The Formal Evening Dress uniform was the first uniform adopted by the US Air Force and is probably one of the most elusive uniforms found in the repertoire of USAF uniforms. It was very seldom seen and used outside Washington, D.C. The uniform was adopted within a short period of time following the separation of the service in 1947 and predates the acceptance of the USAF blue uniform. It has one of the longest varied running histories of US Air Force uniforms. It went through a number of modifications, was eventually discontinued as formal evening wear and its basic design continued as a US Air Force Band uniform.
The US Air Force Formal Evening Dress uniform first appeared IN AFR 35-12 dated 1 October 1948. It is also described and pictured in detail within the second edition of The Air Officer’s Guide published in January 1949. This means the uniform was adopted and in use within the last three months of 1948. The gold USAF seal transitional button was also authorized on the same date so it could be used on the Formal Evening Dress uniform.
The only uniform in which the gold button was required was Formal Evening Dress. Even after the establishment of the US Air Force blue uniform, the gold US Air Force button and style of the evening dress uniform would remain the same to 1959. The Air Force gold button was never mandatory during the Transitional Period on the Army service dress uniforms. The regulation on the button specifically stated that personnel “are authorized but not required to wear a new and distinctive button on the service coat in lieu of the Army buttons.” It seemed the newly formed US Air Force wanted to use the button and the seal found thereon as a demarcation from the old to new. The specifics in regard to buttons for the FED uniform were very clear. Buttons were to be of gold or gold color medal of suitable composition and weight, circular and slightly convex, with raised rim. The seal of the Department of the Air Force is in clear relief against a horizontally lined background.
Figure 1: usafflagrank.com
The gold USAF button authorized for use on the
Air Force Formal Evening Dress uniform. The gold button
was no longer used on Formal Evening Dress after 1959.
The elusive nature of the uniform is directly related to the use of the uniform. The uniform was very seldom, if ever seen, outside the jurisdiction of Washington, D.C. It was authorized for optional purchase and wear by all officers and warrant officers. However, it was a required uniform for USAF personnel who attend state and diplomatic functions where formal evening attire was specifically prescribed. Commanders neither had the authority to require their officers to have the uniform nor designate when to wear the uniform. The person’s position in relation to a state functions dictated the use and purchase of the uniform. In lieu of this situation, most USAF personnel have probably not seen or used a Formal Evening Dress uniform unless they were assigned to Washington, D.C. or in some other location in regard to diplomatic state functions. Many officers referred to the first Formal Evening Dress uniform as diplomatic dress.
The Formal Evening Dress uniform was the popular civilian tailed coat with trousers, white vest and tie altered to US Air Force specifications. Ornamentation was added to the sleeve to indicate military character together with USAF gold buttons in place of the usual civilian buttons. The uniform was to be of black or blue-black commercial type evening dress cloth. It was nothing more than a conventional civilian tailed coat converted into a military garment. Though it was a simple conversion, the US Air Force Formal Evening Dress uniform became one of the most striking of uniforms.
The conversion was simple. It was accomplished by removing the commercial civilian buttons and replacing them with gold USAF transitional buttons. Three 30-ligne (three-quarter inch) buttons were placed on each side of the front of the jacket along with two 20-ligne (one-half inch) buttons at the top of the skirt, at back waistline. For those authorized to wear the aiguillette, a button was attached to the body of the coat under the collar on the left or right shoulder depending on the position in which the aiguillette was to be worn. The white vest buttons were replaced with the 20-ligne (one-half inch) buttons. All civilian sleeve buttons were removed and ornamentation or military character was sewn to the lower portion of each sleeve. Twenty-five ligne (five-eighths inch) buttons were used on the uniform cap. No civilian decorations, jewelry items or watch-chains were authorized for use on the uniform.
The US Army had its counterpart to the USAF FED uniform. AFR 35-12 specifically states in relation to formal evening dress, “The special evening dress uniforms presently prescribed in (US Army Regulation) AR 600-38 are optional for wear by officers and warrant officers now possessing them and may continue to be worn without change thereto until 30 June 1955.” The uniform being referred to in this regulation was the US Army similar design tailed coat known as the Full Dress uniform commonly worn within diplomatic circles and functions. However, the US Army gold buttons would have been replaced by the US Air Force gold transitional buttons of corresponding size.
