Military Dress Etiquette
The first military uniforms can be traced back to 1779 when General George Washington commanded the Continental Army. Military dress and designs have gone through many changes over the years.
For service members and veterans, uniforms serve to communicate and identify rank, years of service, duty assignments, and awards won in one swift look.
How Many Military Uniforms Are There?
Each branch of the military has four types of uniforms that serve a unique purpose:
- Combat uniforms
- Service uniforms
- Dress uniforms
- Fitness uniforms
We’lll walk through each uniform of the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and Space Force. You’ll have a better understanding of when and why each uniform type is worn. A brief description of the four military uniform types is below:
1. Combat uniforms
The combat uniform is casual dress that can be worn for everyday work and combat duty purposes. This uniform comes in a camouflage pattern consisting of a jacket, pants, t-shirt, boots, and cap or cover, as we say in the military.
On the left breast pocket of the uniform, you’ll notice the name of the service branch written in all caps. U.S. AIR FORCE, for example.
Combat uniforms are considered to be a most comfortable uniform of all, while allowing the military to be combat ready.
2. Service uniforms
Think of the service uniform as business wear. Service uniforms can also be worn every day as they are used in office environments and when service members engage with the public.
Service uniforms may be worn at funerals and memorial services, weddings, inaugural events, and parades.
3. Dress uniforms
Dress uniforms are formal and may be a modified version of the service uniform.
Commonly referred to as “mess dress,” this type of uniform includes a formal jacket, much like a blazer, slacks or skirts for women, and dress shoes.
This type of uniform is worn at military balls, and other ceremonial events.
4. Fitness uniforms
These uniforms are typically referred to as PT or physical training uniforms and are used for work outs and physical fitness.
PT uniforms typically consist of a t-shirt, shorts, jacket, sweatpants, or windbreaker outfits. Accessories such as reflector belts may be a part of the uniform when members are working out in the dark.
The Air Force just redesigned its PT uniform, making this the first update to the PT uniform in more than 16 years, according to an Air Force news release.
US Military Uniforms by Branch
Each service branch has different uniform styles or designs. It can be difficult for civilians to determine which branch a service member is a part of at first glance.
Let’s break down each uniform by branch:
- Army Combat Uniform: The Army’s current duty/field uniform has a “Scorpion” pattern known as the Operational Camouflage Pattern (OCP). This pattern includes six different colors.
According to Army officials, it improves functionality and performance of the combat uniform as it blends in well with natural environments.
- Army Service Uniform: In April 2020, the Army reintroduced its Army Green Service Uniform (AGSU) to honor its heritage from the “Greatest Generation”.
The Army Greens will be the everyday business-wear uniform for all Soldiers.
The AGSU includes a dark olive coat with belted waist, trousers, khaki shirt, olive tie, and brown shoes for men and women, with women having the option to wear a skirt and pumps.
The mandatory AGSU wear date for all Soldiers is October 1, 2027. Check out the AGSU wear and appearance guide.
- Army Dress Blues Uniform: This uniform is used for ceremonies and formal occasions.
The Dress Blues feature a black coat and blue pants with gold trim, white shirt, black tie, and formal headwear.
Air Force Uniforms
- Airman Battle Uniform: In efforts to create a more consistent look across the Air Force, Airmen will no longer wear the Airman Battle Uniform (ABU) after March 31, 2021.
Upon feedback from Airmen for a better battle-tested uniform, the Air Force is transitioning to the six color, Operational Camouflage Pattern (OCP) uniform on April 1, 2021.
- Air Force Service Dress: The Air Force service dress uniform includes a solid Air Force Blue dress coat with three silver buttons featuring “Hap Arnold wings”, matching trousers or skirt.
Airmen wear a light blue long or short sleeved shirt, and tie or tie tab for women along with a belt with a service cap or flight cap.
- Air Force Mess Dress: Mess dress is similar to the service dress uniform, with more flair. Airmen wear a dark blue jacket with matching trousers, white shirt, blue satin bow tie, and cummerbund for men and tie tab for women.
You may see silver badges and medals on the left side.
Air Force officers have a silver metallic stripe on the lower sleeve of the jacket and shoulder boards for their rank.
Hats and nametags are not worn with the Air Force Mess Dress Uniform.
Marine Corps Uniforms
- Marine Corps Combat Utility Uniform: Also known as Cammies, the Marines wear the MCCUU standard uniform for daily duty, training and deployments.
Cammies come in brown, green, tan, and gray camo pattern. The white and gray colored cammies are for cold weather conditions, while the brown is for the desert.
The patterns use the Marine Pattern (MARPAT) design, consisting of small rectangular pixels that offer better camouflage in natural environments.
- Marine Dress Blues: The Marine Corps dress blues is arguably the most recognizable uniform among the service branches.
It is the only uniform in the U.S. military designated to include the red, white, and blue colors of the American flag.
This uniform represents Marine Corps values and dates back to the American Revolution. The Marine Dress Blues consists of a black dress coat with red trim and gold buttons, white belt with the eagle, globe and anchor buckle, white cap, white gloves, and black dress shoes.
- Marine Corps Service Dress: Marines have several types of service dress uniforms. They come in olive green dress coat and pants or skirts for the ladies, with beige or khaki undershirt, tie, and waist-belt.
