1950 – Present
Before there was Mess Dress there was Semiformal Evening Dress. The Semiformal Evening Dress uniform was the stand-in Mess Dress uniform for officers until 1958. When the Air Force broke from the US Army in 1947, every effort was made to establish a separate identity through the use of a new distinctive US Air Force uniform. By the end of 1948 the Formal Evening Dress uniform was adopted but its use was restricted for diplomatic, state and full formal occasions only. It was an optional uniform for all officers and warrant officers but could usually only be used by those associated with or circulating around diplomatic state circles. What did the United States Air Force use for less formal occasions?
The new USAF Mess Dress uniform was not adopted until 1958. There was a transitional period for all US Army uniforms. The stated cut-off year for transitional US Army uniforms with the gold US Air Force buttons was 1952. The gold transitional buttons were placed on US Army Mess dress uniforms as well. I have seen no regulations in regard to this effect but there is reason to believe the Mess Dress went through the same transitional period as other US Army uniforms. Air Force Regulation 35-12 dated 1 October 1948 established precedence for the US Army Full Dress uniform and its transitional period. In addition, I have seen period examples of the US Army Mess Dress uniforms displaying the transitional Air Force seal button. However, these uniforms would have been phased-out way before 1958.
In order to meet the demand for less formal occasions, the USAF adopted the “Blue Dress Uniform for Semi-Formal Occasions” in lieu of “formal” (state/diplomatic) occasions. Air Force Regulation 35-14 dated 15 November 1950 introduced the Blue Dress uniform. Its first appearance in The Air Officer’s Guide was in the fifth edition dated March 1951. There was a winter version and summer version. At first, both uniforms were collectively referred to as the “Dress Uniform.” However, in time, the name changed. Because the uniform could only be used in the evening hours they became known as the Semiformal Evening Dress uniform, SED.
Figure 1: From AFM 35-10 and private collection. Winter blue
Service Dress as Semiformal Evening Dress.
General Clements McMullen, USAF
Figure 2: From AFM 35-10 and private collection. Summer tan
Service Dress as Semiformal Evening Dress.
General Richard Clark Lindsay, USAF
Normally, the DOD Badge wouldn’t have been worn
on the summer tans. However, when used as Semiforaml Evening Dress,
it was optional. Full size medals were optional as well.
Use of the Semiformal Evening Dress uniform was specific. Provisions clearly stated that the SED uniform would be worn only when specified or when civilian dinner jacket was appropriate after 1700 hours attending official functions as a duty or on social occasions. The SED uniform was an adaptation of both the blue winter Service Dress and tan summer Service Dress uniforms. The most noticeable difference between Service Dress and SED was the use of a white shirt with bow tie. The shirt was to be a commercial type with collar style similar to the blue oxford cloth shirt. French cuffs were optional, however, if worn, the cuff links would be one of prescribed types with 25 ligne buttons or button facsimile facing outward. The bow tie was a conservative black civilian type made of twill or plain weave material with squared ends and no design. The uniform material for winter SED was serge or gabardine, barathea was optional. Summer included optional materials of charmeen and gabardine. No matter what material was used, the coat and trousers had to be matching material.
Figure 3: The only regulation cuff links authorized
for use with the Semiformal Evening Dress uniform.
The only cap authorized for the SED uniform was the Service Dress cap made of serge or gabardine. However, service caps of barathea or tropical worsted material were additionally authorized for officers. Black shoes and black socks as described for Service Dress were used. The Ike Jacket and flight (overseas) cap was never authorized for Semiformal Evening Dress. Overcoat, topcoat, raincoat and or gloves were worn as needed. White gloves were worn on appropriate occasions.
Figure 4: Private collection. The only cap authorized for use with
the Semiformal Evening Dress was the blue
Service Dress cap.
General Merrill D. Burnside, USAF
Wearing ribbons on the SED uniform was optional. However, Regular size medals were worn in lieu of ribbons at the option of the individual and when authorized locally for special occasions. Though optional, officers were urged to wear ribbons at all official social gatherings.
