Royal Air Force uniform

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A flight sergeant in RAF service dress

The Royal Air Force uniform is the standardised military dress worn by members of the Royal Air Force. The predominant colours of Royal Air Force uniforms are blue-grey and Wedgwood blue. Many Commonwealth air forces' uniforms are also based on the RAF pattern, but with nationality shoulder flashes. Cadets of the British ATC and CCF (RAF) Sections wear similar uniforms.

Current uniforms[edit]

Official numbering[edit]

The RAF currently numbers the various uniforms which may be worn. The following table summarizes the numbering:

Number Name Notes on use
No 1 Service Dress In temperate regions.
No 2 Service Working Dress In temperate regions.
No 3 Operational Clothing Different patterns for different climates.
No 4 Interim Mess Dress For personnel without No 5 dress.
No 5 Mess Dress In temperate regions.
No 6 Service Dress / Full Dress In warm weather regions. In stone colour, except for 6A (full ceremonial) which is white.
No 7 Service Working Dress In warm weather regions. In stone colour.
No 8 Mess Dress In warm weather regions. Jacket in white.
No 9 RAF Music Services uniform For Directors of Music, bandmasters and musicians
No 10 RAF Music Services uniform For Directors of Music, bandmasters and musicians
No 11 RAF Music Services uniform For Directors of Music, bandmasters and musicians
No 12 Physical Training Instructor Dress Various patterns
No 13 Physical Training Instructor Dress - Parachute Jump Instructor Duties With helmet or beret
No 14 Flying Clothing Various patterns. Consists of a flight suit and optional jacket

Service dress[edit]

Air Commodore Scarlett wearing 1920s service dress

The RAF's service dress is worn on formal and ceremonial occasions. In temperate regions, it is the most formal uniform in use at present. It remains essentially unchanged from the service dress uniform adopted in the early 1920s. It consists of a blue-grey jacket and trousers (or skirt for female personnel). A great coat may be worn at ceremonial events when the weather is cold.

In 1947, the temperate officers' services dress jacket was altered. The lower side pockets were removed and the single slit was replaced by two hacking jacket style slits. The lower button was moved up to a position behind the belt and silk embroidery flying badges were replaced with ones in bullion embroidery. These changes were unpopular and in 1951, with the exception of the lower button move, the former uniform style was re-adopted.[1]

Service dress takes the following forms:

  • No. 1 Service Dress, for temperate regions. Blue-grey colour.
  • No. 1A Service Dress (Ceremonial Day Dress), for temperate regions and for air officers only. As per No. 1 Service Dress. Air vice-marshals and above wear a ceremonial sash and shoulder boards. Entitled air commodores only add the ceremonial sash.
  • No. 6 Service Dress, for tropical regions. Stone colour.

Service working dress[edit]

Air Marshal Sir Barry Thornton in service working dress (short sleeve order) He also wears an RAF stable belt, held in place by non-standard belt loops

Service working dress, officially designated Number 2 Dress, is the routine uniform worn by most RAF personnel not on operations. It is analogous to the Army's barrack dress. RAF service working dress comes in a number of variations:

  • No 2: Long sleeve shirt with jumper, tie optional
  • No 2a: Long sleeve shirt with tie, jumper not worn
  • No 2b: Short sleeve shirt without tie, jumper optional
  • No 2c: Long sleeve dark blue shirt without tie, jumper optional (certain trades only)

The RAF stable belt may be worn with all forms of service working dress.

Operational clothing[edit]

Flying duties[edit]

Aircrew-specific uniforms are officially designated as Number 14 Dress by the RAF. Aircrew on flying duties wear an olive drab flying suit in temperate regions or a khaki flying suit in desert regions. A leather flying jacket, purchased at individual expense, may be worn with the flying suit but only while the wearer is on the ground.

Ground duties[edit]

Desert Combat Dress, as worn by Air Commodore Bryan Collins

RAF personnel either on operations, on exercise or in certain formed units wear a disruptive pattern material uniform which is essentially the same as the British Army's operational uniform. In temperate regions Combat Soldier 95 uniform was worn and in desert regions, Desert Combat Clothing was worn. Both styles have now been replaced with MTP, multi terrain pattern in line with the other armed forces

In order to distinguish RAF personnel from other UK armed forces, in 2006 an operational clothing identity patch was introduced with the text "ROYAL AIR FORCE" in black capitals on a green background. The patch is worn over the right chest pocket.

Also in 2006 a 45mm squared tactical recognition flash was introduced for all personnel to wear on their operation clothing.

Mess dress[edit]

Air Chief Marshal Sir Glenn Torpy wearing No. 5B Mess Dress.

In the RAF mess dress, officially designated Number 5 dress, is worn at formal evening functions. All regular officers possess mess dress whereas warrant officers and senior non-commissioned officers wear mess dress if they choose to purchase it. The current mess dress for men consists of a high waisted blue-grey single-breasted jacket fastened at the front by a single link of two RAF buttons connected by a link clip, white marcella shirt, bow tie, waistcoat or cummerbund and blue-grey trousers. Rank, for officers, is indicated in gold braid on the lower sleeve.

The first RAF mess dress was introduced in 1920 and it featured a high waisted single-breasted blue-grey jacket which tapered to a point at the front below the waist. A blue-grey waistcoat, trousers and black shoes were also worn. Rank was indicated on shoulder boards in gold lace. This uniform was modified in 1928 when the shoes were replaced by boots and overalls with gold lace and bright blue stripes were introduced. This modified form of the uniform lasted until 1934 when it was replaced by a version similar to the current men's mess dress. The wearing of mess dress was suspended during World War II.

