History of the blue Air Force uniform

by Kevin Rieders
52nd Figther Wing historian

9/8/2008 - SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany -- The current U.S. Air Force Service Dress Uniform, which was adopted in 1993 and standardized in 1995, consists of a three-button, pocket less coat, with silver "U.S." pins on the lapels, matching trousers, and either a service cap or flight cap, all in Shade 1620, "Air Force Blue." This is worn with a light blue shirt (Shade 1550) and Shade 1620 herringbone patterned necktie. Enlisted members wear sleeve insignia on both the jacket and shirt, while officers wear metal rank insignia pinned onto the coat and Air Force Blue slide-on epaulet loops on the shirt.

The current awards and decorations directive (AFI 36-2903) lists more than 100 medals and ribbons for wear on the uniform, in addition to those of other services and foreign governments.

Over the years, the Air Force has eliminated shoulder patches, wing-and-propeller lapel insignia, longevity and overseas stripes, the rope-ladder Army style marksmanship badges, and embroidered metallic wings and accessories from WWII.

Planning for the Air Force uniform began in the fall of 1945. The planned uniform would display only rank insignia, award ribbons, and aviation badges. All Airmen, officer and enlisted members, would wear the same basic uniform, distinguished only by rank insignia and hat emblems. Air Force leaders wanted a plain but distinctive uniform. This 'clean uniform policy' informed efforts to minimize ornamentation on the USAF dress uniform for decades.

By 1946 it was clear the AF uniform would be some shade of blue. In January 1948, President Harry S. Truman approved a new uniform for the Air Force, but Congress would not approve the funding. The Air Force adopted new stripes for its enlisted members in 1948. In the fall of 1949, the newly formed Air Force Uniform Board looked at the patches, insignia, and other accessories and the overall appearance of the uniform. The board recommended removing all shoulder patches except those of the major commands and removing the metal headquarters insignia from the shoulder loops. The board next recommended eliminating more accessories, and Chief of Staff Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg agreed to eliminate current assignment shoulder patches but allow those from WWII.

In January 1949, General Vandenberg, officially authorized a blue uniform. The uniforms were not available for distribution until September 1950. The uniform was beltless, with patch pockets, shoulder loops, and large lapels. In 1950, the only badges authorized were the aviation badges and those for chaplains, police, and aides.

By 1959, the Air Force had a permanent uniform board. The board underscored its commitment to the clean uniform by rejecting bids for additional skill and unit badges although since the uniform's adoption, medical, dental, and nursing badges, and missile specialist and air police insignia had been approved.

In 1962, Chief of Staff Gen. Curtis E. LeMay approved ribbons for small-arms marksmanship and NCO Academy graduates. General LeMay said this was consistent with the policy of substituting ribbons for badges and should not be taken as a move away from the clean uniform policy.

In 1968, a uniform board committee again cited the clean uniform in limiting the number of badges and insignia allowed. Designers eliminated the lower patch pockets and the winged corps insignia from WWII. Officials even attempted to eliminate the US insignia from the lapels. Airmen took the gesture as an insult to their patriotism and protested so strongly the order never took effect.

When Gen. Merrill A. McPeak was Chief of Staff in the early 1990s, he phased out most fourrageres and lanyards, stripped down the uniform and instituted Navy style ranks on the sleeves. The McPeak uniform was abolished in 1999 and remains the shortest issued military insignia series in the history of the U.S. armed forces.

The Air force blue uniform continues to evolve as an ever more distinctive, and elaborate, identifier of U.S. Air Force Airmen.