1947 to 1995
The white uniform has always been a favorite of military personnel especially for special events such as weddings and other social activities. It has always had a practical use in tropic zones in order to provide a practical cool uniform that could easily be cleaned and a good stand-in for Mess Dress occasions. The Dress White was therefore a good multipurpose uniform. It could be worn during the heat of the day while on duty and with minor changes be used for social occasions in the evening hours. The US Army had their Dress White uniform for many years prior to the separation and independence of the United States Air Force. The newly formed US Air Force was anxious to come up with a Dress White uniform that would be distinctively their own. However, the Dress White would take a back seat to the Formal Evening Dress, blue Service Dress and Semiformal Evening Dress uniforms. It would not be until 1955 that the first official US Air Force regulations started to appear addressing the topic of the Dress White and Tropical Dress uniforms.
Until the US Air Force could adopt their own Dress White uniform it would rely on the US Army rendition of the uniform with transitional changes. Not much had to be accomplished to change the US Army uniform into a US Air Force uniform. The US Army Dress White uniform was authorized for use up to 1959 as long as the uniforms were serviceable. The only transitional item on the uniform was the gold US Air Force buttons with the department seal. The buttons were easily replaced. Tropical uniforms were commonly produced with removable buttons for ease of cleaning. This aspect alone allowed the uniform to be transformed into a US Air Force uniform within minutes. All other aspects of the uniform remained the same. The US Army white cap, coat, trousers, white shirt, black tie, white shoes and military insignia ratings and badges were continued during transitional period use. The black bow tie and white gloves were used for more formal occasions.
Figure 1: The US Army Dress White uniform transformed
into US Air Force with the gold buttons.
The year 1959 was the cut-off year for the use of US Army Dress White uniform. It remained 1959 even though 1952 was the overall cut-off for all US Army uniforms. Once the US Air Force blue started to appear the gold transitional button was only authorized for Formal Evening Dress. With the introduction of the Air Force blue uniform, silver oxide buttons became regulation. The US Army Dress White uniforms went through another change dawning the blue and silver oxide. Silver oxide buttons were placed on the US Army Dress White uniforms. Since the Air Force white Mess Dress cap was not authorized until 1958, the blue Service Dress cap was worn with the Dress White uniform. Black shoes, not white were initially worn. The Air Force blue tie was commonly used but the black bow tie and white gloves were used for more formal occasions.
Figure 2: The US Army Dress White uniform
transformed into US Air Force with silver oxide
buttons and blue Service Dress cap.
The Air Force decided not to wait till 1959 to adopt a Dress White uniform. In 1955, the white Tropical Dress uniform was adopted. The USAF Tropical Dress uniform adopted in 1955 to replaced the US Army Dress White uniform. The use of the Air Force Tropical Dress uniform remained the same as its predecessor, the US Army Dress White uniform. Even though replaced, the Air Force allowed a continuance on the wear-out period for the US Army Dress White uniform. The remaining wear-out period was approximately four years. The US Army cotton Dress White uniform could no longer be used after July 1959. However, if the US Army uniform could no longer be serviced prior to July 1959 it had to be replaced with the new US Air Force white Tropical Dress uniform.
The Air Force Tropical Dress uniform adopted in 1955 was quite unique. It was futuristic and ahead of its time in style. The style used for the Tropical Dress uniform matches the style of the blue Service Dress uniform used today except for one button. As it was described by regulation, the white Tropical Dress uniform coat was identical to the period “Service Dress uniform coat” but with “exceptions.” The exceptions actually made it a totally different uniform. The exceptions stated that the cloth in the coat was Dacron and viscose rayon tropical material, color white. Sleeve braid for the officer was flat mohair braid, plain stitch, one-half inch, color white. There is only one left breast pocket. The left breast pocket is welt-type, without a flap, inside hanging pocket with 3/16th inch edge stitching at sides and top of pocket opening. The lower pockets are commercial type, inside hanging pockets with a flap, with no buttons. The buttons used on the front of the uniform and epaulettes are the same design, size and style as used with the blue service dress uniform.
