The Influence of Military Surplus Clothing
on the Casual American Collegiate Style 1945-1972
Military uniform design and fashion have long borrowed from each other. Military-inspired garments are commonplace, from mall brands to high-street boutiques. Nearly every designer or brand has done a take on a military field jacket, fatigue trousers, or even more generally, camouflage. How military uniforms became so intertwined in popular fashion started on college campuses. In the post-World War II years, the style of the American college student was both big business and the place where mainstream American fashion would be born. Bubbling up from dorms, classrooms, and quads, new styles of dress gained acceptance and spread into the mainstream.
The widespread adoption of military uniforms as everyday clothing began on college campuses in the immediate years after WWII. The GI Bill resulted in opening college education to whole classes of society like never before. The veteran college student became an icon of the post-war years, and they brought their old military uniforms with them to campus. The veteran college student, dressed in their old khakis, boots, and field jackets, was instrumental in the casualization of American style in the 20th century.
Even as the scarcities of the war years receded and were replaced by the prosperity of the 1950s, military uniforms were still ubiquitous on college campuses. New “Army & Navy Surplus Stores,” sprouted up across the country from cities to college towns, stocked to the rafters with wares from the US military. The surplus store became an inexpensive place for college students to shop and create new styles from piles of olive green, brown, and khaki. The surplus stores also provided the rugged clothing needed by collegiate mountaineering and outdoor clubs and that would lay the groundwork for the outdoor industry of today.
The turbulence of the 1960s would help recast military surplus clothing as rebellious rather than utilitarian. Along with love beads, sandals, and denim, military surplus came to represent a wide array of countercultures on American campuses and beyond. From self-styled hippies, those looking to disengage from capitalist consumption to those militantly organizing against the state power, military clothing was a constant. The college students wearing olive drab in the 1960s would finally break the link between the garments and the military they were designed to clothe, appropriating and decontextualizing the garments in an act of subversion. While wearing an Army surplus is far from subversive now, it was the college student of the 1960s who brought surplus fully into mainstream popular fashion. They act as the link from the musty surplus stores and sweaty protests to camouflage trousers at The Gap and field jackets made by Yves Saint Laurent. We owe the place of military surplus and inspired design in fashion to college students.
The Postwar Campus
In 1947 Gilbert Bailey returned to the University of Indiana. It was his first time back since 1941 when he was a graduate student teacher. When WWII broke out, he joined the US Marine Corps, where he found himself as a combat correspondent. His return trip to Bloomington was not nostalgic, now writing for the New York Times Magazine, he was there to report on the state of the American college after the war. About two and half years after the war, and a year since most servicemen returned to the US, the new freshman class was the first since the war made up of a majority of young students who had not been in the military.
The students Bailey found were drastically changed from the ones he left in 1942. Taking over a US Government class for a few sessions, Bailey reported his finding in the New York Times Magazine. Half of the men in his class were 15 when the war ended, with the other half all veterans, attending school on the GI Bill.
One would not have found a class like this in 1941. In the second-row a boy who doesn’t have to shave yet sits next to a man who helped tear Europe apart. The bored-looking student in the Army field jacket who wonders what this lesson has to do with his future, old enough to be the father of the little girl in white bobby socks who looks so earnest.
As Bailey notes, a mixture of two generations on the same campus had begun to change the college experience in the classroom, dorm room, and the culture of the place. The veteran student brought with them maturity, a pent-up desire to succeed, and little patience for college social or sartorial styles. As the quote above suggests, and others will confirm, the wearing of military uniforms marked a student out as a veteran on campus. These veterans flooded college campuses around the country thanks to the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act of 1944, known colloquially as “The GI Bill.”
Nearly 16 million Americans served in WWII. The objective of the GI Bill was to help ease these millions of Americans back into civilian life with federal aid, guaranteed home loans, and most notably assistance for tuition, books, and stipends for higher education. In the first seven years of the program, eight million veterans attended some kind of higher education on the GI Bill. The GI Bill, in a matter of years, had reshaped American higher education, throwing open the doors of academe to millions who, for only the fault of their finances, class, religion, or race, would have never thought of attending college less than a decade before. The GI Bill made college education a part of middle-class American life, completely changing who attended college. This would have effects far beyond a single generation, the changes stuck, and for the remainder of the century, college would be seen as a logical next step for middle-class kids. There is little doubt the GI Bill was one of the driving forces of the casualization of the American collegiate style.
