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A look back: Early Air Force Uniforms

  • Published
  • By Jack Waid
  • Air Force Materiel Command History Office

The establishment of the U.S. Air Force (USAF) on September 18, 1947 marked the day the Army Air Forces’ brown shoes and like equipment would soon see black dye applied.  By 1952, the “old brown shoe days” were gone.

However, during the USAF “transition period” from 1947 to 1952 and later, among the Air Force’s ranks were both Army and USAF uniforms and accouterments.  Airmen wore uniforms consisting of summer issue and winter issue ensembles – with several combinations in between.  During the transition period, the brown shoe was still worn with the Enlisted Army Olive Drab (OD) “Ike” jacket or waist coat uniform, with new Air Force silver/blue chevrons added along with collar brass used by the Army now hollowed out.  This insignia looks similar to the Air Force’s most recent enlisted USAF insignia, with a hollow circle around it, but was gold rather than silver. 

Airmen also wore a cut-out gold circle with the old U.S. Army Air Forces (AAF) symbol known as the prop and wings.  There was even new brass for the Army wheel hat, a hollow circle surrounding the eagle, all in gold.  

The following is a look back at the origins of the distinctive USAF uniforms, what organizations oversaw the design and manufacturing, and the early transition period of Air Force uniforms worn.  

The Beginning of the USAF Image – the USAF Uniform

Prior to June 1950, the Quartermaster of the Army accomplished research and development on the Air Force uniform.  The Army Quartermaster Corps developed the majority of the components of the male Air Force service uniform of the time. 

As early as 1944-1945 (during World War II), steps were taken toward adopting a distinct autonomous Air Force uniform.  Brig.Gen. Lauris Norstad, Deputy Chief of Air Staff, Army Air Forces Headquarters, felt a distinctive uniform could stimulate morale and aid in recruiting. In 1945, Michaels, Stern and Company presented designed uniforms for AAF leadership approval.  Unfortunately, no actions took place and all development actions ceased. 

Later in January 1946, Brig. Gen. William E. Hall, Deputy Assistant Chief, Air Staff-1 (todays HAF/A1) presented a study for additionally proposed Air Force uniforms.  In this study to the Chief of Staff of the Army Air Forces,  Hall proposed,

 …that insignia and accessories of all types be limited to an absolute minimum. It appears desirable that all personnel be identified with their major organization by their uniform. Rank designation, badge of aeronautical rating, and awards ribbons will be the only authorized additions to the uniform. To keep the esprit de corps of the Air Force at top level...all personnel [should] be permitted to wear the same uniform with only the necessary military command requirements causing differentiation between individuals. . . . Service bars and all other distinctive insignia currently authorized for wear on the sleeve except insignia of rank--should in the case of both officers and enlisted men be dispensed with and the act or service for which authorized be indicated by some ribbon or addition thereto.

From the study, Brig. Gen. H. Griswold, Deputy Assistant Chief of Air Staff for Personnel, suggested soliciting the opinion of the enlisted corps.  Interestingly, Griswold disagreed with Halls’ assessment and stated the uniforms of the enlisted and officer corps should not be identical.  Still seeking a distinctive uniform, leaders submitted requirements to multiple men’s tailoring specialists and clothing designers throughout the United States. 

In 1946, the Army presented four dress uniforms for enlisted members and officers to Army Air Forces Leaders.  Ultimately, the Army Quartermaster Corps displayed these uniforms at Army Air Forces bases during the final months of 1946.  By July 1947, a consolidated survey of reactions to the uniforms was complete; certainly at this time an autonomous separate Air Force was certain to occur.

United States Air Force leaders invited seven outstanding designers to participate in a uniform clothing conference on September 29, 1947.  This conference lead to a meeting with Stuart Symington, Secretary of the Air Force (SECAF), on  November 3, 1947.  This meeting was at the request of the SECAF and involved several designers, showing multiple uniform examples. With the creation of the United States Air Force, leaders moved quickly to create organizations to design and manufacture the Air Force uniform.

Organizations overseeing USAF uniform design and manufacturing

In June 1950, Air Force uniform research and development responsibilities hastily transferred from the Army Quartermaster Corps to the Air Force. This, was an attempt to expedite the development of distinctive uniforms for men and Women in the Air Force (WAF). USAF leaders created a “Branch” to monitor the clothing development program and became involved in considerable detail, primarily to necessitate expeditiously obtaining a distinctive uniform for Air Staff approval.  Also, during this time frame, a uniform board formed to expedite development and processes.  The board consisted of general officers from Headquarters USAF.  After 21 months, once distinctive Air Force uniforms were created, this particular uniform board dissolved. 