- Navy Working Uniform (NWU): The Navy’s everyday combat uniform is its working uniform. It comes in three options – coveralls, NWU and NWU III. NWUs are sea-blue digi camo and NWU III’s are green digi camo.
The Navy has been on the hunt for new flame-resistant uniforms since the old blue camouflage ones were banned from ships after tests found them to be combustible, according to an article in the Navy Times.
New uniforms will come in several types and different colors – blue for enlisted and khaki for officer members.
- Navy Service Uniform: The Navy’s service uniform (SU) features a khaki shirt, black pants, black belt with silver clip and buckle, black cap, white undershirt, white undershorts, and black shoes. Items like scarves and pea coats are used in cold weather.
- Navy Service Dress Uniform: It is important to note, the Navy’s “mess dress” can be considered Dinner Dress or Ceremonial Dress, depending upon the event. There’s not much difference between the service dress uniforms.
The white or Blue Dinner Dress is the most formal of all and is for black-tie events. Dinner dress features a short mess jacket with black bow tie and tie tab for women and gold cummerbund.
Ceremonial dress is reserved for occasions of state, official visits, and other ceremonial participations.
Coast Guard Uniforms
- Coast Guard Operational Dress Uniform: The Coast Guard’s Operational Dress Uniform (ODU) features a short sleeve navy blue shirt, headwear, black shoes, and all white writing on the uniform.
In November 2019, the Navy announced development of the Next Generation Coast Guard Utility Uniform (CGU) to replace the ODUs.
- Coast Guard Service Uniform: The Coast Guard Service Dress Blue is the uniform for professional environments for the Navy.
The uniform comes in two colors: tropical blue and winter dress blue. Tropical blue features a light blue, short sleeve shirt with blue trousers.
Winter dress blue features a navy blue long sleeve shirt and tie with matching trousers. Both options come with a black belt.
- Coast Guard Dinner Dress Uniform: The dinner dress or “mess dress” uniform is worn for black tie evening events.
The dinner dress blue and dinner dress white is the same as the dress blue, indicated above. These are very similar to the Navy’s uniforms with Coast Guard buttons.
Space Force Uniforms
Since the United States Space Force became a new branch of the military in December 2019, it has adopted the Air Force uniforms. Space Force uniforms include:
- Space Force Combat Utility Uniform: Guardians are wearing the OCP uniform like the Army and Air Force for every day duty. The only difference is the Space Force’s name tape, branch tape and rank is embroidered in “space blue.” The Army uses black and the Air Force uses spice brown embroidery.
The Space Force also authorized the Airman Battle Uniform as another combat utility uniform and is scheduled to be phased out in 2021.
- Space Force Service Dress Uniform: The Space Force differs from the Air Force’s service dress with the use of a U.S Space Force insignia or emblem on the lapel.
Military uniforms are an important part of military culture, customs, and history. These uniforms require a certain standard of conduct and etiquette service members must acknowledge when in uniform.
What Are the Rules for Wearing a Military Uniform?
Uniform code is important in the military. Below are some uniform etiquette do’s and don’ts for service members:
Cover or hats are not to be worn indoors and should be worn outdoors in most circumstances.
Service members will not show PDA or public displays of affection while in uniform. Handholding, smooching, and hugging is generally not allowed.
However, moderate hugs and kisses are acceptable during deployments and homecomings.
Here’s some important rules for how to keep service members in regulations regarding their hands:
- No hands in pockets: Service members are not allowed to keep their hands in their pockets.
- Keep right hand free: Right hand salutes are given to high-ranking personnel, who will return the salute. If you’re walking with someone in uniform, it’s best to walk on their left side so their right hand is free to salute.
- No holding hands: Armed forces personnel are not allowed to hold hands while in uniform.
Walking in uniform
Walking in uniform is not like walking in civilian clothing. Service members must pay attention to the following:
- Cell phones: No walking and talking on cell phones in uniform.
- Eating and drinking: Service members cannot eat or drink while walking in uniform. Smoking included. Chewing gum in uniform is considered unprofessional.
Visiting Bars & Taverns
According to the Military Drug and Alcohol Policy, “Personnel may not wear the combat uniform in off-post establishments that primarily sell alcohol for consumption on the premises. If the off-post establishment sells alcohol and food for consumption on the premises, personnel may not wear the combat uniform if their activities in the establishment center on the drinking of alcohol.”
Can Retired Military Wear Their Uniform?
On certain occasions like Memorial Day parades, many proud former military members wear their uniforms.
Research suggests that retirees, who served 20 years or more in the military, can wear their uniforms. Veterans who did not accumulate 20 years of service may wear the uniform on occasions that are centered around family events and military service.
For more information, check out military uniform rules for retirees and veterans.
Did we miss any details about military dress etiquette? Let us know in the comments below!
Dr. Phillip Gold is President/CEO of Empire Resume and has vast experience writing resumes for service-members transitioning from the military into civilian roles. He served as a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and was responsible for leading nuclear missile security. Phillip is a Certified Professional Resume Writer and holds a BA in Communications from The Ohio State University, an MS in Instructional Technology, an MBA in Finance, and a PhD in Finance.