For women, mess dress currently consists of the same style high waisted blue-grey single-breasted jacket and white marcella shirt as men, a small bow tie and cummerbund and a straight ankle length blue-gray skirt, worn with patent-leather court shoes and barely-black tights or stockings. From the 1970s and prior to the introduction of current women's mess dress in 1996, female officers wore a royal blue "Empire line" dress made of crimplene material with a loose mandarin neck, long sleeves and an ankle length hem. Rank was indicated on a small enamelled brooch worn near the neck.

Officers serving at Scottish stations may wear the RAF tartan with their mess dress. The tartan was designed in 1988 and it was officially recognised by the Ministry of Defence in 2001. The tartan is also worn by the RAF's voluntary pipes bands, although not as part of an official RAF uniform.[2]

RAF personnel without No 5 dress, such as airmen, junior officer cadets and some non-regular officers, wear No 1 dress with the blue shirt and tie replaced with a white marcella shirt and black bow tie should the need to wear mess dress arise. This dress pattern is officially designated Number 4 Dress and was previously known as (Interim) Mess Dress.

Full dress[edit]

Air Vice-Marshal Lambe wearing full dress

In April 1920 Air Ministry Weekly Order 332 detailed a full dress uniform. It consisted of a single-breasted jacket in blue-grey with a stand-up collar. Rank was indicated in gold braid on the lower sleeve and white gloves were worn.

Initially the full dress uniform was worn with the service dress cap. However, in 1921 a new form of head-dress was introduced. It was designed to resemble the original flying helmet and it consisted of a leather skull cap trimmed with black rabbit fur. The helmet also featured an ostrich feather plume which was connected at an RAF badge. This helmet was never popular and junior officers were eventually permitted to wear the service dress hat on full dress occasions.

Group Captain HRH the Duke of York (later King George VI) wore RAF full dress at his wedding to Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1923. The Duke wore or carried the full dress headgear rather than the service dress cap.

Today the blue-grey full dress uniform is no longer worn, except in a modified form by RAF bandsmen.[3]

There is also a full dress uniform for use by officers in the tropics, officially designated as No.6A Full Ceremonial Dress (Warm Weather Areas). It consists of a white tunic with stand collar, matching trousers, blue-grey peaked cap and black leather shoes. It is only issued to specific appointment holders (e.g. aide-de-camp and air attaché), and even then these are hardly ever worn. Other officers may purchase the uniform at their own expense but few choose to do so.

Historic uniforms[edit]

Initial uniform[edit]

With the establishment of the Royal Air Force as an independent service on 1 April 1918, orders were issued detailing new uniform patterns. Major General Mark Kerr designed the first officer uniform which was largely pale blue with gold braid trimmings.[4][5] Additionally, the Royal Flying Corps' use of khaki was continued. It has been suggested that the pale blue colour was adopted as the cloth had been intended for use by the Imperial Russian Cavalry and, following their disbandment after the Bolshevik Revolution it became available at low cost. As it was the responsibility of officers to buy their own uniforms, a wearing-out period for old uniforms was allowed and the change-over to the air force uniform was slow.

The 'wearing out' period also applied to other ranks. Former members of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service continued to wear their old uniforms. New recruits into the newly formed Royal Air Force were often issued with the khaki Army Pattern General Service Tunic. Later in 1918 a belted khaki uniform was adopted for other ranks, and it was these tunics that first carried the RAF eagle badges on each shoulder.

The pale blue colour for officers' uniforms was unpopular and impractical[4] and John Slessor who was later promoted to Marshal of the RAF described it as "a nasty pale blue with a lot of gold over it, which brought irresistibly to mind a vision of the gentlemen who stands outside the cinema".[6] A little over a year after its introduction, the pale blue colour was discontinued. On the 15 September 1919, Air Ministry Order 1049 replaced it with the blue-grey colour which has remained in use to this day. The khaki uniform continued to be worn until 1924 when it too was replaced by a blue-grey colour.

War service dress[edit]

Air Chief Marshal Tedder wearing war service dress

War service dress, also known as battle dress, was introduced in 1940 as a blue/grey version of the British Army's battle dress. Initially, war service dress was only worn by air crew. However, in 1943, its use was authorised for all ranks and trades. War service dress continued to be worn after the end of World War II. It was significantly altered in 1948 and not phased out until 1973.

1972 pattern service working dress[edit]

During 1973 the wartime "Hairy Mary" working dress uniforms were replaced for all ranks with the 1972 pattern No 2 uniforms. Made of a smooth woollen and man-made fibre mix material the jacket was a loose blouson design with a front zip fastener and epaulettes. In the mid 1980,s RAF blue crew-necked woollen pullovers were replaced with a new V-neck design featuring blue-grey cloth elbow and shoulder patches plus a pen holder patch on the left sleeve.

In the 1990,s an RAF blue nylon foul weather jacket and overtrousers were issued. Although not initially intended it quickly became standard practice for officers and other ranks to attach rank badges to the lapels and wear the nylon jacket in place of the uniform raincoat, as a more practical modern wear.

Influence on other air forces[edit]

The Royal New Zealand Air Force uniform is also of the RAF pattern, but with nationality shoulder flashes. The Indian Air Force uniform is also of a similar pattern to the RAF uniform. The Royal Australian Air Force uniform is in midnight blue, instead of grey-blue. Prior to the 1968 unification of the Canadian Forces, the Royal Canadian Air Force service dress was nearly identical to that of the RAF. In 1986 Distinctive Environmental Uniforms (DEU) were introduced to the Canadian Forces and the Air Command (now once again known as the Royal Canadian Air Force) variant maintains some similarity with the RAF's uniform, though with distinctive RCAF ranks and insignia.

Cadets of the ATC and CCF (RAF) Sections wear the uniforms of the Royal Air Force.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Citations[edit]

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