Even though I tend to specialize in fashion and fashion related items – both on the handmade side and the vintage side, research becomes a big part of the job. Yep, it really does. I admit to being a bit of a nerd in this respect, have a tendency to note details, and have a pretty good size library on fashion and design history. But then comes the pieces I had no real clue about so it meant starting down a whole new path! Today’s blog is going to focus on vintage military pieces. As a woman I’m a bit of an anomaly in this sphere as most collectors of military items are men. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked how I know this stuff, ask if I’m selling it for my husband, and when selling at various in person venues had potential customers go straight to my husband or son assuming they were the seller!
I admit I wasn’t an expert, and would still not claim to be an expert. But I can do research. The piece above is one of the early ones I ran across during my work with the local theatre company with which I’m associated. But as that work continued it became clear that stock we were working on had a LOT of pieces that had been donated over the years (because a theatre can always use them for costumes right?) we would never use and which had definite value. So I started studying and learning. I purchased books. I looked for and bookmarked dozens of websites on uniforms and insignia. When I could find a name or service number I dug into sites like Fold3.com and Ancestry.com. I learned to look for clues.
Which brings us back to the khaki and blue piece above. Note I said piece – one of the first things I learned is that jackets are not necessarily jackets when it comes to uniforms. Some are jackets although that is more properly associated with additional outerwear. The top, buttoned front portion of a uniform is more properly called a blouse or tunic. This one is a US Army Infantry tunic from the Spanish American War. Considering it dates back to the late 1800s it is in pretty good shape. So how did I figure this out. Well that ribbon on the left side was a good clue to start with. It is from the 51st National Encampment of United Spanish War Veterans that was held in 1949 and has the name of the delegate. An interesting point is that this group was not just from the Spanish American War of 1898 but also included members of units that served in the Philippines Insurrection. If interested you can find more about the organization here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Spanish_War_Veterans . While a good start it didn’t tell me which of these conflicts it came from. Once again clues came into play. See that blue trim? That was the key. By the time of the Philippines Insurrection that blue trim was gone and the uniforms were all khaki.
But what about a more “recent” situation? Can color be the key? No, it can not. The 3 Ike jackets below are all made to the same specification order and the colors vary quite a bit. The one in the center (with the ruptured duck discharge insignia) is probably closest to what we expect of the WWII “greens”. The left is almost brown or deep khaki, while the one on the right falls in between. So if you’ve ever wondered why those uniforms in the movies seems to vary in color they really did!
It wasn’t a quality control issue. It was plain logistics. The United States went from a relatively small “standing” military to a massive organization in an extremely short period of time. Clothing manufacturers went into military mode and while there were the written specifications, all with numbers and dates, sent out the ability to control color to tight windows was not as advanced as it is today for one thing. But on a more practical level the need to get uniforms made and on the backs of service personnel was a greater priority. So if it was close, it passed quality control! In some cases, particularly for officers, independent tailors or small businesses were pressed into the war effort and constructed uniforms for individual clients. Those specification orders were put on labels that are often sewn into the pocket of a uniform piece though so those are great clues as to when it was manufactured. There is always some overlap though. The photo on the right has a WWII era spec number, but the small corporal stripe on the sleeves was used during the Korean Conflict. The overall structure of the military, especially the Army, changed over the course of WWII as well. As the organization grew so did the distinct groups within the Army. Some of those divisions grew into their own branches of the military such as the Army Air Corps becoming the Army Air Force and then becoming the US Air Force in September 1947.
Then there are uniforms that have not changed much over time. The Marine Corps and US Navy in particular can be tricky. Below are 2 USMC overcoats. Can you tell the difference? Yes, the one on the right is missing a row of buttons. It should be double breasted. Color varies slightly but overall these are nearly identical. The biggest clue is indeed the buttons though! The older one is on the right and is probably late to post WWII to Korean Conflict – it has metal buttons and twill lining. The coat on the left is Vietnam era and has satin lining and plastic buttons.
Other clues are things like service number format (when present), tags and label format, presence of cleaning instructions, and fiber content. Post Korea tends to be polyester/wool blends rather than 100% wool. For US Army the green color changed as well in the early 1960s to a less drab green. Of course now that they have announced they are going back to the “green and pinks” of WWII that will muddy the waters a bit. I have a year more or less to get the vintage pieces listed before those are out. And as noted before no one thing is used to date an item. Fortunately most insignia is out there on official sites so those are a bit easier, although can be time consuming, to identify. So there you have it – the next time you wonder how someone “knows this stuff”, the answer is simple – RESEARCH!