Military jackets have long been worn by non-military personnel for their aesthetic, symbolic, and functional qualities. In fact, military outerwear has historically dictated trends in civilian men's and women's clothing. The widespread imagery of soldiers in uniform popularized these garments, while the institutional focus on specific designs codified the style. Then there are the utilitarian aspects of these pieces; they are often both water-repellant and warm, making them practical as well as fashionable choices for everyone from rebellious youths to button-down professionals.

In general, military jackets and coats are divided into two categories, dress and fatigue. Dress uniforms are worn for special occasions and decorated with insignia or awards. Fatigues are used on a daily basis to perform all manner of duties. Today, popular military jacket styles come from both dress and fatigue uniforms worn throughout the history of modern warfare.

Pea coats, which are worn these days by men and women alike, were first produced for sailors in the European navies of the late 1700s. Originally termed P-jackets for the coarse twill pilot’s cloth used in their manufacture, these coats were most commonly made of a fabric called Melton wool, named after the English town of Melton Mowbray where the material was made. Pea coats are generally identified by their dark navy blue color, wide lapels, and double-breasted front with large decorative buttons, which often bear an anchor imprint. Fashionable 20th-century manufacturers include Sterlingwear and Fidelity, both of Boston, Massachusetts.

The first American Army uniform policy was drafted in 1779. A “blue, open waistcoat” was described in the standard dress code, yet divisions among states and differences in regional resources resulted in a wide variety of military clothing. Military jackets from this period are generally characterized by their blue color with gold buttons and contrasting red trim. Conversely, the British uniform of the period featured a red-colored jacket with white or blue facings, thus spawning the slang term Red Coats used during the Revolutionary War.

The Civil War presented the first opportunity for Americans to establish true military uniform regulations; blue fabric was used for Union uniforms, gray for the Confederacy. Jackets of this era tend to be characterized by their knee-length woolen tails, long row of closely spaced gold buttons down the front, gold piping or embroidery, and a simple stand-up collar. Intricately crafted metal buttons often identify the coat’s manufacturer, while differing shoulder straps denote the officer’s rank.

As the rules of battle and technologies of war shifted at the beginning of the 20th century, military uniform designers moved away from brightly colored dress uniforms and toward clothing that was less expensive to produce and less visible to the enemy. In the late 1800s, British troops first donned khaki uniforms, derived from a regional fabric British Indian recruits wore in the Peshawar district of India. These khakis became the official uniform during the Second Boer War, and the material quickly spread among many other militaries and expanded into all types of clothing production. Khaki-colored jackets made from a variety of fabrics have been worn in every major conflict of the 20th century.

Debate over who originated the iconic trench coat still ensues, as both Burberry and Aquascutum of England claim the style. Thomas Burberry created a durable, waterproof fabric he called gabardine in the late 1870s, which was later used in the design of Burberry’s classic “officer’s raincoat” in 1901. Aquascutum’s claim dates to the 1850s and the Crimean War. Regardless of its actual inventor, this innovative outerwear was manufactured by both companies for soldiers during World War I. After the war, civilians swiftly adopted the style...

The familiar jacket many associate with the standard military look that we think of today was developed during World War II. These coats usually featured olive green fabric with a single row of buttons down the front and breast pockets on each side. In 1942, the U.S. military began a program to establish functional uniform guidelines for combat divisions anywhere in the world. Modeled after British military attire, the resulting M-1943 outfit was designed for cold weather and worn by U.S. troops during the invasion at Normandy.

One piece in the ensemble was a hip-length semi-dress jacket made from olive green wool that could be worn formally or in combat. These coats came to be known as “Eisenhower” or “Ike” jackets, as they were used by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who also wore them after the war while he was president. Since the coats were meant to be worn under a water-repellent outer layer and over various undergarments, their sleeves were baggy and they were loose fitting in the back. Ike jackets were frequently adorned with various patches, pins, or service stripes signifying the owner’s rank and military achievements.

World War II also saw the rise of the leather bomber or pilot flight jacket, a style most closely associated with the Type A-2 jacket, which was officially adopted by the U.S. Air Force in 1931. The U.S. Air Force Catalog from the era describes the jacket as “seal brown horsehide leather, knitted wristlets and waistband (skirt).” It was produced for the Air Force by companies like Werber Sportswear and Aero Leather Clothing Co. In the 1980s, the style was reissued by the Air Force to wide acclaim, yet the cut was less fitted and the jacket proved less durable than the original A-2s.