When returning soldiers from WWII returned home, and many prepared to go to college, many found wearing pieces of their former uniform their only option. As an article in Columbia University’s newspaper, Columbia Daily Spectator, noted in 1947, “good clothes are still not always available, and when they are, they're expensive.” For veterans, finding civilian clothing was still a struggle in 1947. With textile and garment manufacturing regulated by the federal government during the war years to produce uniforms, the crush of returning veterans stretched already limited supplies of civilian clothing.
At the end of 1945, The New York Times reported, “The men’s clothing situation is in such a serious position that manufacturers will not be able to produce sufficient garments during the coming year even to take care of the needs of discharged servicemen.” The article reported that the garment industry had only enough material to make half of the 24,000,000 suits that were considered normal yearly production and that one department store was said to have only 150 suits on hand. Besides suits, a white shirt was particularly hard to find. In 1946, the Chicago Daily Tribune thought the problem so common as to run a satirical column in the style of “A Modest Proposal,” opening with “The shirt shortage, and particularly the white shirt shortage, is a matter of common knowledge,” before making a case for the return of the dicky. In Kansas City, the owner of “haberdashery find [sic] humor in the plight of former servicemen who can't find civilian clothing to buy” by displaying wooden barrels painted as suits in its window. Bob Hope, in a comic essay for the American Legion Magazine, wrote:
"Naturally, I don't have to tell you ex-GIs how tough it is to get clothes. After the last war when a guy started looking for a job, he put on a clean white shirt and tried to get an appointment. Now he has to make an appointment to try and get a white shirt."
On college campuses, the shortage of civilian clothing forced the new ex-military students to revert to the old uniforms they came home in. While the decline of suit-wearing amongst male students to class began prior to WWII, the influx of students unable to acquire suits in the mid-1940s continued the trend. The khaki and olive drab-clad student quickly garnered attention from student newspapers. Student paper stories either attempted to provide advice or mock the veteran students for their casual attire.
At Bard College in New York’s Hudson Valley, “Bard’s Emily Post,” sarcastically wrote in 1946, “there is no need for buying your clothes at Brooks Brothers since the garments you slept in while serving your country are adequate.” The writer continues describing the typical male student as sporting two days of beard growth and an unlit pipe in their mouth. For those who don’t have “G.I. clothing,” the writer advises grimy t-shirts and well-worn pair of jeans. A photograph dated to the late 1940s of Bard students checking their mailboxes easily confirms the writer’s description. The male student center wears an M-1943 Field Jacket over what appears to be a T-shirt. Other male students wear a sweatshirt, and almost out of frame, a light US Navy or Marine Corps jacket can be seen.
Other articles focus on how ex-soldiers could adapt their uniforms to fit better into the civilian world. An article from 1947 in the Columbia Daily Spectator, under the headline “Cravats and Khaki Blend In GI Student’s Wardrobe,” offered advice. The writer goes through a series of ways former soldiers could modify their uniforms. The first recommendation is color, dyeing military uniforms any color to remove its “military” look. “Here’s a tip: a pair of khaki pants can be converted into a smart pair of slacks by dyeing them blue, dark brown, black, or bottle green.” The practice of dyeing uniforms after the war was common in the US and Europe, including by the US Military which used specific colors of dyed clothing for POWs and civilian laborers. Another recommendation is to change the buttons on the wool overcoats (swapping out the brass buttons) and have them hemmed to hip length. In the end, the writer paints a portrait of a veteran student who he spotted the other morning wearing a white sweatshirt with a military camp name printed on it, a peacoat, and olive green flannels along with saddle shoes and red argyle socks.
Even Stanford, known for the corduroy trousers its male students wore, experienced a wave of khaki. “Male Stanfordites are not khaki whacky by nature,” the campus paper explained, but the clothing shortages had led male students to opt for military khaki trousers instead of the customary corduroys along with field jackets and leather flight jackets. It goes on to note that ex-servicemen can make their uniform look less military by pairing it with a loud tie and a “rough’s” jacket.