Figure 3: Comparison of the Tropical Dress uniform as adopted
in 1955 to the blue Service Dress uniform used today.
Left: AFM 35-10 (1956) Middle: AFI 36-2903 (2009)
Right: The Air Officer’s Guide (1956)
When the Tropical Dress uniform was adopted, the style using black shoes, blue tie and blue Service Dress cap were carried over from the changes made to the US Army Dress White uniform. Black shoes remained the norm at least for the first couple years. By July 1957, the shoes changed to white low-quarters and white socks. Using the blue Service Dress cap remained until the white Mess Dress cap was introduced in 1958. In reality, the Tropical Dress uniform never used the white Mess Dress cap because its future was cut short. Prior to 1958, the Air Force introduced another Dress White uniform. After the new US Air Force Dress White uniform was introduced it had a direct influence on the future and use of the white Tropical Dress uniform.
Figure 4: Private collection. The only cap authorized to wear
with the Tropical Dress was the blue Service Dress cap.
Optional lightweight Service Dress cap for tropical areas
authorized as well. Same basic design except the head band
was open mesh construction with clear full
openings through the braid.
General Hugh B. Manson, USAF
In regard to the white Tropical Dress uniform, it was required for officers and warrant officers assigned to Air Attaché activities, USAF Missions, or Military Assistance Advisory Groups when the Air Attaché, Mission Chief, or Commander (MAAG) deemed it mandatory. It was also a required uniform for all officers and warrant officers in oversea areas situated in Tropical and Semi-Tropical climates in which its wear was authorized by the area commander. The uniform was prescribed as mandatory wear at diplomatic functions, weddings, funerals, and social occasions which would require the wear of white dinner jacket. Normally, the four-in-hand blue necktie was worn. However, when the dinner jacket or tuxedo is worn by civilians, the black bow tie was substituted.
Before the Tropical Dress uniform had a chance to become part of the structure of US Air Force military uniforms, it was dropped in favor of the new US Air Force Dress White uniform introduced prior to 1958. I know of only one man who wore the Tropical Dress uniform and according to him the uniform style was not very popular. By 1958 the new Dress White uniform was introduced which was totally identical to the blue Service Dress uniform but in white. Once adopted, the new white Mess Dress cap was authorized for use with the Dress White uniform. However, for a short period of time, the blue Service Dress cap was worn with the new Dress White uniform. The use of the Dress White was identical to that of its predecessor, the Tropical Dress uniform.
Figure 5: AFM 35-10
The new Dress White uniform. For a short period
of time the blue Service Dress cap was authorized
prior to the adoption of the white Mess Dress cap.
The main difference between the US Army and US Air Force Dress White uniforms were the lower outside hanging pockets. The US Army style had lower flaps but no outside hanging pockets. The US Air Force Dress White had the lower outside hanging pockets which were identical to the blue Air Force Service Dress uniform. In addition, the lower outside pocket flap designs were different. The Air Force uniform had a straight cut design and the Army style was similar in design to the upper breast pockets.
The problem with this scenario is that by 1959, the year that all the old army uniforms were to be phased out, the US Air Force introduced their new Dress White uniform. The Tropical Dress uniform was covered by regulations for less than three years. Rather than switching to the Tropical Dress uniform, officers switched to the Dress White uniform. There was a wear-out period for the Tropical Dress as long as the uniform was serviceable. For a short time, the white Mess Dress cap could be worn with Tropical Dress but only during its wear-out period. By 1962 the white Tropical Dress uniform was history. Examples of the Tropical Dress uniform are very rare. Much like the McPeak uniform in our most recent history, the only examples of the white Tropical Dress uniform would be from officers that switched to the new uniform immediately or those who’s US Army white uniforms were no longer serviceable prior to July 1959.
Figure 6: usafflagranks.com
The new US Air Force Dress White uniform
with white Mess Dress cap.
The uniform was theater made by a tailor in Saigon.
Colonel Lee Baker, USAF
Figure 7: usafflagranks.com
Colonel Baker served as the Chief of Information for
Military Assistance Command Vietnam MACV
from 1963 to 1965.