It is clear the US Air Force had a transitional period for its personnel in regard to the FED uniform and its US Army counterpart Full Dress uniform. The US Army uniform could have been worn up to the 1955 cut-off date as long as it remained serviceable. What is not clear is if the cut-off date remained 30 June 1955 or if the USAF changed the FED cut-off date to the 1 July 1952 date which was the regulation cut-off date for all US Army uniforms in use.
In regard to collecting, the US Army Full Dress uniform with transitional gold buttons is rare. Many collectors do not think of the US Army Full Dress, or other dress Army uniforms, as having a transitional period. It seems the collector has relegated the transitional period uniform to that of Service Dress only. Therefore, many USAF converted US Army Full Dress uniforms are not identified as such. In my entire years of collecting I have only seen one such example.
Figure 2: usafflagranks.com and AFM 35-10
Uniform of Major General William Henry Powell, Jr., USAF
Formal Evening Dress Uniform
with gold military character.
The uniform with gold military
character and buttons was used up to 1959.
Figure 3: usafflagranks,com
Uniform of General Frank Fort Everest, USAF.
After 1959 the military character changed
to silver and the buttons became the
Silver oxide type used on Service Dress Uniform.
The sleeve ornamentation or military character found on the lower sleeve of the formal evening dress uniform was gold in color from its inception in 1948 to 1959. Sleeve ornamentation was to be positioned two inches from the sleeve end. The design of the sleeve ornamentation was referred to as the USAF Spearhead. The Spearhead design with rank braid was sewn and embroidered onto a black or blue-black broadcloth background. Initially, the Spearhead was to be seven inches in height above the horizontal braid and five and one-half inches in width and based on the horizontal stripe or braid indicative of grade or rank. Over time, the overall size of the Spearhead changed; however, the width of the insignia remained the same.
Initially, all grades of warrant officers used a skip braid one-quarter inch in width, separated one-half inch to two inches apart. Warrant officer braid was no longer used when warrant officer ranks were discontinued. The braid from 2nd lieutenant to lieutenant colonel was one-half inch in width. Eventually, lieutenant colonel and colonel would wear the same width braid. The braid for colonel was one inch in width and general officers had a braid that measured two inches in width.
Figure 4: From AFM 35-10 Sleeve ornamentation or military character.
Illustrations show the difference in ornamentation
for the officer ranks. Gold in color until 1959.
Sleeve ornamentation or military character was placed on the outside center of both sleeves with the regulation insignia of grade, embroidered, one-quarter inch above the horizontal braid. Colonel’s eagles were face to the front of the wearer. Captain and lieutenant bars were placed vertically. Warrant officer bars, prior to being discontinued, were placed horizontally. Use of nylon thread in the embroidery of the sleeve ornamentation was optional.
Formal Evening Dress headgear with gold military character and buttons was specifically made to fit the uniform. Regulation headgear for the gold FED uniform was a visor type dress cap. However, it was authorized with a black or blue-black cover to match the trousers and coat, a gold color chin strap, and gold color USAF (25-ligne) buttons. The cap for general and colonel rank officers had a black broadcloth covered visor, embroidered with the USAF lightning and cloud pattern in gold bullion or gold nylon thread, nylon being optional. There were three clouds on either side of the visor for the rank of general and two for colonel. Other officers and warrant officers had a black leather visor with no additional ornamentation. The insignia used on the cap was the United States Coat of Arms, two and three-eighth inches in height, gold colored medal. This was the only cap ever produced by the US Air Force with gold trim and embroidery. Prior to 1956 and the first published addition of AFM 35-10 various types, styles and sizes of cap insignia were used. Following 1959, the military character of the FED uniform changed to silver and the cap used was the authorized black Mess Dress cap.
Figure 5: From AFM 35-10 Headgear for the Formal Evening
Dress is the dress cap. The dress cap is the authorized visor type
with black or blue-black cover to match the trousers and coat.
The cap had a gold colored chin strap, gold color
buttons and the officer insignia is the US Coat-of-Arms in gold.
The cap visor embroidery for the rank of colonel
and general is gold bullion or nylon thread.
