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Posted on Aug 28, 2008 in War College

Origins of Summer Uniforms

By Peter Suciu

A German Schutztruppe from German East Africa, wearing a khaki uniform and sun helmet. (Private Collection).But with the cooling during the LIA the uniforms were likely created to provide warmth! The summers of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries were on record as being exceptionally cool. The exact cause is uncertain, but theories include low solar activity and sporadic volcanic activity. In fact, the 1815 eruption of Tambora in Indonesia blanketed the atmosphere with ash. The following year, 1816, came to known as the year without a summer, with snow being reported in June and July in both New England and Northern Europe.

Throughout the Napoleonic Wars (c. 1803-15), a period when uniforms reached what could easily be called “high fashion,” the weather throughout Europe was known to be cool year round. The Battle of Waterloo, while fought on June 18, 1815, is remembered for being a somewhat damp and cool day. Overnight rain had made the ground soggy and, if anything, the soldiers were probably more worried about keeping dry and warm than worrying about being too hot.


Thus, the typical modern-day rationae that the soldiers must have been “hot and bothered” in their coats and long trousers was probably not as great a concern as we might think.

Summertime Blues

However, by the end of the 19th century most nations had tropical uniforms to “beat the heat.” What caused the change? Well, it is worth noting that the very event that may have helped end the LIA may have also made summer uniforms – or at least tropical uniforms – possible: namely, the industrial revolution.

Prior to the creation of factories, uniforms were costly to produce, hard to keep clean and were made of highly durable fabrics that were heavy and didn’t breathe easily. Of course, as mentioned, staying warm may have been more of an issue than getting cool.

American uniforms of the late 19th century are generally remembered for campaign hats and kepis, but the American Army and Marine Corps both used a variety of sun helmets beginning around 1880. Often erroneously thought to have been “copies” of the British Foreign Service helmet, or even British made, they were only roughly based on the British pattern. These helmets shown here were made in Philadelphia and New York City. The one to the left with the number 31 on the front was likely used by the New York National Guard in the 1890s. (Collection of the author).The industrial revolution, while mainly thought of for what it did for factories and cities, also had an effect on cotton production and cultivation. By the second half of the 19th century uniforms were easier to make, and thus summer uniforms could be manufactured to help keep the soldiers cool – even if the uniforms were often produced in what can only be described as sweat shops!

The other significant factor is that it was also during the same era that the powers in Europe took another look at colonization, staking claims on Africa and the Far East. And while there is the typical notion of the Spanish explorer or Conquistador trudging through a tropical swamp, many of Spain’s early explorations and conquests took place in mountainous regions where again staying warm was as much of an issue as staying cool!

But the renewed imperialist fervor sparked the need for tropical and summer weight uniforms. The British realized a need for more practical uniforms around the time of the Indian Mutiny (1857), and it was during this conflict that the British Army first began to rely on khaki – which is a Persian word for “dust.” Likewise, the uprising was the first time that the sola pith helmet – later erroneously dubbed the “solar pith;” the helmet is made from the pith of the sola plant – made its appearance. By the end of the Victorian Age nearly every European power as well as the United States was using similar sun helmets. While never intended for stopping bullets, these helmets were ideal protection from the sun and remain in use in many armies today.


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