High-altitude flight crews often wore the B-3 Shearling Bomber Jacket, which was originally designed in 1926 for the British RAF by parachutist Leslie Irvin. As World War II progressed and aviation technology improved, flight altitudes increased, exposing pilots and crews to lower air temperatures. Thus the F2 Heated Flight Jacket, which consisted of a wool shell surrounding electrical heating devices.

Regardless of model, these flight jackets were frequently personalized with detailed artwork beyond just the wearer’s troop or rank—for many contemporary jacket collectors, the more individualized and detailed the artwork, the more valuable the jacket. Individual servicemen often customized their jackets with images ranging from pin-up girls and Donald Duck to tallies of bombs dropped and battlefield kills.

The MA-1 Nylon Flight Jacket was released in 1955, and later redesigned by Alpha Industries to include an orange lining for reversible wear during search-and-rescue operations. Alpha revamped many classic flight jackets from the late 1950s onward, and is today the largest supplier of outerwear for the U.S. Military.

Marching-band-style jackets are also closely linked with military uniforms. These bands were developed at the same time as early armies—their purpose was to direct troops and give signals on the battlefield. Contemporary marching-band uniforms are strikingly similar to those worn during the Revolutionary War era, complete with detailed armbands and rows of elaborate facings.

In 1967, The Beatles’ "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" album cover instantly popularized a highly decorative military-band-style jacket, a double-breasted look complete with ornate, contrasting piping designs across the front and sleeves, with epaulets on each shoulder.

Standard issue M-65 Field Jackets from the Vietnam War era are the most widely available vintage military jackets today. Made of a lighter olive-green canvas than their predecessors and fitted with plastic zippers or buttons instead of metal ones, M-65s featured cargo pockets and were generally unpersonalized since rank insignia was simply pinned onto the jacket rather than sewn.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

The Black Tie Guide

The Black Tie Guide

Peter Marshall became an authority on formalwear out of necessity — he needed a tux to wear on the maiden transat… [read review or visit site]

This resource for historic arms and armour collectors provides exhaustive information on modern reproductions (cust… [read review or visit site]

The Civil War

The Civil War

Paul McWhorter’s amazing reference site tells the story of the Civil War through high resolution scans of Harpers… [read review or visit site]

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

Fashion Columbia Study Collection

The Fashion Columbia Study Collection (FCSC) is the digital home of the Columbia College Chicago’s fashion archiv… [read review or visit site]

