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From Minuteman to Afghanistan: How the military upgrades uniforms

By Marilyn Malara
From Minuteman to Afghanistan: How the military upgrades uniforms
A George Washington reenactor dresses in traditional Colonial army uniform. Photo by Joseph Sohm / Shutterstock

WASHINGTON, June 3 (UPI) -- In over 240 years of military history, uniform choices for U.S. soldiers have changed dramatically. From colonial blue coats and tights to digital camouflage, the armed forces' uniforms have evolved with fashion and technology, but some changes were flops.

From Minuteman to Afghanistan, every design shift in military garb had a purpose: to distinguish, to protect or to hide. When one change was requested for rank to be easier to spot, another heeded the need for armored protection.

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The U.S. military continues to further improve its uniforms -- experimenting with different colors, materials and designs -- in order to best serve those who serve. The most recent change will start taking place starting July 1, when a new style of camouflage will replace the Universal Camouflage Pattern in select military apparel stores.

But how did military uniforms evolve over time? Below is a list of notable, even bizarre, changes in the United States Armed Forces' regalia over the course of history.

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A Revolutionary War reenactor wears army blue. Photo by Ken Schulze/Shutterstock

1. The introduction of Army blue

Not long after the Revolutionary War started, Continental military leaders dressed their troops in blue -- the U.S. Army kept it as its characteristic color to honor George Washington's Continental Army. Before, soldiers wore a mix of red and blue coats to distinguish their rank or position. Army blue remained the representative hue of American soldiers until the 20th century, when it was briefly put aside and picked up again.

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A Confederate reenactor dons a traditional gray uniform. Photo by Evan McCaffrey/Shutterstock

2. The Civil War: blue vs gray

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When the South rebelled against the Union between 1861 and 1865, they originally didn't have much of a uniform. Many Confederate soldiers joined regiments wearing their own clothes, but soon the Southern army ordered gray get-ups to differentiate themselves from the North. The Union army maintained their use of army blue. The colors helped differentiate soldiers on smoke-ridden battlefields, and were worn both for ceremonial and bellicose occasions.

A WW2 veteran wears the traditional olive-drab uniform of the time. Photo by John Wollwerth/Shutterstock

3. Olive-drab and khaki: a break from tradition

In 1902, the summer heat got the best of the U.S. Army, who decided to shift the season's uniform color to brown khaki. It then adopted camouflage color for its winter uniform as well -- olive-drab -- used for field work. The traditional blue uniform was kept for formal occasions.

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In 1940, the ceremonial uniform -- saber included -- was scrapped due to WWII-related budgetary constraints. Army blues came back after the war at the behest of President Truman, albeit without the traditional saber. Olive-drab and khaki fatigues were used heavily during the 1950s. The word "khaki," derived from the Urdu word for "dust," has its own connection to military attire: It was incorporated to English by British soldiers in India who first wore the color as a summer uniform.

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Pfc. Joel Graham, U.S. Army, applies camouflage make-up in 1998 while wearing standard-issue camo. Photo by Spc. Gerald James/U.S. Army

4. The introduction and challenge of camouflage

As battle tactics changed and military technology improved, less-noticeable uniforms were needed. The U.S. Army collected a group of "camofleurs" -- artists and designers charged with the task of making soldiers as invisible as possible.

During World War II, some U.S. Marines stationed in the Solomon Islands wore reversible "frog"-patterned coveralls that either matched with the beach or the jungle in order to make themselves less conspicuous. Soon, that cover all became a two-piece ensemble and the pattern spread to helmets, ponchos and even shelters.

Some efforts to widen the use of camo in non-specialized uniforms were a bust, however; during the 1950s, a leaf and twig pattern was introduced but quickly dropped. In the '60s a woodland pattern specific to Northern Europe was used during the Vietnam War and then finally became standard issue. Featuring three styles -- Lowland, Highland and Delta -- the pattern was flexible enough to be used in jungle, wooded or desert settings and launched a heavier interest in using camouflage in the Battle Dress Uniform (BDU).

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A traditional tiara worn by high-ranking female officials in the U.S. armed forces. Most are very expensive and only worn at formal events, if at all. Photo by U.S. Militaria Forum

5. The trend of tiaras

One of the most interesting, albeit brief, additions to military wear is the formal tiara, worn by women on special occasions. This crescent-shaped piece of headgear was made of black velvet and embroidered with a branch's specific logo. The Army, Navy and Marine Corps each had their own version of the tiara. It's unclear whether tiaras are still part of the official uniform, but they are allegedly available for special order.

The Universal Camouflage Pattern, also called "digicam." Photo by jnara/Shutterstock

6. DigiCam and MultiCam

In 2004, the Army adopted the Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP) worn by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. It consisted of a muted, digital pattern -- eventually called "digicam" -- that was reportedly more effective at providing cover in urban, woodland, desert and jungle settings without the need for a uniform change. Instead of buttons from old styles, zippers and velcro became the norm, and instead of black boots, sand-colored ones were introduced.

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In 2010, multicam replaced the less popular digicam. The pattern dominated uniforms for all Afghanistan operations and somewhat returned to original concepts of camouflage.

Navy Lt. j.g. Aricka Faulkner (L) poses with her niece while wearing standard-issue blue digicam, or "blueberries." Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Toni Burton/U.S. Navy

7. "Blueberries" for the Navy

For the largest branch of the U.S. military, camouflage seems like a given -- or does it? The Navy Working Uniform features a deep blue digicam pattern based on the Marine Corps MARPAT pattern, and has an uncanny resemblance to the ocean. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus told reporters in 2013 that the "blueberries" gave "great camouflage" to sailors who "fall overboard."

"The notion that we [have] all [this] camouflage doesn't make a lot of sense to me," he said.

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