In modern times, there is a clear distinction between the clothes that soldiers wear for combat and the clothes they wear for ceremonial occasions. Throughout history, however, this hasn’t always been the case. Uniforms (and armor) were used universally for combat as well as display. There have been some wonderful examples of soldiers and regimental units with a truly bizarre fashion sense that have graced the battlefields of the past. Here are some of the most noteworthy units and clothing choices from throughout the history of military fashion, some of which served as dress uniforms, some combat uniforms, and others which were both.
1. Military Fashion: The Landsknechts
The Landsknechts (or Landsknechte) were mercenaries drawn from the German-speaking parts of Europe. From the 1400s to the early 17th century, they formed the bulk of armies of the Holy Roman Empire, when the battlefield was dominated by the pike. The Landsknechts wielding these pikes also made sure that the battlefield was dominated by absurdly colourful and fantastic military fashion.
Apart from the pike, Landsknechts also used crossbows, arquebuses (early matchlock guns), and the famed Zweihänder, which was an insanely large sword, often taller than the soldier wielding it. As such, the Landsknechts were seen as truly formidable soldiers that were able to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies, and because of their prowess, they were also able to command much respect from their employers. As a result, they were paid twice as much as their contemporary footsoldiers.
The Landsknechts’ military fashion sense would be considered garish by today’s standards; however, they chose clothing that, in their minds, complemented their military skill. Exempt from the “Sumptuary Laws,” which dictated the color and style of clothes permitted for each social class. Emperor Maximilian stated that the Landsknechts should be allowed to wear whatever clothes they liked on account of their lives being so “short and brutish.”
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Landsknecht clothing usually consisted of a flat beret. The hat was usually large, made of thick woven cloth or wool, supported on a metal frame, and decorated with slashes, amulets, and large plumes of dyed ostrich feathers.
Over a baggy shirt was worn a slim-waisted doublet. The sleeves were especially puffed and usually of different colors. The pantaloons were of varying colors and decorated with slashes, and the shoes, known as “cow muzzle” or “bear paw” boots, were also decorated with slashes.
The codpiece was especially large, being stuffed with material offcuts. It could also be used as a pouch or a pocket to store valuable items, including trinkets and coin pouches.
The Landsknechts certainly earned their place in history. Their effectiveness and exploits on and off the battlefield fill many books, and as mercenaries, their loyalties shifted. One incident of not being paid even led them to sack Rome.
The Landsknechts were slowly phased out in favor of a regular German army, the Kaiserlicher Fussknecht, which tended not to rely on mercenaries. The early 1600s saw the last of the colorful Landsknecht gracing the battlefield.
2. The Winged Hussars
Without a doubt, some of the most famous and feared cavalries were the Winged Hussars of Poland. Immediately recognizable by their bold fashion statement of wearing an adornment of feathers on their back, the Winged Hussars were created in 1503 by exiled Balkan warriors who went to Poland as mercenaries.
Their fame peaked in the century from 1577 to 1683, in which they took part in numerous battles. They became known for their prowess on the battlefield and proved to be extremely effective. An example of this was the Battle of Klushino (1610), where the Poles were outnumbered 5 to 1 yet managed to achieve a decisive victory thanks to the Winged Hussars.
The main weapon of the Winged Hussar was the lance, by far the most effective weapon used for the cavalry charge, which was the prime tactic used by the Hussars. Apart from the lance, the Winged Hussars also often carried weapons such as curved sabers, recurve bows, and the koncerz, a long stabbing sword designed to defeat armor.
Although their armor was not particularly unusual (and often not standardized), their adornment was. The most striking feature was their huge “wings,” which were curved wooden frames attached to the back, sporting dyed feathers. The reason for this choice of military fashion may not have been simply aesthetic, however. Various theories suggest that while galloping at top speed, the feathers clattered and buzzed in the wind, creating a disconcerting sound. Other theories suggest the wings added extra protection to the back armor of the rider and prevented the rider from being thrown off the horse, clearly exhibiting an example of fashion and function.
3. The Swiss Guard
Without a doubt, one of the most distinctive uniforms still in use today is that of the Swiss Guard. They are at the forefront of bizarre military fashion. Technically mercenaries, the Swiss Guard were hired on 22 January 1506 and have been guarding the pontiff ever since.
The current blue, red, and orange dress uniforms were designed in the early 20th century and were based on depictions of the Swiss Guard fashion from the 16th century. The tri-colored uniform is accompanied by a beret, or a helmet known as a comb-morion (the type of helmet used by the conquistadors). For normal duties, the helmet is black, and for ceremonial duties, the helmet is purple and adorned with ostrich feathers. Sergeants wear black and red uniforms, while commissioned officers wear completely red uniforms.
The uniforms are tailored to fit every individual soldier, and each set weighs approximately 3.6kg (8 pounds). Each uniform consists of 154 pieces. Ceremonial duties also include a halberd; however, as each guardsman is recruited from the Swiss army, they are all very capable soldiers who have undergone extensive modern military training. They also wear service dress uniforms and combat uniforms that are not unlike modern military uniforms tailored for the same purpose.
4. The Evzones
The Evzones have their history as light infantry and mountain units of the Greek army formed during the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire. Upon their creation in 1833, the Evzones originally wore the Bavarian-style blue trousers and a tailcoat, along with a cylindrical hat called a shako. This uniform proved to be unpopular, and in 1837, a new uniform was designed based around the fustanella, a pleated skirt-like garment popular in Greece and the Balkans.
The fustanella is said to contain 400 individual pleats, each pleat representing a year of Ottoman occupation. The uniform consists of many other varied components. On their heads, the Evzones wear a fez called a farion which is scarlet and sports a long black tassel made of silk. They wear white stockings made of wool over which are worn black silk garters. The shoes, called tsarouchia, are red leather clogs, each adorned with a black pom-pom.