As has been pointed out, for many ex-servicemen, the wearing of former pieces of their uniform was not a choice, but a necessity due to shortages and expensive clothing. Writing into Life Magazine, an ex-GI attending Dartmouth said, “I have found that by living in abandoned Boston and Maine Railroad shack, buying second-hand books, wearing old Army clothes, and cooking my own food, I am able to live within my allotted income.” In the college yearbooks of the years following WWII it is easy to spot veteran students in their old military uniforms, especially trousers and jackets. While necessity was sure to play a role in their wear, they were casual and comfortable, while also acting as a visual signifier of the veteran student. In the Denison University Adytum yearbook of 1946, you can see how easily the military uniforms mix into the casual style of the students. The B-15 cloth flight jackets, leather A-2 flight jackets, and M-1943 Field jackets all smoothly pair with the surrounding civilian leather, plaid, and windbreaker jackets.
But the reason military clothing, especially trousers and jackets, were seen as viable options for many was their practicality. The US military of WWII produced more practical, rugged, and utilitarian uniforms than any other country. With an emphasis on function over form and scientific testing, the WWII uniforms of the US Army were comfortable, practical, and casual. While American college students were beginning the casualization of American style, the US Military was doing the same for military uniforms. When the US Army decided to design its new field jacket in the years before WWII, they had modeled it off a golf course windbreaker. In the years after WWII, the casual college styles and military uniforms made for perfect companions.
The Golden Age of Army Surplus
The period after WWII is often called “the golden age of the army surplus stores” While not the beginning of military surplus stores in the US, the staggering amounts of material surplus sold off after the war by the military essentially created a booming industry. “World War II produced quantities of military surplus on a scale never seen before. By the end of 1946, U.S. military bases and storehouses were overflowing with the remaining stock of World War II surplus.” Prospective surplus store owners could attend sprawling government auctions of war surplus and win one auction lot of mixed surplus that could be enough to start a shop. While the first generation of students after WWII brought with them their old uniforms, subsequent generations of students would have to go to the army surplus store for their own military garments. Now, the wearing of military clothing was severed from its connection to prior service.
In the 1950s and 1960s, “military surplus stores were practically everywhere, and most cities and even many small towns could likely boast one or two.” The Surplus store became a college staple, with advertisements in college newspapers and other publications throughout the decades. These stores sold students military “ski parkas,” surplus boots, field jackets, and much more. The Surplus store was the main source of inexpensive clothing for students from the 1950s through the 1980s.
As early as 1964, surplus military clothing was influencing how fashion companies approached the collegiate demographic. An article in the Christian Science Monitor looked at the coming season of trends for collegiate women, talking to an executive from a fashion brand, Peck & Peck. A recent fad the merchants at Peck & Peck looked to harness originated at Smith. Water-repellent military ponchos became all the rage on the Smith campus, where students bought the ponchos from the local Army-Navy Store in North Hampton by the dozen.
In New York City, a year later, The New York Times noted a similar trend of college students heading to the surplus store. At the Army-Navy Surplus store on 42nd St., “socialites and college girls” crowded out the male surplus store customer in their fashionable search. The “fashion customers” had started shopping at the surplus store a few years prior, according to the owner, when “girls took to men’s dungarees.” The salesmen of the surplus store worked to translate men’s military sizing to women’s. The article features two college students, one looking for a peacoat and the other an Army shirt. While military Surplus clothing was mostly confined to outdoorsy male students and coeds in the two decades after WWII, the latter half of the 1960s saw a massive surge in popularity.
Military Surplus Styles Amongst The Countercultures of the 1960s
Denison University’s 1969 edition of the Adytum yearbook, only 23 years after the 1946 yearbook examined above, showed a very different campus. The men are now wearing their hair long with beards abundant. The women wear their hair down, and many wear pants. Men and women students dress similarly, not least when it comes to military surplus. On one page in a photo of the yearbook’s staff, a man and a woman wear nearly identical Army Field Jackets side by side. The majority of students are still relatively clean-cut, in dirty jeans and tennis sneakers, but still in collared shirts, and many still wear ties for group portraits. But, you can observe throughout a not insignificant number of students mostly photographed in some kind of protest with long hair and beards, and wearing surplus field jackets. Once garments associated with ex-servicemen and thrifty college students, the military surplus was now part of the chosen casual style of campus “radicals” or hippies. By 1968 an article in GQ stated, “only hippies wear Army-Navy surplus.”
