What are the Rules for Wearing a U.S. Military Uniform?

By Sydney Johnson

Military uniforms are an important part of a military culture. Uniforms have changed so much throughout history, with various colors, styles and elements shifting over the years for function, comfort and practicality. However, one thing has remained the same – when it comes to uniforms, service members must always abide by the current military rules. Everything must be in its proper place, lined up and tucked in correctly, so that everyone in a unit looks professional and uniformly dressed.

Here are some things to know about U.S. military uniform regulations.

There are different uniforms for different occasions.

No matter their branch, each service member has several uniforms. Generally speaking, most service members have an everyday suit-like service uniform, a camouflage combat uniform, a physical training uniform and a formal dress uniform. However, there are several different iterations of each of these, depending on the individual service member’s branch, job function, geographic location and even the time of year.

For example, the Navy has a formal uniform called their “service dress whites,” which is usually reserved for summertime formal events. At other times of the year, members of the Navy wear their “service dress blue” uniform to ceremonial and formal occasions.

Some uniforms differ between ranks.

The formal attire for officers in the Air Force is called “Officer Mess Dress.” When they wear these, they do not wear their nametags and saluting is not required when outdoors, but all other aspects of the uniform are mandatory, like the placement of their medals and their blue satin bowtie.

Photo credit U.S. Air National Guard/Staff Sgt. Tony Harp

An array of U.S. Air Force uniforms worn by Chief Master Sgt. Scotty Seiverling are displayed during his retirement ceremony in 2020.

All other ranking Air Force members have a very similar uniform, but small changes are made to differentiate rank. Enlisted personnel have a slightly different formal uniform from their superiors.

This is true for all branches of the military. Each uniform has slight variation between ranks.

Rules are very particular and differ from uniform to uniform.

There are many uniform rules service members must keep in mind while getting dressed and ready for their days. For instance, Army soldiers putting on their camouflage combat uniform must tuck in their tan or sand-colored T-shirt and make sure their jacket is fully closed at all times. The cap must be positioned correctly (insignia in front, name on back) and their hair must not interfere with its placement.

Photo credit U.S. Army/K. Kassens

Soldiers assigned to the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School put on green berets for the first time during a Regimental First Formation at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The ceremony marked the completion of the Special Forces Qualification Course where soldiers earned the honor of wearing the green beret, the official headgear of Special Forces.

On the other hand, if they are wearing their service uniform, which looks more like a suit, service members have three knots to choose from when tying their tie: the Windsor, half-Windsor or four-in-hand knot. Additionally, the cap to this uniform, called a beret, is supposed to look off-centered. When placing the beret on their head, service members must make sure the “flash” (Army emblem) is positioned over their left eye and the excess material should be draped to the right.

Other branches also have very similar rules when it comes to making sure uniforms are worn correctly.

Small changes to dress code happen all the time.

Each branch typically releases new military uniforms every several years and with them come new rules. However, between these full uniform changes come smaller changes.

For example, in the Navy, there have been 37 regulation updates since 2015. These Naval code alterations included changes about headgear, tattoos and whether a female service member can use a civilian handbag while in uniform.

Photo credit U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Colby A. Mothershead

Senior Chief Aviation Support Equipment Technician Augustine Ilomuanya conducts a dress white uniform inspection. Departments aboard Makin Island are conducting uniform inspections to ensure they are meeting Navywide regulations.

Across all branches of the Armed Forces, uniform regulation updates are made often, so service members must stay abreast of these changes to ensure they always look presentable and professional while representing the military.

Hair regulations are evolving to be more inclusive.

In January, after receiving feedback from a diverse panel of soldiers, the Army officially changed its hair regulations to offer a more accessible and inclusive array of approved hairstyle options.

“This is one of the many facets of putting our people first and recognizing who they are as human beings,” Sgt. Maj. Brian Sanders said. “Their identity and diverse backgrounds are what makes the Army an ultimate fighting force.”

There is now no minimum hair length for any and all personnel in the Army, making it a style option for female soldiers (it was previously ¼ inch away from one’s scalp). There is also now a wider variety of acceptable hairstyles accepted for female service members.

For example, prior to this change, the Army had strict rules about the dimensions of female soldier’s hair, like how much space there had to be in between braids or cornrows; many of these former rules have now been relaxed or eliminated. Ponytails are also now acceptable if a female soldier’s hair texture doesn’t allow for a tight bun. Lastly, highlights and dying one’s hair is acceptable as long as it looks like a natural hair color (i.e., neon colors are not deemed acceptable).

Conclusively, if a hairstyle doesn’t interfere with the proper situation of headgear and looks clean, it is now acceptable in the Army.

The Army is not the only branch changing its policies about hair style. The Air Force is also relaxing its rules around hair maintenance.

Though standards and rules are constantly changing, uniformity and appearances remain very important in the U.S. Armed Forces.

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