Figure 8: usafflagranks.com
The Dress White uniform is known for the white
mohair braid and outside hanging pockets
with straight cut flaps.
Figure 9: The new US Air Force
Dress White in a reception line at Clark Air
Force Base in the Philippines, 1961
In regard to the new US Air Force Dress White uniform, the coat and trousers were matching material and identical in design to the Service Dress uniform. Sleeve braid for the officer was flat mohair braid, plain stitch, one-half inch, color white. The under garment shirt was a white commercial type with modified spread collar. French cuffs were optional, however, if worn, cuff links were to be 25-ligne USAF button or button facsimile. Neckwear authorized for the Dress White uniform was the four-in-hand blue necktie, without design. On special occasions the black bow tie was used. The bow tie is a conservative civilian type of black twill or plain weave material, with square ends, without design. Initially, the blue belt was worn but in 1959 it was changed to white. White suspenders were recommended in lieu of the belt. Shoes were white low-quarter with white socks. Shoes were smooth or scotch grain leather, with plain or plain capped toes without perforations, without buckles or straps and uppers not to exceed ankle bone height.
Insignia authorized for the Dress White uniform was aviation badges, medical badges, the Chaplain’s badge and ribbons which were optional. Though ribbons were optional, officers were urged to wear them at all official social gatherings.
Figure 10: AFM 35-10
The Dress White uniform as portrayed
There was a women’s version of the Dress White uniform. For the women it was refered to as White Dress. The uniform was identical to women’s blue Service Dress but in white. The uniform consisted of a white coat with matching skirt of wool or Dacron viscose fabric. The Service Dress cap with white cover, white purse and pumps were authorized for use with the White Dress uniform.
Figure 11: AFM 35-10 WAF Dress White uniform
Once again, the US Air Force decided to change the appearance of the white uniform and adopted the Informal White uniform. By 22 August 1963, the Dress White uniform was covered in AFM 35-10 but only as a wear-out period uniform. With wear-out period and transition time the Dress White uniform lasted for approximately seven years. The Informal White uniform was the Dress White uniform with modifications. It was generally thought that the modifications of the Informal White uniform enhanced the overall military character of the white uniform and, because of its composition, was much more serviceable. In general, the use of the Informal White uniform remained the same as the Dress White except it could no longer be substituted for the Mess Dress uniform.
As in the Dress White uniform, the Informal White uniform was the same cut and style of the US Air Force blue Service Dress uniform but in white. The material used in the coat and trousers was polyester viscose gabardine or cotton twill. Such a material composition allowed for ease of washing and keeping the white uniform clean. There was only one style difference between the Informal White uniform and its predecessor, the Dress White uniform and the blue Service Dress uniform. The difference was the addition of silver color braid. The Informal White uniform has a nylon silver-gray or aluminum lace braid on the sleeves of the coat and down the trouser legs. The braid was three-quarters of an inch for general flag rank officers and one-half inch braid for other officers. Air Force Manuel 35-10 also allowed for a conversion of the Dress White uniform if it continued to be serviceable. If the Dress White uniform was in very good condition the officer was allowed to change the uniform to Informal White by adding the silver braid where appropriate.
Figure 12: AFM 35-10
The Informal White uniform as portrayed
The Informal White uniform was authorized for optional purchase for all men. However, there were many cases in which it was required. It was a required uniform for Air Attaches and Assistants as directed by the Chief of Staff, USAF. It was required for officers and warrant officers to USAF Military Missions and to Military Assistance Advisory Groups as appropriate. As of 1 May 1965, the Informal White uniform became mandatory for all general flag rank officers assigned for duty in the Washington, D.C. area.
The Informal White uniform was for off-duty wear and for informal social occasions both for daytime use and evening. The uniform could have also been worn at official functions or ceremonies when authorized by the local commander. However, it was not to be worn in lieu of the Mess Dress uniform on occasions when the civilian counterpart is the dinner jacket.