It took another war to utterly change the casual American college style. As with WWII, military uniforms played a key role in shaping that casual look. The olive-drab-clad student of the 1960s had to seek out and purchase their uniforms. According to a writer from the University of Texas, a student could buy a matching set of fatigue shirts for $2 at a local surplus store. This era saw the complete separation of the military surplus from its original purpose, co-opted by students in rebellion against the American war in Vietnam and disenchanted with American culture more broadly. American college campuses became battlegrounds. Buildings were seized, strikes were called for, students clashed with other students and the police, and eventually, six students were killed in the shooting at Kent State and Jackson State University. While images of soldiers in Vietnam and the National Guard on college campuses wearing the same uniforms as college students, it would become possible to both understand the uniform as the image of state power and violence and that “only hippies wear Army-Navy surplus.”
In early 1968, The Hartford Courant reported on a new trend amongst local college students. Students were shopping for clothes “with the look.” The look was varied; for some, it was vintage clothing from the 1930s, reminiscent of the recent film Bonnie and Clyde. For others, it is handmade clothes imported from India. And for others, it's military surplus bellbottoms and fatigue shirts. According to The Hartford Courant, “One of the merchants getting a kick out of the whole craze is Leo Bachner, proprietor of Sam’s Army & Navy Store…Bachner says he can't figure out the fascination with the military. Are the buyers “making fun of it, or identifying with it?”
The students were certainly not identifying with it, but they weren’t quite making fun of it either. Out of many of the cultural changes we would come to identify with in the 1960s, an emphasis on practical and casual dressing along with an emphasis on anti-consumerism and a rejection of the dominant American values. A professor writing in the Fordham University newspaper in 1983, captures the sartorial moment for students in the late 1960s and 1970s:
Fashion still seemed to be a bad word. The object was to look as ratty as possible and to spend as little money as possible on clothing or appearance. The typical student would wear jeans at least several years old with holes in the knees, a homemade tie-dyed T-shirt, an army surplus olive-drab jacket, and either old tennis shoes or sandals, depending upon the season. Perhaps this was a kind of fashion, but it was very well disguised and absolutely no one would ever admit it.
The values of anti-fashion and anti-consumerism permeated student subcultures that often coalesced around the anti-war and civil rights movements. In nearly all pictures of campus protests from the era, it is easy to spot military surplus. The protestors donned military fatigues and field jackets as their own uniform for the struggle. As the Black Panther Party adopted a hodgepodge of military surplus and inspired uniforms, so too did the broader anti-establishment and war movements. 
Students looking to fashion themselves in opposition to the dominant culture of the country used clothing as a tool to subvert the conformity of the mainstream. Ironically for many, it was done using uniforms. How students looked and dressed was not merely an afterthought of the struggles on campuses, but completely intertwined with the struggle for freedom from the state and of expression. This was profoundly true for women students, whose dress was always heavily controlled. Janice DiLorenzo, a student at the University of Rhode Island in the late 1960s, remembered fifty years later, “Finally free from the cultural restraints of first- and second-generation parents, we were able to explore academic, social, and multicultural opportunities. When we began at URI, we had to wear skirts to the dining halls and even to classes. By the time we left, we were wearing jeans or Army surplus clothes every day.” Military uniforms represented freedom of expression from the conservative society that seemed ever more out of step with the time.
Of course, the war in Vietnam played a massive role in the adoption of military surplus by college students. Protesting against the Vietnam War on college campuses had begun in earnest in 1966, but for many American college students, it would be the expansion of the war into Cambodia in 1970 and the subsequent killings at Kent State that would move them to action. College yearbooks across the country reflect the shift from the 1969 yearbooks to those of 1970 and 1971. Dennis Lynch, also from the University of Rhode Island, commented, "our music has changed, our style of dress has changed, our lifestyle has changed, but more importantly, our minds have changed."
The styling of old army uniforms with the anti-war movement was still an odd pairing that could cause confusion or, in some cases lead to unexpected interactions. When Columbia Daily Spectator sent a group of reporters to the November 15th, 1969 Anti-War Moratorium in Washington DC, one of the group was wearing an army field jacket. The group stopped at a diner a short way from DC when a stranger approached and asked where the reporter had gotten her field jacket. She responded:
“From an army surplus store. Why do you ask?" The little guy shrugged, grinned, and said, "Just curious, I'm in the army." "On leave?" "Just took off — they won't miss me." Conspiratorial smile. Exchange of looks between reporters, meaning, "Is he on riot duty?" The subtle one of us asks subtly, "You working this weekend or just passing through the city?" "Well, we're in the city, but I hope we don't have to work." The Belligerent Stranger became a Person, albeit a G.I. Joe, as he told us of his background over milkshakes.
