The military used to be so fashionable. What happened? I’m not being sarcastic either. Brooks Brothers was tailoring uniforms for officers long before they made a suit for the President. Burberry’s ubiquitous trench coat was first made for the British Army during World War I. The first jump wings given to American Paratroopers were sterling silver and made by Tiffany’s & Co. Military service was a respected, fashionable vocation. Service during a time of war or emergency was not only encouraged, it was expected. It was seen as one’s duty.
Admittedly less prevalent the United States than in British society (where military service has long had a connection with the nobility and stylish classes) in Victorian and Edwardian England former or retired soldiers carried their martial affiliations like the badges of honor that they are. Regimental lapel pins, swagger sticks, rep ties, and regimental plaid pocket squares were all regular accouterments. What jewelry was worn by men of the day was adorned and influenced by their military service: Regimental crests on
flasks, buttons, belt buckles, or a pocket watch. Even calling cards of the day showed a veteran’s rank or regiment. It was not pretentious or showy; it was simply pride of service. It was not even meant to be recognized or acknowledged by the general public, but it brought a knowing nod and instant bond with a fellow veteran.
In the US, by contrast, military service was thought of more as a duty – a solemn obligation to a country that has given us the freedoms to prosper and grow. It was thought of as a given, or foregone conclusion that healthy young men would go into the military whenever their country had need of their service, without the associated trappings of nobility or status. This was the militia concept that has far more an association with America than it does with other countries. We are a free people, we are not subjects, and, as such, we are expected to fight for our freedoms.
These days the popular attire for veterans seems relegated to Affliction or Tapout T-shirts and tan Velcro “cool guy” hats. Viking beards may be great for the field, but they don’t score us any points in polite society. – The general response from veterans to this is that they don’t want to be in polite society. We’re door kickers, snake eaters, and face shooters. Why would we want to wear a suit and sip cocktails at an art gallery or have constructive conversations with out of touch liberals? Quite simply, because there is more to life, and more to our role as soldiers or veterans than what is directly required to slay the enemies of our nation.
The title of this blog is The Gentleman and Scholar. I post about fashion, wine, cigars, whiskey, and other things that a modern gentleman should know about. But a large part of the original role of a gentleman was soldierly bearing and a certain amount of swagger that said he is not one to be trifled with. We might think of a well-dressed man as a fop or a dandy, but not too terribly long ago, call him that and you would have found yourself facing pistols at dawn or sabers at sunset. Warriors of the past were not always paid as well as they are today (as crazy as it sounds given the poverty of most of our armed forces) and on top of that, many were expected to field their own weapons, equipment, and uniforms. They had to be gentlemen in order to fight. They had to be fashionable, well off, and even stylish, because if they weren’t then they couldn’t afford to train themselves or their sons, put them into the field, or survive a battle. The concept of a gentleman soldier is not a new one, and nor does it only apply to an aristocratic officer class. Service brought immediate honor and dignity – far more than laborers or tradesmen could claim. What sets us apart, even today, is a willingness to do what others do not, the courage to face down the hard, the challenging, and the dangerous. We thrive on risk – and have the tenacity and skill to see those risks through to success. We need more gentleman soldiers – veterans who take their service and do not rest on it, holding all others in contempt, but leverage it into something more, and something greater.
I am still serving in the military, but wear a suit to work at my day job (okay, maybe khakis and a polo most days, but nice suits more often than body armor) – no matter what else I do with my life, my first and one true profession will always be the profession of arms, and while I am proud to have my service be a defining piece of my character, it is not all that there is to me, and it shouldn’t be the only thing about themselves that veterans recognize and appreciate. If it is, then it is all others will see as well.
The t-shirts with skulls and lightning bolts and machine guns are fine. I wear my regimental shirts too, but mainly to the gym or to the beach… not when I want to be viewed as a professional, or as the gentleman that I am. I wear miniature airborne wings as a lapel pin on my suits. I had regimental crests made into cuff links. I’d like to have the colors of the Iraqi Campaign Medal made into a tie bar. I have a gold watch with the Academy crest on it. These items don’t scream “I am a veteran!” but rather they are classic, understated, subdued, and often only recognized by other veterans. Civilians view them as a unique piece that they often have never seen before. It starts a conversation, and that conversation ought to show them your character. If you dress shabbily, they’ll remember the attire. If you dress impeccably, they’ll remember the man.
Be confident, not cocky. Dress well. Take pride in your service, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you take pride in. Be a gentleman soldier. We need more of them. The military used to be so fashionable. Let’s bring that back.