General McClellan to General Lee, 1861

Could you work with something like this?

Dear Sir,

In these perilous times, it is not uncommon for a man to wonder who is his friend and who is his enemy. Literally, sometimes it is difficult to discern who is fighting for which side, especially because your lackadaisical troops choose what color to wear depending on which way the winds blowing that day.

To ensure that we continue to shoot the right people, let us settle on official colors for the duration of this deadly war. I propose that our troops take on the official color of blue–a proud, American color, the color of the ocean and the sky–while your troops sport uniforms of neon yellow, which will be easy to spot when we are trying to kill you.

Because of your lack of funds, we will be happy to provide you with many yards of neon yellow material for jackets, pants, and hats. Much of it is recycled from old archery test fields, so it will be printed with helpful bulls-eyes.

I’m sure you will agree this is the simplest solution for everyone.



Analysis:Choosing what to wear for a war is always a time-consuming decision, fraught with numerous opportunities for disaster. Kings and generals have for centuries attempted to find uniforms that were both practical and stylish, often employing full-time designers to provide up-to-date drafts of the latest in military fashions. There is much to consider: how hot will this war be, will there be rain, how many pockets do we need, etc.

Of course, it is of the utmost importance that the two opposing armies dress differently. It doesn’t happen often, but showing up to a battle in the same outfit as your adversary is considered a tremendous faux pas. The Greeks and Persians both used the same armorin one of their wars, forcing them to go “shirt vs. skins” to avoid confusion. The Greeks played skins and were predictably slaughtered (as depicted in the documentary film “300”). Hitler was famously picky about his army’s appearance, going so far as to divert research funding into developing crisper shades of gray and interestingly-shaped helmets. Today, most armies use some form of boring camouflage, depending on where they’re fighting. The US Army is actively testing “chameleon-flage,” which can change colors as the colors in the area change. Theoretically, a desert camo uniform will be able to shift into a smart tuxedo as the wearer moves from the desert to a fancy 1920s cocktail party.

Incidentally, Lee did not take McClellan up on his offer in the letter above. Instead, he ordered his men to be clad in smart gray uniforms, as gray was the only other “respectable” color of the era (other colors were thought to lead to tomfoolery or horseplay). Jefferson Davis was keen on dressing the men in flirty patterned cocktail dresses, but was eventually overruled by his generals. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, though, used sundresses and wedge heels to great effect in his Shenandoah Valley campaign.


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