The conversation and milkshakes did not sway either party, but it left an impression on the Columbia students. The field jacket was about to bridge the divide between the two. “Our red-eyed G.I. friend was no flaming fascist ogre, just an honest man with an honest difference in the way he chose to look at Vietnam.”
The college campus provided, as it had for so many other social movements the world over, the fertile ground for these movements and changes. Colleges were seen as the reason students had been turned into radicals and hippies. “Army jackets are worn as a symbol of rebellion,” reported a Princeton student in 1968. This equation of surplus clothing and radical hippies was often repeated to describe students across the country. Military uniforms were often mentioned along with sandals, love beads, and long hair. The Northern Illinois University yearbook described a fictional freshman returning home for Thanksgiving as having “[a] mustache, beard, long hair, sandals, and peace chain. ‘Off the Pigs’ was scrawled on his army surplus jacket.” A Connecticut University newspaper report of an SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) meeting focused on the style of the attendees, noting “beards and mustaches were prevalent; beads and vests, already a clothing commodity emphasized too much, were in evidence. An army jacket here, sandals there.”
The adoption of military surplus by students during the late 1960s can be seen as part of the push towards the casualization of the American college student’s style. These cheap, comfortable, and durable clothes were easy to find for most students, with surplus stores at the peak of their popularity. These garments, along with jeans, T-shirts, Sweatshirts, and Indian imports, made style not only accessible to college students but also created a style in contrast to the mainstream. Foundational to all subcultures, is the ability to place their own “cultural consumption in terms of its ‘opposition’ to…the mainstream.” Military surplus clothing conferred subcultural capital and created a taste world that “builds further affinities, socializing participants into the knowledge of (and frequently belief in) the likes and dislikes, meanings, and values of the culture.” The use of military surplus to these ends stands out because of its direct and clear connection to the dominant culture and order, underscored by images of protestors and soldiers facing each other wearing the same clothing. The American college student was able to assert their own identity and dress down, all while wearing clothing made for the very purpose of uniformity and status quo.
Tom Wolfe offers a less generous reading of the collegiate military surplus style. In his 1970 essay “Funky Chic,” he associated the rise of surplus styles with the growing trendiness of being of working-class struggles and proletariat sensibilities amongst the upper college-educated classes of the country. In the essay, he wrote, “the unvarying style at Yale today is best described as Late Army Surplus.” The surplus styles represented the white upper-middle-class desire to be ‘of the people.’ In their search to relate to and look like working-class kids, the students are only playing dress-up. The student’s idea of the working class and struggle is a “strictly old-fashioned conception of life on the street, a romantic and nostalgic and somehow derived from literary images of proletarian life.” This critique has some merit, but it does not take into account or take seriously the cultural shift of students to find a style outside the strictures of the dominant American culture and removed from American consumerism. The wardrobe of the American college student was already in the process of casualization. Military uniforms and workwear were seen on campuses for decades prior to “Funky Chic.” The Army surplus clothing was only part of the invention of the casual American style.
With the war in Vietnam winding down and college students graduating, they brought their military surplus styles off college campuses and into mainstream American culture. While wearing surplus was considered a badge of the radical and counterculture in the late 1960s, by the mid-1970s, The New York Times would run the headline “Surplus Chic” in the style pages. Military uniforms, both designs and surplus, would continue to enter the mainstream, becoming folded into middle-class style by the likes of Ralph Lauren and Banana Republic. Like jeans, military surplus was eventually stripped of its context and meaning, becoming a blank canvas for a myriad of groups and styles. The subversive and outsider nature of surplus clothing was eroded, becoming popular with Americans of all stripes embracing more comfortable casual styles of dress.
About The Author
Charles McFarlane is a MA student in Costume Studies at New York University. His research focuses on the intersection of 20th and 21st Century military uniforms and popular fashion and the semiotics of military uniforms. His writing has appeared in Monocle, and GQ among other publications. You can follow his work at his newsletter Combat Threads and on Instagram.
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