Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version
In February 2022, a 15-page proposal of new ‘ASTRA’ uniforms for the Royal Air Force was leaked onto social media. It quickly became national news and generated hundreds of memes universally ridiculing and mocking the propsals as well as the Service. Uniforms are a hot topic that all service personnel (and the general public!) have an opinion on. A recent service-wide survey on uniforms had record participation, with over 13,000 personnel providing their views on what they do and don’t like. It is well known that there are long-standing issues over identity, sizing and quality of the current No.2 Working Dress. It is seen as bland, boring and often compared to a bus driver’s or uniform. Similarly, the MTP working dress often means RAF personnel are mistaken for soldiers in the Army.
We should avoid drastic-wholesale changes to our uniform. What is trendy and fashionable today, will not be in 15 year’s time. Through several quick, small, and cheap alterations, we can produce a uniform that provides a high-degree of service identity, builds esprit de corps, and is durable for the requirements of the service. This article will explore the issues over identity, quality and sizing, before proposing a set of relatively quick changes to overcome them.
A lack of identity
RAF working dress has slowly evolved since its inception as a service in 1918. The evolution of the Service’s working dress can be seen clearly in changes to the working jacket.
Over time buildings had better insulation, air conditioning was introduced, and more people worked indoors which meant we were no longer required to wear a thick outer layer for extended periods of time. A lot of personnel can now sit comfortably in a short sleeve shirt or blouse and carry out their duties in front of a computer. The current iteration of No.2 Working Dress was introduced in the 1990s when many of these improvements in working conditions occurred.
When compared with previous versions of uniform, the current No.2 has been stripped of many of its embellishments and insignia which gave it both service and personal identity. Name tags, medal ribbons, professional badges, qualification patches are nowhere to be seen on the current iteration of No.2 Working Dress. Other air forces initially followed a similar trend to the RAF. However, they added insignia lost from the outer layer jackets to the working shirt. The RAF did not follow suit.
When a camouflague jacket is a cover up
Similarly, it is highly unlikely that a member of the public will be able to distinguish between Army and Air Force personnel who are both wearing MTP uniforms. Even seasoned defence journalists make the mistake in news reporting. With fewer members of the public having direct experience of the armed forces and with very little to distinguish between services when wearing MTP it is easy to see why. The only items that provide any distinction between the RAF and Army in MTP are the RAF TRF/shoulder patch, the officers’/other ranks’ cap badge, and officers’ rank slides. These are all items which the average person in the street will simply not recognise. There are ways to solve this. Some readers will remember the CS95 jacket had an emboidered cloth ‘Royal Air Force’ badge set just above the top right pocket. Introducing this to the MTP will make it easier to distinguish between the three services. The wearing of the RAF stable belt would also increase service identity.
Quality, sizing and gender-neutral uniforms
One of the most common compaints surrounding the No.2 working dress is the lack of quality and sizes. Shirts and blouses are only available in different neck sizes that automatically assume someone with a larger neck is going to be taller and larger. This leads many personnel having to pay for tailoring to their shirts and blouses to make them fit properly at personal expense. A service person with an average neck size, waist and build will have to take inches of fabric from the sides in order to make it look smart. This is one area the RAF should look to business for inspiration. The retail and fashion sectors do not provide their clothing ranges like this. Shirts, for example, are provided by neck size, arm’s length and in fitted, slim, standard sizing.
Many studies that support gender-neutral uniforms, from an equitable gender identity perspective, do not consider the physical differences in body type. MTP is already gender-neutral and is often complained about for being ill-fitting by women. Gender-neutral uniforms run the risk of having a uniform that does not fit either the male or female body shape. The Service should seek to maintain a male and female uniform standards and allow service personnel to choose which one they desire to wear.
However, this is not an argument to introduce a new RAF-only style of MTP working dress. The No.2 working dress and MTP both meet the requirements for RAF personnel. The No.2 provides office workers a smart and presentable uniform whilst MTP provides a durable layered outdoor uniform for physical work and deployments. Introducing an additional working dress, such as the Royal Navy’s working rig, could prove costly and will then introduce a third working dress.
Uniform is important to the Armed Forces; it is vital to get it right. Several studies conclude that wearing of a uniform is strongly associated with the creation of a better esprit de corps within an organisation. When a military uniform is smart and has military insignia, the wearer will often feel a strong sense of pride and being broader and taller. A smart and professional uniform increases the wearer’s stature among colleagues, civilians and in the eyes of the enemy.
The style of a uniform is often influenced over time by traditions, culture, and the fashion of the time. Knee-jerk reactions for wholesale changing of uniforms should be avoided. Through a few small changes to uniform, we can ensure that RAF uniforms have identity, continue looking smart and build esprit de corps.
These changes must be made mandatory and where possible issued by the service; otherwise, there will be an unprofessional mix-match of uniform standards. The solutions presented above involve relatively minor, practical and easy changes which can be made to RAF working dress to improve identity and quality. We should not make an impulsive decision to drastically change our uniforms. What is trendy today, will not be trendy in 10 years’ time.
Ryan joined the Royal Air Force 7 years ago and has a very keen interest in military uniforms and history.