While civilians may think of the military as an all-business, function-over-form operation, these outfits care very much about their outfits. Image matters to a fighting force—it’s vital not only to look good but also to have a clear visual identity for each branch of the military, whether land, air, sea, or space. It gets more complicated than that. You don’t wear the same outfit every day, and neither do soldiers, sailors, airmen, or guardians. Each branch features different uniforms for different situations. In this guide to how military branch uniforms differ, we’ll take a closer look at the dress and combat uniforms of all six branches of the United States Armed Forces.
United States Army
As the oldest branch of the military, the United States Army has had the most changes to its uniforms over the years and, to this day, retains a number of special ceremonial uniforms for select regiments. For most soldiers, the most important article of clothing is the Army Combat Uniform, or ACU. The ACU debuted in 2004 as an evolution of the Desert Combat Uniform the Army used in Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
The ACU originally employed the Universal Camouflage Pattern, a digital camouflage pattern intended for versatile, all-situational use. The UCP proved itself insufficient on Afghan terrain, leading the Army to develop a new design. The Operational Camouflage Pattern, or OCP, replaced the digital camouflage pattern with a more organic application. The Army rolled out the OCP in July 2015 and is finally phasing out all remnants of UCP.
In addition to the ACU, the Army maintains a daily service uniform in olive drab. Affectionately known as the “pinks and greens” for the slight pinkish cast of the trousers, this uniform is a reimagining of the classic World War II officer dress. Soldiers wear the Army Service Uniform, or ASU, in most business and official situations. The use of olive green distinguishes the Army from the navy blue of the Navy and Air Force. Army formal dinner dress, however, does use navy blue, making it harder for civilians to tell the difference without a keen eye for detail.
United States Navy
When civilians think of sailors in the U.S. Navy, the stark and immaculate dress whites immediately come to mind. While the service uniform is the most memorable in the naval ensemble, sailors don’t toil all day in service dress. The everyday apparel for sailors is either service khaki or the Navy Working Uniform, a camouflage variant for work at sea.
While the NWU began in a blue-grey pattern that suggested the seas, the Navy discontinued this colorway in favor of more traditional beige-and-olive digital camouflage. While this brings the Navy more in line with other branches, they maintain a proprietary digital pattern for their camouflage. In the most formal situations, sailors wear dinner dress: a suit in navy blue with gold accents.
United States Air Force
While the Air Force has traditionally followed the Army’s lead in combat uniforms, the USAF diverged in the 21st century by adopting the Airman Battle Uniform, or ABU. The ABU features digital camouflage in a trademark “tiger-striped” pattern. However, after several years of distinctive combat uniforms, the success of the Army Combat Uniform in Operational Camouflage Pattern has led the Air Force to adopt this as their combat uniform as well, re-unifying the Army and Air Force in combat.
Service dress in the Air Force remains unique, with a two-toned blue ensemble consisting of jacket and trousers in Air Force blue—a lighter variant of navy blue—and a light blue dress shirt. Air Force formal dress is similar to service dress but with black cummerbunds and silver braids standing out.
United States Marine Corps
The few and proud have a few distinctive uniforms of their own. When it comes to utility uniforms, the Marines vigorously defend their intellectual property, forbidding both civilians and other military branches from infringing upon their signature attire.
The Marine Corps Combat Utility Uniform, or MCCUU, uses the Marine pattern of camouflage, or MARPAT, which was the original digital multi-scale camouflage in the Armed Forces. Active members, veterans, and military enthusiasts will recognize MARPAT in action, but the truly distinctive uniform of the USMC is their dress blues: a midnight blue jacket with scarlet trim and a white service cap paired with blue or white trousers.
United States Coast Guard
Unlike the other branches of the Armed Forces, the Coast Guard does not report to the Department of Defense in peacetime, functioning instead as a division of the Department of Homeland Security. The Coast Guard’s uniforms lack some of the pomp and circumstance of their counterparts, and it can be easy for laypeople and civilians to mistake the uniforms of the Coast Guard for those of the Navy or the Marines.
The Coast Guard’s working uniform is the Operational Dress Uniform, or ODU, which features matching shirts and pants in a deep cobalt blue. The service uniform resembles that of the U.S. Navy, while the dress uniform adds decorative medals and badges to the service uniform.
United States Space Force
As the newest branch of the armed forces, the Guardians of the Space Force have yet to establish an iconic uniform on par with naval dress whites or Marine MARPAT camouflage. For the time being, while the new branch gets itself into orbit, the Space Force is using Air Force uniforms with some proprietary interplanetary spins.
In combat, the Space Force will use the Air Force’s pattern, the Airman Battle Uniform. As the Air Force phases out the ABU in favor of the OCP, the Space Force—as well as the Civil Air Patrol—will continue to use this digital tiger-striped pattern in concert with the OCP, though the OCP will feature embroidery in “space blue.” Space Force dress uniforms will be identical to those of the Air Force for now, as well, with special Space Force lapel pins, though efforts to design a distinct dress uniform for the Space Force are underway.
Understanding how military branch uniforms differ should give you a better idea of what to look for. If you’re looking for military uniforms from across the Armed Forces (excepting the notoriously protective Marines), Kel-Lac Uniforms features military uniforms for sale from across the branches of the military.