Massif Rocks!

1981 Army Clothing History

From the official US Army History Of 1981.

Clothing and Personal Equipment

The Army took several initiatives in fiscal year 1981 involving uniforms. Black shoulder marks were approved for wear by enlisted personnel in grade of corporal and higher; a maroon beret was authorized for wear by soldiers in airborne units; black braid was added to female officers’ green slacks; a black pullover wool sweater, approved last year, was fielded; a maternity uniform shirt was approved; and washable Army-green trousers with washable braid were approved.

The Army terminated the policy of granting exceptions to appearance standards based on religious beliefs for wearing beards, unshorn hair, turbans, or religious jewelry. This change followed a review of the effect of these exceptions on the soldier’s mission, health, and safety. Soldiers already in the Army may continue to enjoy the previously granted exceptions as long as they are otherwise eligible for service.

The temperate camouflage battle dress uniform (BDU) will be introduced as the Army’s field-garrison uniform on 1 October 1981. The BDU has a wood (forest like) color pattern, is infrared reflective, has reinforced elbows, knees, and seat, and is made with fabric that is 50-percent cotton and 50-percent nylon. The BDU includes a coat, hat, and trousers and represents the second phase of a multistage transition to all-camouflaged individual clothing and equipment. The first stage was the introduction of the desert camouflage BDU as an organizational item. It will be used mainly by the Rapid Deployment Force (RDF) in a desert environment. During fiscal year 1981 the RDF was completely outfitted in both day and night editions of the desert BDU.

Both the temperate and desert BDUs are part of the Army’s Battle Dress System (BDS). This system includes three camouflage uniforms which will allow the Army to operate in temperate, desert, and arctic environments. Conversion to this system will require the modification of many existing items of individual clothing and equipment as well as the introduction of new items.

C.A.C.I. Inc.-Federal received a contract in September 1981 to examine existing Army personal-organizational clothing and individual equipment management procedures and to recommend a more cost-effective way of doing business. The study should be completed by mid-1982. A study advisory group has been established to monitor the contractor’s progress, clarify requirements, and supply guidance.

Heraldic Activities

The Institute of Heraldry continued to provide heraldic services for the armed forces and other government agencies during fiscal year 1981. The emphasis of this year’s work, however, was on Army items. These included the design and development of the Army Achievement Medal, Noncommissioned Officers Professional Development Ribbon, Army Service Ribbon, and Overseas Service Ribbon. To meet the needs of Army units, 158 distinctive unit insignia and 28 shoulder-sleeve insignia were designed and developed during this period. In the area of research, the institute is continuing its program of evaluating various materials and methods of manufacturing flags in order to provide alternative, less costly items and to broaden the procurement base. The following statistics reflect, in part, the accomplishments of the institute: design of 510 items; completion of 1830 paintings and drawings and 174 sculptured items (molds, models, and casts); development of 130 items-some new and some modified which were placed in the procurement system; and inspection of 134,508 items under the optional-purchase quality-control system during visits to fifty-five posts and base exchanges. In addition the institute performed 1,750 research and engineering support actions to assist the Defense Personnel Support Center.

29 Responses to “1981 Army Clothing History”

  1. Jason says:

    I like how “IR Reflective” is considered a feature.

  2. James says:

    Hmmn, wonder what happened with that pattern and the brown boots. It’s ERDL like but I don’t think it is- 1981 analog to scorpion

    • SSD says:

      It was a trial uniform. Brown boot tests continued into the early 80s.

      • Terry Baldwin says:


        The Army senior leadership wore some of the early prototypes to Ft Lewis in the summer of 1979. I got a close look at them there. In person, they did not look like ERDL at all. The green in particular appeared much lighter and overall it was an obviously bigger pattern. All the colors of the BDU that was eventually fielded were noticeably darker than these test versions.

        I don’t think the versions I saw in 79 had the Elvis collars either but the pockets were the same. The “rough out” brown boots looked lighter than those in the photo above too. I do not recall if there was an official reason ever given for not adopting the brown boot. However, I have good reason to believe that it was simply because they could not be spit shined.


        • AbnMedOps says:

          A guy who had been in the 82nd during that brown boot phase (circa ’79-81 I think) said the Sergeants Major hated them, and the troops in his unit were directed to sand the boots down to smooth leather, dye them black, and spit- shine the F out of them!

    • Ray Forest says:

      I was thinking the same things. It’s like Erdl and M81 mixed. Definitely has than new but faded pattern edges that Erdl had. Imagine if we had gown down that brown boot road at that time. I knew thevwear our date for the OG107 was like 87 but I didn’t know the full BDU as we know it now was instituted that late.

      • Ray Forest says:

        Also could anyone tell me how we ever came to include the 70’s collar into that BDU? The uniforms worn before and after ( including the hippy 60’s and 70’s) all sported traditional dimension collars. It’s as bizarre to me as if they put bell bottoms on the Class A dress pants. None of our allies ever followed such a path how did that happen to us? Soldiers would be punished at CIF for years after.