The undergarment shirt was commercial plain white cotton with short or medium point collars. It could have French or barrel cuffs. The belt was regulation webbed USAF style in white with a silver satin finish buckle. Optional white suspenders could be used. Initially, the four-in-hand tie adopted was the blue Service Dress regulation type. However, within a short period of time it was changed to black. The black bow tie was no longer authorized as the uniform could not be used for Mess Dress. The socks were plain white. Shoes were plain white low-quarter style, without perforations or other decorations, and with white soles and heels. The regulation cap was Mess Dress with white cover. All badges and insignia worn on the Informal White uniform were the same as worn on the blue Service Dress uniform.
Figure 13: First Style Informal White
uniform. The only noticeable difference from Dress White
was the silver braid around sleeves and down the trousers.
Three-quarter inch silver braid for general flank rank officers.
General George B. Greene, Jr., USAF
Figure 14: Second Style Informal White uniform
with one and one-half inch braid around
the sleeve for general officer.
General Walter P. Paluch, Jr., USAF
Figure 15: Private collection. Informal White uniform
cap was also the summer white Mess Dress cap.
General Lew Allen, USAF, Chief of Staff
Over the expanse of time in which the Informal White uniform was used there were changes. Many of the changes were not noticeable as they were in relation to the material combinations used in the uniform for ease of cleaning. However, there were scattered periods in which the silver braid on the sleeve changed in width for general rank officers. When the uniform was first adopted three-quarter inch braid was acceptable. In the mid 1970’s and later 1980’s the silver braid changed to one and one-half inches in width. For ease of reading and identification, I refer to the three-quarter in braid uniform as the “First Style” and the one and one-half inch braid uniform as the “Second Style” uniform.
To make things complicated, in the 15 September 1983 edition of AFR 35-10, the Informal White uniform was referred to the White Ceremonial Dress uniform. When the Informal White uniform was adopted it had a black counterpart uniform. Collectively, they were called the White and Black Informal Dress uniforms. By September 1983 they are referred to as the White and Black Ceremonial Dress uniforms.
There were two styles of Informal White uniforms for women. One was a fully lined, single breasted, four button jacket with round lapels. It also had a right and left lower inside hanging pocket with flaps. The other was a semibox double breasted jacket with shorter or bracelet length sleeves.. Both versions were based on the current styles used for the Service Dress uniform. The silver braid for officer was only found on the single breasted version of the uniform.
Figure 16: AFM 35-10
Both styles of Informal White uniforms for women.
Prior to 1983, the Air Force adopted another style of white uniform referred to as White Ceremonial Dress. This later White Ceremonial Dress uniform also had a counterpart known as the Blue Ceremonial Dress uniform. Collectively, they were referred to as the White and Blue Ceremonial Dress. This means that for a number of years there were two White Ceremonial Dress uniforms coexisting and being used at the same time. The blue and black counterparts to these uniforms are covered in another area. Eventually, the later White Ceremonial Dress will continue as the regulation white uniform for the Air Force into the 1990’s. By 1 April 1989 the older Ceremonial White (Informal White) uniform was no longer covered by regulation, progressed to a wear-out phase and was no longer used.
By the end of 1989 there was only one White Ceremonial Dress uniform covered by regulation. There were a number of reasons for the switch. The main reasons circulated around the ideas of better combinations of materials for comfortable wear, ease of cleaning, and military character of the uniform. The new White Ceremonial Dress uniform was made of 100% polyester serge. It was the intent of the US Air Force Uniform Board that the fabric used “looks crisp and remains wrinkle free.” The uniform made of polyester was considered comfortable for the person to wear and had very few problems with wrinkles. The polyester accommodated ease of cleaning and gave the uniform a longer wear-out period.
Major changes were incorporated in regard to military character. The White Ceremonial Dress uniform was a combination of the Informal White, Mess Dress and Service Dress uniforms. The coat and trousers retained the basic style and design of the Service Dress uniform. The silver braid of the Informal White uniform continued to be used around the sleeve but braid on the trousers discontinued. The braid on the sleeve was outlined by a one-eighth inch blue braid piping. General officers wore a three-quarter inch silver braid, field grade officers wore a one-half inch silver braid, and company grade officers wore the blue sleeve braid as prescribed for the service dress uniform. Enlisted personnel had no braid. The uniform did not have full loop epaulettes but rather used the Mess Dress shoulder borders to denote rank for officers. Enlisted personnel used white background chevrons. The combinations and uniforms styles coming together produced a new unique ceremonial dress uniform with a military characteristic of its own.