The appropriate outer garments used with formal evening dress was the blue Service Dress overcoat, black or blue-black Air Corps type cape and the raincoat when weather condition made it necessary. The cape was around before the inception of the USAF FED uniform and it became the preferred outer garment to wear at special diplomatic occasions once the FED uniform was adopted. If the blue service dress overcoat was worn, the blue service cap and gray gloves were worn. If the cape was worn, the black evening dress cap (with gold trim up to 1959) and white dress gloves of silk or other appropriate material were used. The cape had a dark blue or ultramarine (Air Corps) blue lining for general officers and ultramarine blue lining for other officers and warrant officers. If the raincoat was worn, the blue service dress cap was used as well as gray gloves.
The US Air Force had every intention in producing a black overcoat to go with the FED uniform. When the gold transitional buttons made their debut, an overcoat size 45 ligne (one and one-eighth inch) button was produced. Regulation 35-12 stated the overcoat was being developed in 1948. This is where things get a bit sketchy.
I have found no immediate follow-up specific regulation in regard to the black overcoat but have heard a number of stories from officers and enlisted personnel who were on active duty at the time. It seems that the US Air Force opted to use a regular civilian black dress overcoat standard for the period. As in the coat with tails, the overcoat made a military transition by replacing the civilian buttons with USAF gold transitional types. With the modifications the black/blue-black overcoat could be worn with the FED uniform and its corresponding gold character embroidered visor cap. Other than the gold buttons, it does not seem the overcoat had any other identifying insignia. Although one officer recollected having the USAF Spearheads attached to his overcoat as well. Another officer remembers keeping his converted black overcoat, changing the buttons to silver and using it years later with his Mess Dress. I have found no supportive regulations to justify this information prior to 1959.
When the Mess Dress uniform was introduced in 1958 a black formal dress overcoat was authorized for use with the Formal Evening Dress and Mess Dress uniforms. The black overcoat was a period civilian style coat modified by using Mess Dress shoulder boards. The shoulder boards were specially made with pins on the rear for attaching to an overcoat with no loops.
Figure 6: AFM 35-10 Authorized black civilian
overcoat with attached Mess Dress shoulder boards
for use with Formal Evening Dress and Mess Dress.
Figure 7: usafflagranks.com Black Mess Dress shoulder boards
modified for the civilian black overcoat.
The undergarment shirt worn with the FED uniform was the winged collar white conventional civilian full dress type, without stripe or figure. Plain gold studs and cuff buttons were used on the shirt when the military character of the FED uniform was gold. They changed to silver after 1959. The necktie was a conventional evening dress bow of white silk or of material matching the shirt, without stripe or figure and squared ends. The vest was single breasted, low cut, rolling collar with pointed bottom and fastened with three small (20-ligne) evening dress buttons, gold in color and detachable. Once again, silver after 1959. The material for the vest was white pique or other conventional type commercial civilian evening dress vest material.
The trousers were plain civilian evening dress style without cuffs, having a commercial type black trouser stripe. The material for the trousers was black or blue-black commercial type that matches the formal evening dress coat. The shoes were black colored low quarters with plain toe. The socks were black without stripe or figure. Gloves worn with the formal evening dress uniform were white or grey depending on the outer garment worn.
Regulations in regard to the use of decorations and medals on the formal evening dress uniform have varied. Up to and including 1959 the following are the correct customs in regard to decorations and medals. United States decorations and service medals are to be worn in miniature size only. At first, they were worn at the option of the individuals but changed to mandatory at a later date. The medals were arranged on the left breast pocket in one or more rows in normal order of precedence with the top row being placed on the top of the pocket itself, not above the pocket. At first, qualification badges, including aeronautical rating badges (such as wings), were not worn, however, badges also became mandatory at a later date. Miniature replicas of foreign decorations which have been duly approved by Congress for acceptance and wear by the individual were worn. In addition, full size neck, sash or sunburst decorations or orders were authorized to be worn.
Because of the variety and number of foreign decorations, it was not practical to prescribe the exact manner in which various combinations were worn. Remember! The FED uniform was being worn for diplomatic occasions. Therefore, good taste and judgment was to prevail. There were a few golden rules documented by the USAF. When attending a function sponsored by a foreign nation, decorations awarded by that nation to the individual should be worn as a courtesy. All sash or sunburst decorations were to be worn in accordance with the custom of the nation concerned. Not more than one neck, one sash and/or one sunburst type of foreign decoration was to be worn at one time. If the person was awarded the US Medal of Honor, it was to be worn around the neck and any foreign neck decoration worn was to be worn below the Medal of Honor. In addition, the US Medal of Honor was never to be worn in miniature size. Lastly, emblems, ribbons, foragers or lanyards representing unit decorations were not authorized for use.