        • Terry Baldwin says:


          I would like an answer to that question myself. I do not recall any rationale being given at the time and I have not seen any explanation since. I know they were universally despised and by the time we get to the A1 version of the BDU the Elvis collar was unceremoniously discarded. Much like the selection of UCP – it just happened – and nobody claimed credit or accepted blame afterwards.

          As a side note, in the Army circa 1980, the OG107 “Jungle Fatigues” were only authorized as a uniform in “tropical areas.” So only troops in Panama wore them full time. ERDLs were worn by all the Airborne Units. In Hawaii OG jungle fatigues were issued as a field uniform but were not supposed to be worn in garrison.

          Then came 1983 and Grenada. The 82nd had stopped issuing ERDLs in the summer of 83 and all the new kids only had “heavyweight” BDUs. The Rangers had already transitioned to the OG jungle fatigues as well. In both cases, the decision had not been driven by the initial issue of the BDUs, but rather by the fact that supplies of ERDL were becoming exhausted.

          The fact that the new standard issue uniform was too hot became public and the Army was embarrassed. Indeed, the initial fielding of the BDUs were proven to be too hot for summer even in temperate climates. Therefore, the jungle fatigues were only authorized Army wide as an interim solution until a “lightweight” or “summer weight” BDU could be produced.

          The OG Jungle Fatigues were very popular but eventually the supplies of those ran out as well.


          • Terry Baldwin says:

            BTW, because they were already bought and paid for and in Army stockpiles, the OG 107s sold at Clothing Sales for $8.00 a set. Another reason they were popular.


            • Terry Baldwin says:

              James, Ray,

              It just came to me! Whether by design or accident, the colors on the prototypes – like the pic above – had a very distinct DPM (British) camoflage look. Sort of between the ERDL green or brown dominant, and also not the darker color pallet that was eventually applied to the issue BDU.


  3. 32sbct says:

    The BDU was a great uniform for it’s day. I wore them from 1985 until 2005 when the ACU was introduced. The eighties were an interesting time for the Army. The introduction of the BDU, M16A2, SAW, M9, Blackhawk, Bradley, M1, MLRS, Apache, HUMVEE, etc. If you were in during the 80’s you not only got to experience the introduction of all the new equipment, you also worked with all the old gear, the M16A1, M1911, Huey, M60, M113, Cobra, M151 Jeep etc. I’m really glad I was in while all this was going on. The Army hasn’t experienced an equipment transition of this magnitude since then.

    • Sommerbiwak says:

      Actually it did.
      Just look at all the MRAP, uparmoured HMMWV, Stryker in all its variants, road clearing equipment, widespread issue of optics and electronics… the list goes on and on what has been bought in the GWOT. It may not feel likeit, because it was not put into service in one big chnk but many little programs, but still. A soldier today looks much different from his 1980ies colleague.

      • Attack7 says:

        I agree with Sommerbiwak, I served from ’87 – ’11. My first unit I was issued a weapons card (M60 MG) and a bayonet card (the brand new M9 bayonet). The weapons racks sat on the floor, you could see every wall in the arms room.

        In just 10 yrs, as a PSG, I walked outta the armsroom with an arm full of sensitive items to include my weapon. My Paratroopers were responsible for way more than I had been. You could not see the walls of that arms room, nor my company arms room in Vicenza. You could get away with being a skinny, cross country runner in the Infantry 30+ yrs ago. Now you can’t, without complete, functional fitness that kid from the 80’s can’t keep up with today’s fighting and approach weights.

        The Army changed about every 4 yrs over my 24 yrs. Fundamentals remain the same. One thing you can count on in the military, change.

  4. SPEC9 says:

    The first generation BDUs wore like iron but, had many issues. They took forever to dry once wet, the Elvis collar, the pocket bellows went the wrong way, shirts made from different bolts of cloth often had sleeves that shrank differently from side to side, and when they faded, colors became let’s say different. Black became purple, etc. I think the second generation lightweight BDUs were pretty good though. I still don’t know why the Army went for the ACU but then, I don’t understand the need to constantly change Class As either.
    I’m just a dinosaur.

    • Ray Forest says:

      The winter weights faded the worst and were often referred to as cookbwhites or confederate grays although to me they took on a blueish green tint. I hated them and never wore them but because they were materially so durable many troops let the fading go way too far because there were no holes or tears.

