When we talk about military-inspired clothing, it’s generally about obvious pieces like cargo pants, aviator sunglasses, and M65 field jackets. In truth, though, almost everything men wear today has its origins in military dress. “Ever since men started wearing clothes that weren’t exclusively formal, military clothing has had a huge influence,” says Esquire’s Fashion, Director Nick Sullivan. During the 20th century, that influence ramped up even more. “It was World War II that created an explosion in army surplus, because they had so many uniforms to offload afterward,” says Sullivan. “And in Europe especially, it was what was available cheaply.”
Of course, whether it was during World War II or the Thirty Year’s War, the uniting factor in nearly all military-derived menswear is the idea of form following function. Cargo pockets, for instance, may be great for carrying smart phones and iPads today, but, as Sullivan points out, “they were originally designed to hold two tins of K-rations for soldiers in the Army’s airborne division.”
In honor of Armed Forces Day, we took a look at some of the best examples of military innovation that found their way into men’s closets. From T-shirts to dress shoes, if you’re wearing it, there’s a good chance that you have the military to thank for it.
Although they’ve been around in some form or another since Adam traded in his fig leaves, the belt as we know it today is derived from the 19th-century cavalry uniform. Prussian and Tsarist Russian cavalry officers wore thick leather belts on the outside of their uniform jackets for both decoration and as a way to support their sabers. After World War I, when the waists of men’s trousers were lowered, the belt was then adapted to be used as an alternative to braces.
The Blucher Shoe
During the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century, a Prussian general named Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher saw that his soldiers were having trouble getting their boots on and off. To solve this problem, he commissioned a half boot with two leather flaps across the vamp held together by laces. The design was so popular that it quickly spread across Europe, becoming the blueprint for what we know today as the eponymous blucher dress shoe.
Sometime between the Spanish-American War and 1913, the U.S. Navy began issuing tees as a standard undergarment. By the 1920s, when the name “T-shirt” officially became part of the American lexicon, off-duty service men often wore them as casual shirts, and after WWII, that same look became popular among civilians. It wasn’t long before the T-shirt achieved iconic status thanks to Marlon Brando in 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire, and James Dean in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause.
While some form of military neckwear can be traced as far back as ancient Rome, it was during the Thirty Year’s War in Europe that the ancestor of the modern necktie was born. Croatian mercenaries hired by the French were famous for wearing small, knotted neckerchiefs, which the French soldiers called “cravats”—a combination of the Croatian word for Croat, “Hrvati,” and the French word “Croates.” When King Louis XIV began wearing cravats around 1646, the look quickly spread throughout Europe, eventually evolving into what we know today as the necktie.
The Suit Jacket
A descendent of the frock coat—the long jacket commonly worn by men for much of the 19th century—the modern suit jacket has its roots, like much of menswear, in the cavalry officer’s uniform. During the 19th century, frock coats cut to resemble those worn by cavalry officers, with lapels and button designs similar to modern suit jackets, became popular. By the early 1920s, the modern suit jacket was the primary choice for all but the most formal settings.
There’s debate over who actually invented the modern trouser, but most agree that the design was adopted from long pantaloons worn by early 19th-century cavalry officers. But while flat-front, high-waisted trousers were the norm for Victorian men, by the beginning of the 20th century men’s waistlines dropped and pleated trousers became more popular. In WWII, the military inserted itself into civilian fashion and encouraged civilians to choose flat-front trousers again (due to the extra fabric pleats required), thus reintroducing them to mainstream fashion.
We can thank the U.S. Army’s involvement in the Spanish American War for the advent of the chino. “When service men were stationed in the Philippines,” Nick Sullivan says, “they began wearing a local pant made in China, which was where they got the name chino. It was a less formal, looser-fitting pant that soldiers wore both overseas, and also when they came back to the States.”
The wristwatch actually dates back to 1571, when Elizabeth I received one as a gift from Robert Dudley, the first Earl of Leicester. Until the 19th century, wristwatches were worn almost exclusively by women — men preferred to use the more socially acceptable pocket watch. In the 1880s, however, the British army began using wristwatches for colonial military campaigns in the Boer War, when synchronizing attacks became necessary against the highly mobile Boer insurgents. By the middle of the 20th century, the wristwatch had all but eradicated the pocket watch from everyday civilian use.