There is a collecting myth which states that prior to 1959 blue Service Dress uniform items were regulation with gold transitional buttons and gold embroidery on the cap. The gold was used in order to be compatible with the gold military character of the Formal Evening Dress uniform. Some collectors refer to the blue Service Dress cap with gold as transitional uniform item. I have found no regulations to support such information. Gold buttons and gold embroidery was never authorized as regulation on any blue USAF Service Dress item. The cap pictured below is one such example that has fooled collectors. The company that produced the cap did not exist until 1974 and the company was very helpful and identified the cap as being made for a private military or paramilitary organization.
Figure 8: usafflagranks.com
Not a regulation US Air Force cap.
Gold on blue Service Dress was never authorized
in the US Air Force with the
FED or any other regulation USAF uniform.
After close examination, one can tell
this cap does not come close to
adopted USAF specifications.
The company that made the cap
did not exist until 1974. The cap was identified
as being made for a private military
or paramilitary organization.
By June 1959 regulations changed in regard to the use and wear of the FED uniform. Gold transitional buttons were no longer authorized. In addition, gold sleeve ornamentation or military character, gold cap visor embroidery, gold cap buttons, gold cap eagle and gold cuff links and studs were changed to silver oxide. The only dress cap authorized for use with the FED uniform was the new black visor type that was adopted for the black Mess Dress uniform. The black dress cap continued to be worn when the evening dress cape was used as an outer garment. However, after 1959, the black dress cap could also be worn as an option if the blue raincoat was used. Specification for use of the outer garment cape remained the same after 1959. By 25 August 1963, all officers involved in state or diplomatic function were required to have the FED uniform. In addition, Air Attaches and Assistants were required to have a FED uniform as directed by the Chief of Staff, USAF.
Figure 9: usafflagranks.com
Regulation Cap worn with the Formal
Evening Dress uniform after 1959 with silver embroidery.
General David C. Jones, USAF, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff
After 1959, an optional black civilian topcoat (not overcoat) was authorized for wear with both the FED and Mess Dress uniform. The black topcoat was civilian style, of all wool cavalry twill, had half raglan sleeves, and with slashed pockets. The bottom of the topcoat extended to the bottom of the kneecap. If the black topcoat was used with the FED or Mess Dress uniforms, Mess Dress style shoulder boards were worn on the topcoat. The shoulder boards had the same pin design as used on the overcoat.
Figure 10: From AFM 35-10 US
Air Force Formal Evening Dress Cape.
The cape was black or blue-black with a dark
blue or ultramarine blue lining for general officers and
ultramarine blue lining for other officers and warrant officers.
The headgear was the dress cap with black or
blue-black cover and gold embroidery,
buttons and insignia until 1959.
By January 1961, wearing of all service medals, ratings, wings and badges became mandatory and no longer considered optional for the individual. They were to be worn in miniature size. The insignia for chaplain, physician, dentist and nurse were authorized in full size. However, not more than two of the badges and insignia were worn simultaneously. For example, and individual authorized to wear the Air Force aviation badge must wear the badge. If authorized, the person may wear any one of the other badges or insignia, except a flight surgeon or flight nurse will not wear a medical aviation badge and the medical insignia simultaneously. If not authorized an aviation badge, the person may wear any two of the other badges and insignia authorized.
The badges and insignia are worn in the following order (top to Bottom):
(physicians, dentists and nurses)
When the miniature medals were worn, the authorized badges and insignia were centered one-quarter inch above the top row of medals. Each badge or insignia were worn one-quarter inch above the other, except that the chaplain insignia that was centered one-half inch above all badges and insignia. The miniature guided missile insignia was centered between the bottom row of miniature medals and the top button of the uniform. As additional Air Force badges and insignia were authorized, they were authorized for the FED uniform. The overall scheme mentioned above remained the same. However, in addition, one could choose to wear a breast insignia.
