Aim High: Setting the Bar with Air Force Dress Blues

As the youngest branch in the U.S. military, the Air Force appears to have an unspoken obligation to buck trends—a compulsion that even extends to their uniform, the Air Force Dress Blues. Since their founding, they’ve taken on this challenge with the same zeal that they work to set themselves apart from the other services. Yet even to this day, the nature of the airman’s dress uniform remains a point of hot contention for the world’s most powerful air force.

A Colorful Tradition
Of course, no history of the Air Force Dress Blues would be complete without mentioning the Air Force’s official color. The historical significance of a blue uniform goes back further than even the Marines would care to admit. In 1776, the U.S. Congress ordained that Washington’s army be clothed in a uniform featuring a light blue coat but, due to supply shortages, the realization of a blue-coated army did not emerge until 1790. Through the 1800s—with the big exception of the Civil War—dress uniforms remained ardently blue, or sometimes bluish black, while military field uniforms dissolved into an array of gray, khaki, and olive.

Air Force Blue
Eventually, the Air Force uniform—like the branch itself—arose from the desire to distinguish itself from the Army. With the formal creation of the U.S. Air Force following World War II, U.S. military leaders were looking to boost morale and make the service branch unique at the same time. They decided that pilots should begin to wear blue, and not just any blue: Air Force Blue.

The exact tinge of blue has changed over the years—from Blue Shade 84 in the early 50s to the later Shade 1620. But the overall color has weathered the short and varied history of the Air Force Dress Blues, a uniform which has seen just about every aspect of itself change except its color. 

The Evolution
The uniform has evolved significantly since it was first instituted after WWII. Prior to 1993, most Air Force personnel wore blue uniforms that closely resembled those of the Army, with a number of intermittent “ceremonial” variations in the 1980s. In 1993, the so-called “McPeak Uniform” was unveiled. The brainchild of Air Force Chief of Staff Merrill McPeak, the new uniform was the subject of loathing by airmen for its resemblance to commercial airline pilot uniforms, and many officers decided to continue wearing their old dress uniforms until they were required to switch to the McPeak variant. Their patience paid off: McPeak stepped down as Chief of Staff in October, 1994, and his replacement countermanded the orders for the switch. To this day, the McPeak Uniform remains the most short-lived uniform series in the history of the U.S. military.

Today’s Air Force Dress Blues
The main pieces of the Dress Blues currently worn by Air Force personnel include:

  • A three-button coat and trousers, both in Air Force Blue. The jacket somewhat resembles a sports jacket—a remnant of the McPeak era and the centerpiece of the outfit. In a response to the outcry over the civilian nature of the uniform’s appearance, it has been tweaked to look more military-like—but the debate over the jacket continues to rage.
  • A flight cap, or “cover.” The cap’s front proudly displays the Great Seal of the United States. The exception is the Honor Guard caps, which feature a device based on the World War II U.S. Army Air Forces shoulder patch. The “V” shape of the insignia’s wings was inspired by Winston Churchill’s “V for Victory” sign during the Second World War. Known as the "Hap Arnold Emblem, the white star in the emblem of the shoulder patch was covered with a red disk, which was removed from aircraft markings in 1942 to prevent confusion with Japanese insignia.
  • Metal buttons, also featured on the dress uniform, share the same insignia as the winged star on the Honor Guard cap.
  • A light blue shirt, typically worn with a herringbone-patterned necktie underneath the jacket.
Worn With Pride

Just the other night, I was out with one of my Air Force buddies, who was under the impression that—and I quote—“At some point in their career, everyone wishes they were in the Air Force.” As an Army vet, it was my obligation to loudly disagree. But there’s one thing we can agree on: Despite all the changes that have taken place in the Air Force in recent years, Dress Blues still symbolize the pride and unique mission that is a reflection of today’s Air Force.

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