCready needed Bausch & Lomb to create special eyeglasses for the suffering pilots. In 1936, they introduced a prototype—the “Anti-Glare,” which had green lenses to cut out the sun’s glare without obscuring vision. They were a hit with aviators, and a few years later, they went on sale to the public, re-branded as the “Ray-Ban Aviator.” Post-war, Hollywood picked up the style and made the Ray-Ban brand—specifically, a new model called the Ray-Ban Wayfarer—even more popular, with stars such as James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s both sporting the now-iconic glasses, cementing their place as an American classic.


The earliest known relatives of the necktie can be found around the necks of the famous Terracotta Warriors, which date back to about 210 BCE. But the necktie we know and love today was introduced by different soldiers—specifically, Croatian mercenaries who were hired to fight for the French during the Thirty Years War in the early-to-mid 1600s. As a part of their uniforms, the Croatian soldiers wore brightly colored handkerchiefs knotted around their necks. The mercenaries’ style was quickly borrowed by the French who fought alongside them; they dubbed the handkerchiefs “Croats” or “Cravats” (the Croatians refer to themselves as Hrvati), the latter of which is still the modern French word for necktie.

Cravats then became popular with the French upper-class; they weren't accepted for wear in court until 1646, when Louis XIV began sporting a white lace cravat. White lace cravats became extremely popular in the following decades, reaching England via the 1660 return of King Charles II from exile in France, and they continued to grow in popularity and variety over the next couple centuries. Then, in the early 1800s, the cravat gave way to today’s necktie, and so many new ways to knot the ties were popularized—including the indefatigable bowtie— that numerous pamphlets and books were published on the subject (H. LeBlanc’s 1828 tome The Art of Tying the Cravat outlined a whopping 32 different styles).

With the rise of mass manufacturing and the introduction of the modern long tie in the 1920s, ties became accessible to white-collar workers as a menswear standard, largely leaving the battlefield behind. However, a relative of the cravats worn by French nobility can be found on a different type of battlefield today—in the lacy white jabots of the United States Supreme Court.


Chinos, the cotton twill trouser and springtime mainstay, were first popularized after American soldiers stationed in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War took a liking to the lightweight pants they’d been issued for the area’s tropical climate. The name “chinos” is supposedly based in the Spanish word the Chinese, who manufactured the fabric (and possibly the pants). Post-war, chinos grew in popularity among civilians, and began to be manufactured in a variety of colors—though the original khaki color remained so popular that the pants themselves were often referred to simply as khakis, a quirk that persists to this day. However, the two terms are not technically interchangeable; khaki refers simply to the beige color, and actually predates the invention of chinos themselves. The light tan shade emerged from British-controlled India, when, circa 1846, the British army unit commanded by Sir Harry Lumsden opted for lightweight, light-colored uniforms that would allow soldiers to blend into the environment, as well as providing some relief from the heat. The color of the fabric was dubbed khaki, from the Urdu word for “soil-colored.” To sum it up, khaki is a color, while chino is a fabric—but both were designed to keep soldiers cool.


Believe it or not, even the dainty high heel has its roots in war. There’s evidence of heels worn by both men and women in Ancient Egyptian artifacts, but high-heeled shoes really gained prominence with horseback riding Persian warriors in the 15th century. A raised, reinforced heel gave the Persian riders a better foothold in the saddle’s stirrup, allowing them better stability during horseback combat. "When the soldier stood up in his stirrups, the heel helped to secure his stance so that he could shoot his bow and arrow more easily,” said Elizabeth Semmelhack, a curator from the Bata Shoe Museum, told Racked. Though heels were later adopted by European nobility, and much later by modern women, you can see remnants of the horse-riding functionality in cowboy boots, which still have a slight heel perfect for a stirrup.


Another footwear innovation designed for soldiers on horseback was the Wellington boot. Introduced by the Duke of Wellington in the 19th century, the waterproof knee-high boots, or “wellies,” were cut lower in the back, freeing up the knees for mobility while riding a horse wearing newfangled trousers. Though wellies quickly grew fashionable among upper class civilians, the Wellington was actually a modification of a slightly different style of military boot: the Hessian, first worn by the German soldiers of the same name. Like the early high heels worn by Persian riders, Hessian boots had a slight heel meant for locking into a stirrup, as well as a slightly pointed toe. Hessian boots were worn mainly by cavalry regiments before morphing into the trendier wellies; in the 1850s, rubber began being used to make the boots, giving us the wellies we know today.


Relatives of the belt have existed since the Bronze Age, but the belt as we know it largely originated with Napoleonic War soldiers’ uniforms. Originally worn on the outside of Prussian and Russian military jackets, the thick leather belts were meant to house a sheath for swords, as well as add decoration or rank designation. After World War I, when waistlines on men’s pants were lowered, mostly eliminating the use of suspenders, belts became popular for civilian use.


Women began small clocks attached to bracelets—as fashion over function—after the style was invented for a Hungarian Countess in 1868 (or possibly for Napoleon’s younger sister in 1810), but the wristwatch never truly gained ubiquity until after it was issued to soldiers fighting in World War I. In 1900, finding the traditional men’s pocket watch increasingly impractical, Swiss watchmakers Omega began to supply simple wrist-bound timepieces to the British military for use in the Boer War. As early as 1902, advertisements touted the wristwatch as “an indispensable item of military equipment,” showing the watches worn by dashing British officers. In the United States, The Hamilton Watch Company was joining the action as the official supplier to the U.S. military just in time for World War I. A few years later, after linking up with the U.S. Air Force, Hamilton debuted the Khaki pilot’s watch, which became wildly popular with pilots and civilians alike. Back across the Atlantic, Louis Cartier (yes, that Cartier) designed a simple wristwatch that could be easily used by pilots, and later, drawing direct inspiration from the artillery tanks of World War I, introduced the simple, sturdy Cartier Tank watch in 1917. Legend has it that the first-ever owner of the Cartier Tank was General John Joseph Pershing, though it soon became a status symbol among civilians. Still a staple of Cartier’s lineup, the Tank is now available in 41 different styles, and will turn 100 years old in 2017.


