Sheyna Gifford

Apr 15th 2022

Blending in: Military Uniform Materials Get a Boost


Time marches on and military uniform technology keeps pace. When Spartans pounded the dusty earth flat with their sandals, their crimson cloaks and round shields prefaced the ferocity of their intent. Spiked Roman helmets and 2-meter-tall spears highlighted their wealth as a fighting force. Military uniform technology has come a long way since, with massive leaps forward over the last century.

Let’s take a look at some historical military uniform materials, what today’s military forces are wearing and what we can expect tomorrow.

Historical Military Uniform Materials

The British made a major mark on history with their iconic uniforms. Red coats provided a consistent look — but also gave them away as they marched through the swamps and forests of pre-revolutionary America. After declaring independence, to set themselves apart from Britain, the early U.S. Continental Army wore blue wool coats, red sashes and tri-cornered hats. By the next formal battle with the British, those hats had grown tall, conical and feathered. The blue coats had white collars rising stiffly to just below the ears. For the U.S.-Mexican war and U.S. Civil War, the wool stayed, but the Army caps became short, squat “forage” caps — hats that could be worn into the wood and fields while foraging for horse food. Collars flattened and fanned out in the Army as well as in the increasingly powerful U.S. Navy. Blue wool was sometimes swapped for gray, depending on what was available and on what side of the conflict the U.S. soldier was standing.

The Spanish-American War came at the turn of the 19th century — and with it, a shift from wool to cotton, plus a new color scheme: khaki. Khaki was popularized in the mid 1800s by (again) the British, who by then were occupying tropical climates. The four tones of khaki darkened into olive and brown for World War I and II. Light windbreakers and cargo pants became combat fashion during Korea and Vietnam. Mirroring the Marines, by Operation Desert Storm, the Army battle dress had adopted a collage of camouflage patterns, culminating in 2004 as the Army Combat Uniform (ACU). These digital patterns incorporated almost every color seen to date, including gray, brown, beige, browns and tans, and green tones not yet seen before in warfare. These multicolor palettes allowed the wearer to visually blend in — to be cloaked, as it were, by their surroundings.

Armored Uniforms

The desire to stand out at a distance may have faded, but the need to project power and protect soldiers remains strong. Where protection from harm at close-range was once provided by swirling cloaks, solid wood panels or wool coats, modern uniform technology now blends the shields into the body of the fabric itself. Advanced functional materials, sometimes called smart skins, use adaptive, nano-scale carbon tubes and polymer layers strong enough to filter out chemical agents, water and even viruses.

These military uniform materials act like masks but are shaped into shirts, pants and undergarments. The uniforms’ responses are dynamic, changing properties as needed. Is the soldier standing under the sun, running sweating? Such factors compelled a shift to more breathable cotton uniforms in the 1960s and 70s. Today, polymer layers can transform at the molecular level to let the fabric breathe that moisture out. In other words, cooling can be blended directly into the smart skin. If it’s raining, smart uniform materials can flip on an atomic dime, keeping that water from penetrating through layers. Where soldiers used to have to wear gas masks, these new materials wrap the soldier in a full-body gas mask. The polymer layers can collapse down to seal off the fabric from the outside in.

These reinforced fibers aren’t solely benefitting people going into battle either. Carbon fibers — once so expensive they could only be used on jets and high-end aircraft — are being bonded to car frames to improve strength and safety. Ultra thin materials help hazmat teams clear accident sites while safeguarding the rescue crew. In the 1940s, citizens sacrificed silk and nylon for war-effort parachutes. Today, firepeople, surgeons, pilots, athletes and more are benefiting from upgrades that were initially invented to protect members of the military.

Tomorrow’s Military Uniforms

Military uniform materials have continually changed, optimized and adapted to suit the times. White socks have become black. The Combat Cloth Face Covering has gone from multicolored to solid. What’s worn onto modern battlefield not only reflects our cultural priorities and standards, but it can also quite literally reflect the sun, repel the rain, bend force away from the body of the wearer, absorb sweat or deflect sarin gas. Updated threats require upgraded military uniform materials and uniform technology. Evolving demands to remain connected and concealed have resulted in embedded flexible electronics that can track, link and even potentially cloak the wearer from detection by light vision or infrared radiation. Perhaps the fiercest cloak of all is, in the end, the one the enemy never saw coming.

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