By the 1978 issue of The Air Officer’s Guide and 1977 issue of AFR 35-10, the FED uniform using the civilian tux with tails was no longer listed as regulation. The FED uniform continued to be used but the style changed and became a spin-off of the Mess Dress uniform. I have seen a number of older style civilian tux FED uniforms dated up to 1981. Examples can be found with later dates because of a grace or phase-out period. In many instances, the USAF allowed uniforms to be used until they were no longer serviceable. In addition, a transition period may also be established in which the individuals may continue to use the old style uniform up to a certain specified date after the established regulation date of the new uniform.
In order to simplify uniforms used by officers, the black winter Mess Dress uniform, with modification, became the FED uniform. The cummerbund was replaced with the white vest. The black tie was changed to the white tie. The winged collar shirt used with the tux with tails was replaced with the mess dress shirt with stand-up fold-down collar. The studs and cuff links of the Mess Dress uniform were used on the FED uniform. The mess dress jacket dual button closure chain is not used; however, the buttons on either side are in place. Many officers chose not to wear the chainless closure buttons at all. All insignia are to be worn as in relation to the mess dress uniform.
Figure 11: usafflagranks.com and AFR 35-10
Black Winter Mess Dress as Formal Evening Dress.
Cummerbund is replaced with the white vest.
The black bow tie is replaced with the white bow tie.
Mess Dress dual buttons are in place but not chained.
All medals and insignia are mandatory.
General Paul K. Carlton, USAF
For a very brief period of time an attempt was made to return to the old style FED uniform but without the tails and using the winter black Mess Dress uniform. Described in the 26th edition of The Air Officer’s Guide and AFR 35-10 for 1980, the uniform remained the same as mentioned in the previous paragraph with a couple changes. The officer shoulder board insignia was replaced with the old style USAF Spearhead sleeve military character for grade insignia. It was attached to the lower sleeve above the black officer braid. The jacket had full shoulder loops with USAF button. Square edged pearl studs and cuff links were used instead of the mess dress set. It’s not clear how long this uniform was authorized. However, I have found no such examples either in photos or uniforms available to collectors. This uniform was authorized just prior to the adoption of the blue Formal Evening Dress and Mess Dress uniforms. Therefore, officers probably continued to use their previous style uniforms through its wear-out period, avoided the changes to the black uniform and went directly to the new blue uniform. If any of these uniforms exist they are quite rare.
The USAF Spearhead military character of grade which was initially introduced for the FED uniform in 1948 finally disappeared with the uniform mentioned in the paragraph above. However, the insignia was resurrected for use by the United States Air Force Band. An illustration of the band uniform is found below.
Figure 12: 26th edition The Air Officer’s Guide
The Formal Evening Dress Uniform
with spearhead sleeve rank
and full shoulder loops with buttons.
Figure 13: AFR 35-10 (18 July 1980)
The Formal Evening Mess Dress Uniform
with spearhead sleeve rank
and full shoulder loops with buttons.
Figure 14: The USAF Spearhead military character of grade used
On the United States Air Force Band uniform.
Once the blue Mess Dress uniform made its début it was only a matter of time before the FED followed suit. The FED uniform was the blue Mess Dress uniform but with changes. The uniform was only authorized for officers and was referred to as the “Blue Formal Dress” or “Formal Dress” uniform and no longer “Formal Evening Dress.” It is worn for official formal functions and state occasions considered to be a white tie affair. The civilian equivalent is a tuxedo. The modifications to the Mess Dress to create a Formal Dress uniform were simple. Chain fasteners were not worn on the jacket. The shirt is a commercial white, full dress, with winged collar. The bow tie is white with square ends. Cuff links and studs are pearl. A white, single-breasted, low-cut, roller collar vest with pointed ends is worn instead of a cummerbund. Placement of all insignia is the same as in regard to the mess dress uniform.
Figure 15: usafflagranks.com and AFR 35-10
Blue Formal Dress Uniform from Mess Dress.
General Lew Allen, Jr., USAF
By 1996, the blue Formal Dress uniform was discontinued. To date, there has been no replacement. The Mess Dress uniform is used for all semi-formal and formal dress occasions. The Mess Dress uniform became the equivalent of the civilian “black tie” and was reserved for evening wear. However, the uniform could be used any time of day for a wedding. In the 1990s, Air Force Manual AFM 35-10 was replaced with Air Force Instruction AFI 36-2903 - Dress and Personal Appearance of Air Force Personnel.