After the introduction of the Mess Dress uniform, officers no longer opted to use the SED uniform though it was authorized for use up to 1965. Air Force Manual 35-10 dated 1 July 1966 has the Semiformal Evening Dress uniform listed for “airmen only” and not officers. The regulation states that the SED uniform for the enlisted “may be specified on occasions when the Mess Dress uniform is authorized.” The uniform was totally phased out of The Air Officer’s Guide by 1965.
The Semiformal Evening Dress uniform continued after 1965 but changed its name to Semiformal Dress. It is not clear why the uniform was continued for the enlisted airmen since they were also authorized to wear Mess Dress. Air Force Regulation AFR 35-10 (1 April 1989) clearly stipulated the “uniform is authorized for airmen only” and is worn “in lieu of the Mess Dress uniform.” It was to be worn when the civilian attire was the tuxedo. The latest edition of AFI 36-2903 dated 17 February 2009 continues to list the uniform category Semiformal Dress. Some changes to the uniform have occurred and it is still authorized for enlisted personnel only.
Figure 5: Major General Clements McMullen, his wife Nancy
and his son, Lieutenant Thomas H. McMullen wearing the summer
Semiformal Evening Dress uniform. The general is wearing his
ribbons and the lieutenant is not. Both ways were optional and
correct. Full size medals could have also been worn.
Figure 6: AFM 35-10 - Semiformal Evening Dress was authorized for
all ranks. However, once the Mess Dress uniform was
adopted it was only used by enlisted personnel.
Female personnel had their counterpart Semiformal Evening Dress uniform. As with the male uniform, the female uniform continued to use the adopted versions of the winter and summer Service Dress uniform. However, blue shade 83 collar undertabs and a white undergarment shirtwaist was worn in lieu of the regulation blue shade 126 shirtwaist associated with Service Dress.
Figure 7: AFM 35-10
Women’s Semiformal Evening Dress uniform.
Was the Service Dress with the undergarment
Shirtwaist changed to white on either winter
or summer versions.
By the end of 1958, the new USAF Mess Dress Uniform was introduced. At first an optional uniform, by 1 July 1963 the Mess Dress uniform became a required item for all officers and warrant officers, including reserve officers coming on active duty. Initially, Mess Dress was not considered for enlisted personnel but that changed in time. Installation commanders were given the option to waive the mandatory requirement for the Mess Dress uniform. Waiving the mandatory requirement was only done in those cases where it was clearly an imposition for officers or warrant officers with a very short remaining tour of duty. Eventually, the Mess Dress became a regulation uniform for all officers and enlisted personnel.
There were a number of years where the Mess Dress uniform coexisted with the Semiformal Evening Dress and Formal Evening Dress uniforms. All three uniforms had their prescribed use. Eventually, the Mess Dress uniform replaced the Semiformal Evening Dress uniform for officers and a variation of the Mess Dress became the Formal Evening Dress uniform.
By 1963, the use and definition of Mess Dress became more encompassing. The Mess Dress was used when a semiformal civilian dress (dinner jacket and black tie) was required at social as well as official functions. Some occasions for Mess Dress included diplomatic functions at foreign embassies or legations, evening parties, dinners, dances, receptions, club affairs and evening ceremonies and entertainment. Mess Dress was used any time the senior officer present considered it desirable to pay special honor to the occasion.
Originally, there were two types of mess dress uniforms, winter and summer. The black trousers would remain the same for year round use; however, the jacket was seasonal. The winter Mess Dress uniform required a black jacket with shawl collar, grosgrain-faced, in tropical worsted wool or wool/polyester. The jacket was single breasted with three 30-ligne buttons on each side of the front of the garment. A 30-ligne double button chain fastener across the waistline was used for closure of the jacket. When the jacket was in the closed position it allowed a one to two inch exposure of the cummerbund. The jacket has no epaulettes but rather two loops for support of shoulder boards. The sleeve has a one-half inch black mohair braid. The summer mess dress uniform jacket is identical to the winter except it is white and made of polyester/viscose material. The sleeve has a white one-half inch mohair braid. The fabric used should have a dull to semi-dull color tone. The jacket, when worn, shall end approximately two inches below the natural waistline at center back. There are no external breast pockets. An inside breast pocket is authorized on the vertical right side.
Figure 8: Winter Mess Dress Uniform.
Photo taken from the eleventh edition,
June 1959, The Air Officer’s Guide
published by the Stackpole Company.
Figure 9: usafflagranks.com
Winter black Mess Dress uniform.
General Paul K. Carlton, USAF
Figure 10: usafflagranks.com
Summer white Mess Dress uniform.
Colonel Alfred Gill, USAF
The buttons on the mess dress uniform are the official oxidized silver-color metal of suitable composition and weight, circular, and slightly convex with raised rim, bearing the seal of the Department of the Air Force in clear relief against horizontal-lined background.
The trousers are for summer and winter. They were black and made of the same material as the winter jacket. They are high-rise, have a zipper fly, with side pockets and a seven-eighths inch black grosgrain striping. There were no belt loops or hip pockets. A watch pocket was optional and was to be located at the top of the waistband. Lining pocketing and suspender buttons were black. After 1963, pleats were optional on the trousers.
Figure 11: usafflagranks.com
A beautiful example of the Summer Mess Dress
Uniform. Standing to the far right is Major General
William A. Dietrich, USAF and three other
The undergarment shirt was a conventional soft bosom dress type with turndown collar and without any stripe or figure. Plain one-half inch cuff links and one-fourth inch studs, square cut, with silver satin finish were used with the shirt. Pleats were optional on the shirt. The cummerbund was black silk, without design but pleated. A bow was used which is black silk without design and with square ends. Shoes were black low quarter with a plain toe and the black socks without stripe or figure.
The authorized dress cap was the visor type with interchangeable black and white covers. The black cover was worn with the black winter Mess Dress jacket and the white cover with the white summer Mess Dress jacket. The braid band and trim of the cap was black. The front chinstrap was silver aluminum thread with silver color USAF 25-ligne buttons. The cap insignia was the United States Coat-of-Arms in oxidized silver color medal or silver color wire aluminum embroidery. The appropriate aluminum wire embroidery of rank was worn on the cap visor distinguishing rank.
Figure 12: Black winter Mess Dress cap with aluminum
wire cap eagle. In most cases caps were made with
interchangeable black and white tops.
General Lew Allen, Jr., USAF, Chief of Staff
Figure 13: White summer Mess Dress.
In most cases caps were made with
interchangeable black and white tops.
General Jack Gordon Merrell, USAF
Shoulder boards were worn on the mess dress uniform to distinguish rank. They were regulation Navy size and shape. The Rank of the individual was embroidered on the shoulder boards. General officer shoulder boards had a two-vellum two-inch aluminum lace stripe lengthwise across the entire board, with rank superimposed. All other officers have a two-vellum one-half inch aluminum stripes running the length on each side of the board. The rank was superimposed one-eighth inch from the outer edge of the board.
Figure 14: usafflagranks.com
Comparison of shoulder board background material.
Top is dark blue material and bottom is black felt.
Black felt was used on older shoulder boards before the
Mess Dress uniform changed to blue.
Figure 15: usafflagranks.com
Left - General officer after the Mess Dress changed to blue.
Middle – Older general officer when Mess Dress was black and white.
Right – Officer other than general.
There is a little known fact about Mess Dress shoulder boards. Many officers found the boards problematic after use over a period of time. The snaps would wear-out and open at an undesired moment such as dancing with their wives. Many officers modified their shoulder boards. They removed the snaps and replaced them with the button device off an old extra visor cap. This way the button had to be screwed into place and would never open until unscrewed. Many collectors have found these modified boards with many Mess Dress uniforms.
Figure 16: usafflagranks.com
Modified Mess Dress shoulder boards
used by many officers
Commissioned officers and warrant officers who were aides and attaches were required to wear aiguillettes. They wore silver dress aiguillettes of silver color rayon or metallic type. Aiguillettes were worn on the right shoulder by an aide to the President of the United States, duly appointed White House Social Aides while on duty with the First Family and officers designated as aides to foreign heads of state. Other aides and attaches wore the aiguillette on the left shoulder.
In 1959, the only required insignia worn on the mess dress uniform were aviation wings. Miniature service medals and insignia were optional. By January 1961, wearing all authorized decorations, service medals and badges in miniature size became mandatory and no longer an option. Some insignia such as the chaplain’s insignia, physicians, dentists and nurse’s insignia 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):
(physician, dentist and nurse)
When the miniature medals are 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’s insignia 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 Mess Dress uniform. The overall scheme mentioned above remained the same. However, in addition, one could choose to wear a breast insignia.
Figure 17: From AFM 35-10:
Positioning of miniature medals and wings.
Breast badges are to be centered
between the bottom row of miniature
medals and the top button of the uniform.
Prescribed outer garments Mess Dress include the overcoat, topcoat, raincoat and the Air Force evening cape. If the blue Service Dress overcoat or topcoat is worn, the blue Service Dress cap was used and gray gloves were used when conditions warrant. If the raincoat was worn, the blue Service Dress cap or black dress or Mess Dress cap was used as well as gray gloves when conditions warrant. If the Air Force Formal Evening Dress cape was worn, the black dress or Mess Dress cap and white dress gloves of silk or other appropriate material were used. The cape has dark blue or ultramarine blue lining for general officers and ultramarine blue lining for other officers and warrant officers. The cape was no longer than two inches below the knees.
Figure 18: From 35-10 The Mess Dress with cape.
Prior to the introduction of Mess Dress the cape
was only authorized for the Formal Evening Dress uniform.
The Mess Dress was a prescribed uniform for women. For winter, it was a black mohair Mess Dress jacket with self-faced shawl collar and matching skirt. The jacket had three 20-ligne buttons slanted on each side of the front of the garment. The sleeves had a one-half inch black mohair braid. The summer Mess Dress jacket and skirt were identical in style to the winter except the color was white with a one-half inch white mohair braid on the sleeves. A silver metallic cummerbund was worn with the winter black uniform and white cummerbund on the summer uniform. The summer Mess Dress was made of Dacron-viscose material.
Figure 19: Air Officer’s Guide 12th Edition
The summer and winter women’s Mess Dress uniform.
At first, the black Mess Dress used a silver metallic cummerbund
but by October 1963 it was changed to pleated black mohair.
The women’s shirtwaist had a white ruffled front and was made of opaque pima cotton, cotton synthetic or synthetic blends with pearl buttons. The shirtwaist was to be worn with a one inch wide black ribbon inserted under the collar. A hat was not authorized for wear with the women’s Mess Dress uniform unless the raincoat or overcoat was worn. If an outer garment was worn the white cover Service Dress cap could be worn. If gloves were worn they were white fabric, doeskin or kid. Shoes were closed toe pumps with heels, black suede for winter and white cloth for summer.
By 1965 an Air Force dress cape was authorized. The cape was black wool gabardine lined with oyster white satin. If the cape was worn a hat was not used. Insignia of rank was worn on the collar tab of the cape. The cape is one inch longer than the skirt.
Figure 20: AFM 35-10
Authorized dress cape worn with
The Mess Dress uniform.
The shoulder boards were the same design as the male but reduced in size to 2 inches wide by 4 ¾ inches in length, with 1/4 –inch aluminum braid and miniature embroidered rank insignia. The women’s shoulder boards do not display the USAF button at the peak of the board.
Figure 21: AFM 35-10
Mess Dress uniform with two-gore style skirt
and mid-knee slit on the left with silver
By 1976 a two-gore style skirt with mid-knee slit on the left was approved for wear. The skirt was produced in both black and white to be worn with the corresponding winter and summer uniforms. At the same time the silver cummerbund was once again authorized for use but only with the two-gore style skirt.
The women’s black and white Mess Dress uniform continued to evolve. By 1978 new styles and combination were introduced. The black and white street length skirt was authorized and could be worn with either the black or white jacket. The black ankle style skirt continued to be used with either the black or white jacket. Although, the use of the white street or ankle style skits became optional. The silver metallic cummerbund was only authorized for use with the ankle length skirt.