Mikes Tanks

Mikes Tanks

Mike Seeber’s extensive collection of over 500 diecast tanks and military vehicles, dating back to WWII. Browse b… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Wwii Oberleutnant Officer Luftwaffe Leather Flight Jacket Coat Collar Insignia Vintage Post Wwii Korea Usn Flight Deck Jacket Usmc Vmf 212 Great PatchLuftwaffe Winter Flight Jacket100% Authentic Civil War Field Grade Infantry Officer's Frock Coat And SashVtg 40s Double Breasted German French Leather Cyclist Jacket Luftwaffe LrgSuper Rare -spanish-american War- Vintage Us Army Sniper Uniform Shooting JacketVintage Wwii 1930s British Sports Flight Motorcycle JacketTadpole Dense Silver Pattern Tigerstripe Jacket Coat Us Medium Original Unissued-wwii- M-1941 -us Army Air Force Atc- Vintage Officer Pilot's M41 Uniform JacketPatagonia Level 5 L5 Soft Shell Pcu Jacket Gen Ii - Med - Seal/devgru/sVintage Pre Wwii 1930s French German Leather Flight Motorcycle JacketPatagonia Pcu Level 5 Jacket Gen Ii Large-regular (l-r) Alpha Green Seal Devgru Vintage Wwii Us Army Winter Sweater Jumper Pullover M-43 Mint Unworn For JacketOriginal Ww11 "battle Of Britain" Period €Original Ww2 Willis & Geiger M-422 Usn Aviator Flying Flight JacketGerman Imperial Militaria Wwi Uniform Tunic Coat Visor Baden Military Official !Eastman Leather Clothing B-6 Rough Wear Sheepskin Jacket ( Elc B-6 Size 40 )Near Mint Wwii Early Barkhorn German Leather Flight Jacket Luftwaffe Dak AfricaArcteryx Leaf Multicam Atom Lt Jacket XlCivil War Era C.s.a. Artillery Jacket Blue/ Gray LieutenantUs Army M-1941 Field Jacket / Very Good Condition! Authentic Ww2!Original Civil War Union Massachusetts First Lieutenant Infantry Frock CoatGenuine Ww2 Usaaf Leather A2 Flight Jacket,rare Size 48/xlAntique Lot Of 72 Military Uniform Coat Buttons Post Civil War State Militia Army Issued Patagonia Pcu Gen Ii Level 5 Soft Shell Jacket Med Reg Used Medium MOriginal Wwii Usmc P44 Fatigue Jacket With Ega Mint Condition Rare Size 40 Tag!Vintage Wwii Army Air Corps Dress Jacket With China Burma Theater Bullion PatchUs Wwii Usmc Hbt Field Jacket Big Size Original United States Marine Corps Ww2Orc Industires Pcu Level 5 Soft Shell Jacket Top Medium Regular (m-r) L5 SocomVintage Wwii Woman's Wac Nurse Eto Army Coat Jacket Complete Size 14lOriignal Superb Late Indian War Span Am 1st Sgt's Sack Coat W. Service StripesMa-1 Dobbs Industries Military Flight Jacket Dog Tags Coveralls Airlift CommandOrig German Ww2 Army Luftwaffe Mouse Gray Hood Cap For Winter Jacket Parka Sz57Us Wwii Officer's Chocolate Wool Service Jacket, Larger SizeVintage Us Navy Usmc G-1 Leather Flight Pilot Bomber Jacket Size 42 Cooper Nr! Dug Confederate Artillery Coat Button With E.m.lewis & Co. Richmond, Va. Bm.. Richmond Depot Type Woolen Jacket, Nine Button, Civil WarUs Wwii Od Wool Ike Jacket - Large Size 42 SIssued Usmc Apecs Goretex Jacket Medium-regular Woodland Marpat Parka WaterproofVietnam Usaf Pilot Air Crew Jacket Parka Hood N-2b Looks Unused Orig Skyline Co.Vtg 40s Usn Us Navy Size 40 Wwii Wool Peacoat Uniform Deck Jacket-unused-ex! Nr!(2) Sets Usmc Marine Corps Marpat Utility 2 Jackets Pants + More!size Large Reg!Us Wwii Enlisted Man's Wool Service Jacket, Larger Size Wwii Waves Officers White Dress Uniform, Jacket And Skirt Set, Id’dRare Civil War Confederate Virginia Coat ButtonUs Vietnam Era Air Force Officer's Flight Jacket Colonel Usaf Named LargeWwii / Ww2 U.s. Navy, Dark Blue Wool Pea Coat, Deck Jacket, Sz 36, A+ ConditionPatagonia Pcu Level 5 Jacket Gen Ii Large-regular (l-r) Alpha Green Seal Devgru Pcu L-5 Soft Shell Jacket, Oef Multi-cam Camo, Med-reg, U.s. Issue *nice* Navy Wwii Waves Officer’s Blue Dress Uniform, Jacket And Skirt SetWw 2 Usaaf Pilots Uniform Jacket, Lots Of Bullion, And Hat, Flew With The RafVintage Wwii Era Us Navy Deck Jacket Size 42 Reg.great ConditionUs Navy Aor1 Level 7 Halys Primaloft Wildthings Jacket Devgru - Size XxlGen Iii Ecwcs Goretex Pants & Jacket W/ Advanced Combat Helmet, Vest Pads GlovesUsaf N3-b Coyote Fur Satin Parka Jacket Med. W/stencil Shoulder Crown Zip WwiiCivil War Union Eagle "r" Rifleman Coat Sz. Button "canfield Bro & Co. Baltimor"Ww2 Wwii U.s. Army Amphibious Forces Engineers Tunic Jacket Uniform - NamedMade In Us Military Army M-65 Acu Cold Weather Field Coat Jacket + Liner,patches Enlisted Wwii Waves Seersucker Uniform, Jacket , Id’d-rare- Wwii -us Navy- Vintage Foul Weather Work Uniform Deck Coat - Size 42