Figure 17: Private collection. White Ceremonial Dress uniform.
General James P. Mullins, USAF
Regulations referring to the White Ceremonial Dress uniform were specific. The coat was semi-drape, single-breasted, with four buttons, pleated breast pockets and inside hanging lower pockets. All the pockets had flaps. The coat was never form fitting but suppressed at the waist with ease in shoulders, chest and underarms. The white coat and trousers must be fully lined. Full shoulder loops were not authorized in order to accommodate the Mess Dress shoulder boards. Coat and trousers were made of the same material. Trousers were full cut, straight hanging and without a cuff.
The undergarment shirt was white, plain knitted or woven, commercial type with short or medium point collars, without design. The shirt may be button or French cuff. If French cuffs are worn on the shirt, cuff links were to be used. The cuff links were regulation highly polished or oxidized silver oval-shaped bearing the Air Force coat-of-arms without encircling stars. Half inch square plain satin silver finish links were acceptable as well. The tie was blue plain-woven wool, synthetics or blends thereof. It was a four-in-hand tie without sheen or decoration. If suspenders were used they were white. When worn, suspenders were not to be visible.
Figure 18: usafflagranks.com
USAF Chief of Staff General Charles
Gabriel wearing the White Ceremonial Dress uniform
at an official reception.
Figure 19: usafflagranks.com
USAF Chief of Staff General Charles Gabriel
shaking hands with a field grade officer.
Notice the width change in the
silver sleeve braid between general and field grade officer.
Footwear was white low quarter shoes with plain rounded toe, and without perforations or other decorations. The footwear could be smooth or scotch-grained leather or manmade material and may be high-gloss or patent finish. Plain white socks were used with the white shoes. The belt was white cotton web or elastic, solid and woven, with silver-color tip and matching silver-color buckle. Outer garments with the uniform included the all-weather coat, overcoat and raincoat.
The regulation cap worn with the White Ceremonial Dress uniform was the blue visor Service Dress cap with silver front chinstrap. Since the white Mess Dress and Informal White uniforms were no longer regulation, the white dress cap of the past was no longer regulation. A white cover was placed over the blue Service Dress cap.
The White Ceremonial Dress uniform was not mandatory for all officers but mandatory for all general flag rank officers. It was also mandatory for field grade and company grade officers assigned to unified or combined command headquarters, JCS Joint Chiefs of Staff, attaché or embassy positions, the White House, HQ USAF/CVAI, HQ USAF Protocol, and other positions as required. The White Ceremonial Dress uniform was optional for enlisted personnel.
All Air Force ribbons, badges and insignia covered by regulations were authorized for wear on the White Ceremonial Dress uniform. The accouterments may be silver oxide/satin finish or highly polished. However, all accouterments had to match. Placing satin finish with highly polished insignia was not acceptable. This also meant that tie tack/clasp, belt buckle and cuff links all must match to the satin finish or highly polished style of the insignia.
The women’s White Ceremonial uniform was a three button blazer style coat with silver sleeve braid for officers. The shoulder boards are the regulation size for female officers. All insignia badges and ribbons are won as previously described. The skirt is street length and a white over-blouse is optional.
Figure 20: AFM 35-10
White Ceremonial Dress uniform for men
In the end, the White Ceremonial Dress uniform was used primarily for official and social functions. The uses of the uniform were similar to that of its predecessor white uniforms. It was not a US Air Force ceremonial uniform as such. As mentioned, it was an optional uniform for most officers in the Air Force. In actuality, the ceremonial uniform of note would be the Blue Ceremonial Dress uniform which was adopted at the same time as the white. The Blue Ceremonial Dress uniform was mandatory for all officers of the United States Air Force. The official phase-out date for the White Ceremonial Dress uniform was 1 March 1993 and it was no longer listed in the Air Officer’s Guide after 1995. Discontinuing the White Ceremonial Dress uniform brought an end to era of white uniforms within the United States Air Force.