Figure 22: AFM 35-10
Women’s Mess Dress with black and white street length
and ankle length skirts. The all white uniform
was considered optional.
By 1981, the mess dress uniform changed. There was no longer a winter and summer uniform but rather one blue year round Mess Dress uniform. It was mandatory for officers but considered optional for enlisted personnel. It was worn for social functions of a general or official nature (black tie affair). The civilian equivalent was the tuxedo.
The jacket was blue shade 1583 composed of 55%/45% polyester/wool tropical material. It was single breasted, straight back with (30 ligne) USAF buttons diagonally on both sides and a two-button length chain as a front closure. It had a satin shawl collar and lapels. The jacket was semi-fitted. The back length was to fit three and one-half to four inches below the natural waistline. General rank officers wore a three-quarter inch wide silver sleeve braid three inches from the end of the sleeve. All other officers wore a one-half inch wide sleeve braid three inches from the end of the sleeve. Enlisted personnel wore the appropriate sleeve rank without sleeve braid. Sleeves were to end approximately one-quarter inch from the heel of the thumb. Jacket and trousers must be of matching shade and material.
The trousers were the same composition and material as the jacket. Trousers were high-rise with side pockets and had a seven-eighths inch blue striping down the legs and no pleats. The bottom front of the trouser legs rests on the front of the shoes. The back of the trousers legs were to extend seven-eighths of an inch longer than the front.
Figure 23: AFR 35-10
The blue Mess Dress uniform for officers
and enlisted personnel.
The shirt was conventional white soft dress-type with turndown collars and French cuffs. It may have a pleated or plain front. Shoes were plain toe, black low quarters, without perforation or other decoration. The socks were plain black and solid in color without design. The cummerbund was blue satin shade 1160 and is pleated without design. The cummerbund was worn with the open edge of the pleats facing upward. A bow tie was used that was blue satin shade 1160 without design. The tie was five to five and one-quarter inches long and two and one-half inches wide with square ends. The cuff links were plain silver satin finish one-half inch square cut. The studs were plain silver stain finish to match the cuff links. The suspenders were white, blue or black, solid in color and not visible when worn. The authorized outer garments were the blue overcoat, raincoat or all-weather coat.
Headgear for the blue Mess Dress uniform was the blue shade 1583 tropical cap. The front chinstrap was silver in color with aluminum thread and USAF 25-ligne buttons. The cap was to fit squarely on the head and was only worn at the option of the commander. The cap insignia was the United States Coat-of-Arms in oxidized silver color medal or silver color wire aluminum embroidery. The appropriate aluminum wire embroidery of rank was worn on the cap visor distinguishing rank. The cap cover was blue or clear waterproof polyvinyl to be used during inclement weather.
Figure 24: usafflagranks.com
The blue mess dress cap.
The blue Mess Dress cap is the
Service Dress cap blue shade
1583 with a silver chin strap.
A silver aluminum thread cap
badge could have also been used.
Figure 25: From AFR 35-10 and usafflagranks.com.
The blue Mess Dress uniform.
General Lew Allen, Jr., USAF
Figure 26: usafflagranks.com USAF Chief of Staff
General Charles A. Gabriel at an official function
in France wearing his blue mess dress uniform.
The women’s Mess Dress uniform changed simultaneously with the men’s. The use of the uniform and the display of insignia remained the same for all personnel. The required items were the blue Mess Dress jacket with officer’s silver sleeve braid, blue ankle-length skirt, white mess shirt with blue tie tab, and the blue cummerbund. Optional items to be worn the blue Mess Dress included the blue overcoat or raincoat, white gloves and black or suede clutch handbag. The women’s uniform is worn without suspenders (braces) or the button chain clasp for the coat.
Since the adoption of the blue Mess Dress uniform there have been few changes. However, some changes that came about in the 1990’s are that all wings, badges and insignia are in high gloss. The new Hap Arnold buttons were introduced and a darker shade of blue was adopted. The Mess Dress uniform no longer uses a cap and therefore saluting is no longer required outside. It continues to be an optional uniform for enlisted personnel. For the most part, the blue Mess Dress uniform remains the same today.