Equally bizarre is their movements when changing positions during guard duty. Their movements are extremely slow and stylized, which makes for fascinating viewing. Today, the Evzones are a purely ceremonial unit tasked with guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the entrance to the presidential palace. They also participate in military parades, nationally and internationally, proudly displaying their peculiar military fashion choice while on duty.
5. The British Foot Guards
The bright red jackets of the British Foot Guards, along with their big, fluffy hats (and the odd way of wearing the chin-strap), are a tourist staple of every visit to London. But remember, when you take a selfie standing next to these fashionable “attractions,” behind the fluff of each hat is an extremely well-trained soldier (with a lot of patience).
Red jackets have always been a significant part of British military fashion tradition, but what makes the Foot Guards really stand out (and stand tall) are their furry bearskin hats. Although used by a variety of soldiers throughout history and for ceremonial duties in modern times, they are perhaps best known as the hats used by the Foot Guards who guard Britain’s monarchy.
The hats stand 11 inches tall at the front and 16 inches tall at the rear. They are made from the pelts of Canadian black bears, while the officers wear hats made from the pelts of female Canadian brown bears, the fur of which is softer. Naturally, this has brought much attention from animal rights activists in the modern era, especially since a whole, single pelt is used to make each hat. Between 50 and 100 bearskins are acquired by the hatmaker every year.
In total, five regiments comprise the British Foot Guards: the Grenadier Guards, the Scots Guards, the Welsh Guards, the Irish Guards, and the Coldstream Guards. Their uniforms are all virtually the same, with only tiny differences. The spacing of the buttons on the tunic is the most obvious way of distinguishing to which regiment a soldier belongs.
The Foot Guards have a long history of military tradition, with various regiments serving in major wars since the English Civil War when the oldest of the regiments, the Coldstream Guards, was formed. Since then, the regiments have served in many major conflicts such as the American Revolutionary War, the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, The Second Anglo-Boer War, the First and Second World Wars, the Gulf War, and most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.
6. Ghillie Suits
You won’t see these on the catwalks of London, Paris, and New York, but perhaps that’s the point. This is one military fashion statement that’s not meant to be seen at all. There are many variants of ghillie suits around the world, designed as the ultimate camouflage that not only uses patterns but also texture to blend into the surrounding environment. Ghillie suits often take on the appearance of shaggy bushes, making the wearer look like a monster from an old b-grade horror movie.
The ghillie suit has its origins in the Lovat Scouts, a Scots regiment that was formed during the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). The name has two possible derivations, both from Scots Gaelic. The first refers to a young man or boy who works as an outdoor servant called a “gille.” The unit was initially made up of young lads in this profession. The second derivation refers to “Gille Dubh,” an earth-spirit in Scottish mythology that clothes itself in leaves and moss. In 1916, the Lovat Scouts went on to become the British Army’s first sniper unit.
In today’s military fashion, ghillie suits are used by militaries all over the world and are favored by snipers. The suits have also found their way into use outside the military and are popular with hunters and nature photographers.
7. The Selous Scouts
The Selous Scouts were special forces units of the Rhodesian military that fought in the Rhodesian Bush War from 1973 to 1980. Although the standard military fashion was no different from many other uniforms during the 1970s and 1980s, the Selous Scouts certainly had their own style when actually operating in the bush. They usually ditched their trousers for very short shorts. Their boots, they often replaced with trainers, and a sleeveless vest or short-sleeve shirt or t-shirt usually sufficed for the torso. Dressing thus, was practical, as the heat in the African bush is often unbearable, especially for Europeans unaccustomed to it.
The Selous Scouts were known for their brutality, including the use of biological and chemical weapons in their operations. They also operated outside the borders of Rhodesia, which increased international opposition to Rhodesia’s white-minority government.
By 1980, the war was lost for the Rhodesian government, and a handover of power to the black majority was inevitable. The Selous Scouts were officially disbanded by the new government under Robert Mugabe, and many of them went south to join the apartheid South African Defence Force, where they acted as soldiers and advisors.
8. Military Fashion: The Zouaves
The Zouaves were light infantry units that fought for France between 1830 and 1962. Originally, the idea was that the units would be made up of Berbers from Algeria and Tunisia, but this idea quickly changed due to circumstance. Pragmatism dictated the units be made up almost exclusively of Europeans. But while the people exhibiting the name “zouave” changed, the uniform did not, and units continued to exhibit a penchant for displaying the exotic military fashion.
The Zouaves, however, were not limited to France and her colonies. Zouave and Zouave-inspired units started being commissioned around the world. The Papal States, Spain, Poland, and even Britain started sporting units inspired by the Zouaves. Even in his fight for Italian unification, Garibaldi used Zouave units, ultimately becoming part of the movement of Italian nationalism.
But perhaps most intriguing was the introduction of Zouaves to militaries across the Atlantic. During the American civil war, both the Union and Confederate armies adopted Zouave regiments. Throughout the war, the Union army fielded over 70 volunteer Zouave regiments, while the confederates fielded around 25 Zouave companies.
While the adoption of light infantry might not be particularly odd in any military, what really stands out is the uniform which was designed to reflect a North African culture. The fact that this uniform found itself being worn by Europeans and people of European descent during the American civil war is of particular note insomuch as it is a fashion quite unusual and out of place.
Although there were a few variations depending on the origin of the units, the distinctive uniform usually comprised a short, open jacket called a shama, baggy trousers called a serouel, and most commonly, a fez. In modern times, Zouave-inspired uniforms can still be found in the ceremonial uniforms of units hailing from Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia.