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What are Military Fatigues?

By Joshua BW
Updated May 21, 2024
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Military fatigues are combat uniforms worn by members of the armed forces in the United States. They are almost always designed with a camouflage pattern, though the specifics of the design can vary depending on the branch as well as the mission. Most are specially made for combat; they’re usually flame resistant and highly durable, and also usually have a lot of pockets and other functionalities. As far as uniforms go these aren’t usually all that different from those worn by other military personnel all over the world, but the phrase “fatigue” is almost exclusively American. The sort of uniform it describes began being used by U.S. troops during the Second World War when leaders realized that standard battle dress wasn’t necessarily practical for combat in the trenches of Europe. The terminology really took hold during the Vietnam conflict. It can apply to the dress of any service person in any branch of the military, though certain divisions and sometimes even certain battalions can have their own variations when it comes to pattern, color, and basic organization.

Basic Concept

There isn’t really a precise definition of military fatigues, and it can cover uniforms worn by soldiers on work detail, on duty, or while on the field of battle. Most militaries, the U.S. included, have gradations of uniforms, with certain styles and types being more appropriate for certain settings than others. Formal dress uniforms, for instance, are those worn at important functions and when presiding over events; more general “service uniforms” are more commonly worn while serving administrative functions. Uniforms in both of these categories look more like formal suits that are adorned with the service member’s rank and any earned awards. These aren’t usually classed within the “fatigues” category.

Fatigues are almost always combat uniforms, and they’re designed to be worn in the field or during training for the same. They’re almost always comfortable and loose fitting, and generally have a camouflage pattern.

Origins and Brief History

Prior to World War II, the standard U.S. military uniform resembled modern dress uniforms, which is to say that they were heavy and came with accessories not truly necessary for active combat. Some American soldiers during this era actually wound up going into battle in jacket and tie. Following the war, the military began looking into new uniforms for its soldiers, recognizing the fact that there was a need for lighter, more practical attire. The military also began developing camouflage patterns for its uniforms after coming in contact with German forces that used camouflage uniforms with a high degree of success.

There is some dispute when it comes to the exact origins of the term “fatigue,” but most scholars think it was related to the fatigue or exhaustion most soldiers experienced while wearing this particular sort of uniform. Its basic pattern is in many ways designed for this possibility; most models are comfortable, move well, and breathe freely.

Modernizations

During the Vietnam War, U.S. soldiers were generally issued what was known as “jungle fatigues” for combat, which further popularized the use of the terminology. Still, it was not until 1981 that military fatigues took on the modern look. It was at that time that battle dress uniforms (BDUs) became the official working uniform of the U.S. military. The original BDU was a woodland-camouflage patterned uniform that came in four variants — temperate, lowland, highland, and delta — and was issued to all branches of the U.S. armed forces. For the next several years, the military would experiment with different versions of the BDU, and in 2003 began the process of issuing unique uniforms to all branches of the armed forces.

Variations

There are many variations on this uniform in circulation. Different branches of the military typically have unique patterns, and as a result the fatigues of a Naval officer will likely look different from those of an Army field combat soldier or an Air Force pilot. Specific patterns are also subject to change over time. They almost always take on a camouflage look with neutral colors, but some are designed with broad swaths of color splashes while others have a more digitized, pixilated look.

Colloquial Use

The “military fatigue” terminology has also become common in the general civilian fashion world, and has in many respects become synonymous with the more basic “camouflage” in these circles. People can often buy pants, shirts, and even accessories like purses or tote bags that are advertised with using the “fatigue” label. These are not usually endorsed by or affiliated with the armed forces.

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Discussion Comments
By anon343384 — On Jul 29, 2013

When Patton took over II Corps in Tunisia, after the defeat at Kasserine Pass, he felt the soldiers lacked discipline. He ordered, among other things, soldiers to wear their neckties at all times. The order caused much grumbling, was impossible to enforce in combat (as seen in every period photograph) and was eventually scrapped.

The use of “fatigues” as a field uniform began in World War II. HBT (Herringbone Twill) fatigue uniforms were worn in combat in warmer weather for the entire war in every theater. The M1942 HBT uniform became the most common US Army field uniform of the war. Reversible camouflaged fatigues (in the so-called “frog skin” pattern) were introduced mid-war and issued primarily to the Pacific, but their use was eventually discontinued. (US Marines continued to wear camouflage helmet covers.)

By ceilingcat — On May 18, 2012

Interestingly enough, battle dress uniform military fatigues for the different branches aren't just worn in battle. My step-father used to work at the Coast Guard headquarters, and BDU's were his required dress, except for special occasions. He said it was basically like wearing pajamas to work every single day!

However, now that's he's in the civilian world, he sometimes has trouble picking out clothes to work. Because for over 20 years, he didn't have to worry about it!

By strawCake — On May 17, 2012

@KaBoom - Military uniforms have definitely evolved over time. I saw a chart once that showed the evolution of women's uniforms in the navy, and it was very interesting. The first uniforms didn't look very comfortable or very practical!

Anyway, I think wearing military camo makes a lot of sense if you are actually in the military. However, I have never understood the camouflage look in civilian fashions. It makes absolutely no sense. What are you camouflaging yourself from, walking around a city in camo pants? Plus, I find the trend kind of disrespectful to the military!

By KaBoom — On May 16, 2012

I thought that military camouflage had been used as long as the United States military has been around! I'm completely amazed that some soldiers went into battle during the World War II in a jacket and tie. That sounds completely ridiculous and impractical to me.

I have a few family members that have been in the military, and to me it sounds like the military usually does what's going to be the most practical thing. So I am not surprised that they got rid of the jacket and tie uniform and went with something lighter and less visible.

By anon128604 — On Nov 20, 2010

having served in the army, I know all branches use a form of our ACUs and the marines have the darkest green of all the uniforms, not light as it's said above. and the color pattern on army and air force is the same, however the pattern is different. we have a digital representation of woodland. they use a tiger stripe digital.

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