  5. m.j. says:

    I went to BCT in January 1987 (Fort Bliss, TX). I received two sets of the Elvis-collar BDU (I guess because my uniform size at that time was Small/Extra Long. so they had that size in the older pattern, still), and two sets of the new hot weather BDU (which promptly got stolen the first time I did laundry at Fort Eustis, VA for AIT). I still have a set of the Elvis-collar BDUs. I remember that in 1987 a number of the range personnel at the White Sands Missile Range (where we went to do our BRM and field time) still wore the OG507 utility uniform. Interestingly enough. when I deployed to Honduras in 1991, the CIF at Fort Lewis issued us the OG107 tropical uniforms. I was in Aviation, and many of our senior NCOs (when I was in Germany) wore the Vietnam-era two-piece OG Nomex flight uniform. Much later (after going USN), I deployed to the ME in 2009 as a Navy IA to a joint unit, and wore ACUs, FRACUs and OEF-CP (multicam). Indeed, uniforms have changed quite a bit over the years!

    • Ray Forest says:

      I came in in 1992 and guy still got issued Elvis collar winter weight BDUs. In 2003 lots of people got issued Elvis collar DCU’s as well.

  6. Kirk says:

    The first iteration of the BDU was crap, but it did wear like iron. When I went through all my uniforms in storage about the time the ACU came in, I still had my initial issue that was still vaguely serviceable, were one to ignore the many and sundry pock-marks from concertina.

    The thing that absolutely aggravated the shit out of me was the observation that the initial issue of the Hot Weather BDU had the exact same issue that the original series of OG107 jungle fatigues had, in that the crotches were poorly designed/made, and had the near-certainty of failure within very short order. As did the initial issue of the ACU… All I can say is that Natick needs to put a damn display up, somewhere in the offices where they design field uniforms and have it highlight all three debacles.

    What’s worse is that I’m told by a guy who is a re-enactor enthusiast from the WWII era, is that the identical problem was present in several of the WWII-era combat uniforms, particularly the jump suits of the paratroopers and the tropical worsted uniforms they did up for the Pacific theater.

    This seems like something they might have identified and fixed, by now, and made it basic design criteria. Diamond gussets in the crotch have been in place for high-end civilian work clothes for years; why not uniforms?

    • straps says:

      I had no idea that blowouts dated back to WWII.

      I think the diamond gussets pose a challenge to scaling manufacturing.

      I wear Kuhls for precisely this reason–they fit well AND allow mobility. This is not a plug for them so much as the best practice for the crotch–they take that part of the pant to a whole ‘nother level…

      • SSD says:

        I didn’t have an issue with HWBDU crotches blowing out. Wearing out after long wear yes, but there were multiple wear points on that uniform when it was 100% cotton.

        I’ve never figured out what you guys were doing in your pants that you kept blowing out crotches. And before someone tells me they were this or that, I was in a LRSD and then on a SOT-A.

        • Kirk says:

          I wonder which version of the HWBDU you saw first, because the ones I got went to crap the first exercise I went on them with, and they were bad enough that AAFES Clothing Sales took ’em back as being “defective”, along with everyone else’s. Couldn’t wear the HWBDU tops for about two months or so, while we waited for the replacements to come in, and those were modified from the original ones we were issued.

          There were a lot of problems with the initial lots of HWBDU, and the fielding was stopped at least once because of them.

          I speculate that maybe you got lucky, and the initial lots weren’t sent out to where you were…?

          • SSD says:

            Perhaps. I went to Basic Training in 85 at Dix and had to buy mine the next year. I was at DLI so got them at Ord.

        • Adun says:

          It seems like crotch blowout is a global issue, because I saw the same problems with the IDF uniforms while I was over there. Usually what would happen is someone’s pants would start to sag down a bit and the uniform would catch on a knee when a soldier took a kneeling position and that would be that. Usually the crotch of the pants would tear to the right too, which is what makes me think it has to do with repetitive wear from a motion which all of us infantrymen performed a lot.

      • Kirk says:

        The Wrangler line has a bunch of gusseted pants in it, including the Ranger which looks kinda-sorta “tactical”.

  7. C-5-3 Caracara says:

    Ah, the old camouflage leisure suit. I went into BCT at Ft. Dix in December of 1981. By the time summer rolled around, l was at Ft. Rucker. That uniform was a killer in the hot, humid Alabama summer. Good times, good times.

  8. OldChiefWarrant says:

    I came in 1983 and was given the new BDUs with the OD field jacket. My graduation book has soldiers with the BDU with the sleeves rolled Marines style and wearing white t-shirts before we got the brown ones. We drank beer on draft at the shoppette in those days and smoked and dipped a lot lol.

  9. AbnMedOps says:

    Love the OG “Woolly-Pully” sweaters under the tops! If they’d put a zipper down to the sternum, we might still be wearing it today.

  10. Joe says:

    Lots of good stories here, glad to see the uniform cluster goes way back, and boy I like those boots.
    I wish they had kept the ERDL scale; closer to the scale of pixelated patterns IMO.

    In my era I think transitioning to full DCU gear instead of UCP, and transitioning to desert boots for BDU’s is all that was required.

    Starch wasn’t as annoying as parade-ready Corcorans at all times, even though tactically unsound.

    Sadly, the cluster repeats itself…