In addition to its responsibility in designing aircrew and special purpose uniform clothing, the Aeromedical Laboratory assumed the overall operational uniform workload.  In mid-1952, when Headquarters Air Research and Development Command (ARDC) (an AFMC antecedent) activated, the Uniform and Personal Equipment Division stood up to specialize in clothing matters.  Within ARDC, a total of 52 people directly contributed to the development of Air Force clothing. Their experience levels varied and by estimation this number is small when considering the Army strength was ten times more with regards to their uniform research and development.

During the early 1950s, poorly defined distinctions between the functions of HQ USAF, Uniform and Personal Equipment Branch, and Headquarters ARDC remained a considerable issue.  Normally, expected to confine itself to broad policy and planning, the Uniform and Personal Equipment Branch, became deeply involved in uniform processes.  The HQ ARDC office did not have the opportunity to assume its proper responsibility for aggressively steering the research and development program.

The Air Force clothing program’s mission was considerable after considering the vast variety of clothing/uniform items developed or in development.  Men and women, required clothing for a wide range of duties and varying climates. 

Still, in the early 1950s, the majority of service uniform items saw full development and were distinctive of the Air Force.  Requirements for flying clothing were very fluid and believed to not be satisfied for any length of time.  The thought was, as aircraft performance increases, so likely will the need aviator and crew flight clothing to change accordingly. 

The early transition period of the USAF uniform

The Air Force uniform has its heritage reaching back to the Balloon Corps of the American Civil War.  Thus, from very meager beginnings of simple observation and reconnaissance, the Airman of the transition period and beyond can be proud of the uniform worn by the Air Force.  

Also available to both Airmen was an Air Force-unique tan shade summer uniform created in line with the new Air Force blue, silver and black accessories and was dubbed “Silver Tans”. It was identical to the blue service uniforms and was mandatory for officers but optional for enlisted personnel. Silver Tans were part of the Air Force wardrobe from 1952 to 1965. 

In the late 1950s, a new khaki summer uniform ensemble replaced the previous khakis, a carry-over from WWII. Issued to both officers and enlisted members was the “bush” uniforms for wear in warmer climates. The tan cotton jacket was similar in design to the BDU jacket with one distinctive difference – it included a waist belt. Also worn was a pith helmet and shorts with tan knee-high socks and a pair of black low quarters. Not surprisingly this uniform known as the “Jungle Jim” enjoyed little popularity in the ranks and thus had a short life span with some components surviving until the early 1970s.

Along with this uniform was the introduction of the tan shade 505 summer service uniform. It was the very first short-sleeve men’s uniform in Air Force history and made of a lightweight basket-weave cotton material. However, the 505s (pronounced “Five-oh-Fives”) had one major drawback: Unless the uniform was heavily starched, it lost the well starched sharpness and would wrinkle badly in fairly short order. The successor to the 505 uniform was the tan shade poly/cotton 1505 uniform. 1505s (Fifteen-oh-Fives and no other term was used) was the last of the khaki uniforms issued by the Air Force. It phased out in 1978 after which time airmen no longer wore khakis, but the predecessor to our modern two-tone blue uniform in use since 1972.

Female members of the Air Force also had several distinctive uniforms. In the early years, the Women in the Air Force, aka WAF (pronounced wăf) started out like the men, wearing their Army counterpart Women’s Army Corps (WAC) Army Air Corps uniforms until about 1953. The leadership and general rank-in-file personnel preferred fashions that were similar to airline stewardesses for their new Air Force wardrobe. 

In the early 1950s, the WAF fielded a new blue winter service dress uniform, a “Silver Tan” summer uniform and a white service dress for summer months and off-duty wear. Their summer service uniform consisted of a two-piece cotton corded blue-and-white striped uniform. The top featured cuffed short sleeve blouse (common female style in the service industry at the time) with a matching skirt, aka the “Seersucker” uniform or simply “the Cords”.  The flight cap was of a quilted material and rounded like those of airline hostesses. The “bucket cap” fielded during this time is one of the few items of the early days withstanding the test of time.  They also fielded an exercise uniform of a light blue color to include shorts, a wrap-around skirt, baseball-style cap and a lightweight cotton shirtwaist.

Through the years the Air Force image has changed, once having many colors, combination and fabrics. The Air Force now has a streamlined image however, one thing remains true, the image of the United States Air Force is nothing without the men and women who have worn it throughout the ages and those who wear it today.