Designed in 1951, the fishtail parka, or “M-51,” was first issued to U.S. soldiers fighting in the Korean War. Before Korea, the standard-issue cold weather parka was the N3-B, also known as a snorkel parka for its face-protecting zip-up hood and primarily used by flight crews in extremely cold climates. With the M-51, the U.S. Army developed a warm yet lightweight coat that would provide better mobility than its bulky predecessor. The coat’s “fish tail,” a split flap in the back of the coat, allowed soldiers to tie the coat around their upper legs for further protection against the wind. After the war, the surplus parkas became a hit with counterculture teens, especially in the United Kingdom, where the “mod” trend was beginning to take hold. The parka’s place in pop culture notoriety was sealed with the 1979 film adaptation of The Who’s rock opera Quadrophenia and its iconic imagery of young rebels’ fishtail coats flapping in the wind as they ride through the streets of 1960s London.


The Duffel Coat, made of heavy woolen fabric named for its birthplace in Duffel, Belgium, was commissioned by the British Navy to protect their sailors against the harsh cold and wind of the Atlantic during World War II. The Duffel is sometimes referred to as a Toggle Coat due to its characteristic wooden toggle fasteners, which replaced traditional buttons since they were easier to fasten with frozen fingers or thick gloves. Duffel Coats were purposely cut extra large so that they could fit over another coat in case of especially bad weather. In 1951, the surplus coats became commercially available to civilians, and have been a winter staple ever since.


The Pea Coat was also designed for Navy sailors. Although historians aren’t quite sure which Navy (whether the Dutch, British, or American), the coat became most associated with “reefers,” sailors tasked with climbing a ship’s riggings to unfurl its sails, and therefore had a slimmer fit than the baggy-by-design Duffel. With a tighter-fitting pea coat, reefers were able to move more freely without sacrificing warmth; the pea coat’s broad collar was meant to be popped up to protect the neck in the event of strong winds. Where the “pea” came from is contested; some say it emerged from the Dutch twill fabric “pij” (pronounced like pea), whereas others claim its origins lie in “p-cloth,” or pilot cloth, another variation of thick twill fabric. The pea coat’s characteristic big round buttons are emblazoned with the “fouled anchor” design, which, according to legend, began as the personal seal of Lord Howard of Effingham, England’s Lord High Admiral during their historic defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, later adopted by navies around the world. The thick navy jackets originally varied in length to show rank—the longer the coat, the higher the rank—but the longer version, known as “bridge coats,” fell out of vogue with civilians quickly in favor of the shorter, less constrictive reefer style.


The Trench Coat as we know it—long, lightweight, waterproof, usually khaki-colored—was indeed popularized in its namesake trenches of World War I, but it had already undergone a century of modifications before it reached the battlefield. Coat manufacturers began using rubberized cotton for waterproof outerwear as early as the 1820s for both military and civilian use—the most popular of these was the “mack coat,” named after creator Charles Macintosh. These mack coats were well-proofed against moisture but poorly ventilated. While they were worn by British infantrymen throughout the 1800s, the stifling fabric was less than ideal, causing the soldiers to sweat profusely—and, to make matters worse, the rubberized fabric sometimes melted in high heat. In 1853, designer John Emary developed a more breathable, stable waterproof coat under the brand name Aquascutum (from the Latin words for water and shield), its design featuring the raglan sleeves pioneered by the brand around the same time. Then Thomas Burberry—yes, that Burberry—found a way to improve even further on the waterproofing formula, this time coating individual cotton or wool fibers rather than the whole cloth, naming this new fabric “gabardine.” Gabardine would later be used in both the coats and tents of Sir Ernest Shackleton his 1907 expedition to Antarctica. For its debut in the trenches of World War I in the following decade, the hardy yet lightweight coats were combined with another military development—the aforementioned khaki color, used to better blend in to the soil surroundings of trench warfare. These trench coats remained lightweight even when caked in mud, and featured large pockets for supplies as well as a small cape-like flap that allowed rainwater to run off the back. However, regular soldiers rarely got the chance to wear them, as the coats were typically reserved for higher-ranking officers.


In 1917, the U.S. Army established the Aviation Clothing Board, hoping to find a solution to keep World War I pilots warm as they flew in early airplanes, which had open-air cockpits. They settled on a short leather jacket with snug collars and cuffs, sometimes lined in fur. By the time World War II rolled around, this original design had given way to two different variations: the A-2, made of horsehide leather with flap pockets, and the B-15, often made of nylon, with a fur or fleece collar and slanted “slash” pockets. The more-insulated B-15 emerged as the popular choice among World War II pilots, whose cockpits were now enclosed but still subject to freezing temperatures. The B-15 gave way to the ubiquitous M-1 bomber jacket of the '50s and '60s, which featured a few small modifications. First, the fur collar was replaced by a less bulky knit, since the fur sometimes got in the way of parachute harnesses. The earlier jackets were issued in a dark blue color meant to blend in to the night sky, but this was changed to “sage green” in order to blend into the lush jungles of Korea and Vietnam. After the Vietnam War, M-1’s were widely issued to police departments in black or navy, but the bomber jacket was also embraced by various counterculture movements like British punks in the '70s, or Americana-obsessed teens in Japan in the '80s, as well as reaching mainstream U.S. as a staple of hip-hop style in the '90s.