The US Army Swings, 1939 - 1942
by Shelby L. Stanton

(Click on images to see a full screen picture.)

Army soldiers wore “dress-fashion” service uniforms while “walking out” off-post for dating and social events, such as swing dancing. The winter versions were made of olive-drab wool serge in a dark shade, and summer versions were made of cotton khaki. There were few major differences in design between the service uniforms purchased by officers and those issued to enlisted men, except for ornamentation (belts, buttons, trimming and insignia). However, as might be expected, officers could afford uniforms of better quality material and tailored manufacture.
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Soldiers and sailors of the US Armed Forces wearing the service uniforms that graced the swing dance floor during World War II.
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Dane Clark, a wealthy actor, wears a privately purchased enlisted service uniform (he is a sergeant) as he stands next to socialite Ellis Cox, daughter of General Joseph Stilwell. Note how the dark olive-drab wool coat was worn with light (cream-colored) mohair necktie and khaki shirt. 
The Army was very concerned that its men were properly fitted with a “smart” uniform. The Army wanted the coat of its service uniform to fit easily over the chest and shoulders, and to conform to the figure at the waist. However, as swing dancing swept the Nation, the wear and tear on snug uniforms became apparent. The soldiers ripped their uniform jackets so often in jitterbugging that it became a major repair expense. Many claimed that the US Army developed an entire new uniform style in the late 1930s to accommodate swing dancing.

The new service uniform coat was approved on November 26, 1939. The back of the coat was redesigned to include 2 side pleats that extended from the shoulder seam to the waist. These pleat openings (also known as side-shoulder vents) gave the extra roominess needed to swing. The pleats were generous in size, being 3 inches deep or more where the shoulder seam joined the top arm seam. 

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Army Regulations No. 600-35, issued by the War Department on November 13, 1941, included this view of the officer’s service coat, which featured the same basic design as the enlisted service coat (the latter lacked lower sleeve bands, pocket flaps were straight across per second photo, and so forth).  The middle figure shows the distinctive “bi-swing” back.

The enlisted service uniform with belt (right), showing coat differences with the officer’s version (see drawing above). Here the trousers are worn wide in the trendy full civilian fashion. This soldier is shown with cap, as if saluting while leaving post on pass or furlough, but he would “uncover” by removing his cap upon entering a building. This routine military courtesy meant that swing dancing indoors was performed without headdress. Soldiers could either wear their military-issue low shoes or their own commercial shoes, as long as they were of russet leather construction and they had permission of their commanding officer.

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Time to Party! Soldiers playing with pretty actress Hedy Lamarr exhibit the swing pleat feature at the back of their service coats. 
The new coat feature, which was officially termed a “bi-swing” back, allowed much more ease of freedom to individual movement.  Although the Army justified the new allowances to drill and field exercise requirements, the soldiers quickly coined them as “swing pleats”.  In their opinion, the regulation pleats were inserted to prevent service uniforms from ripping down the back seams during swing events in parties and clubs.

The coat was initially worn with a wide leather waist belt, and had hooks from 1940 until March 1941. At that time, the unpopularity of the belts as a hindrance to swing movements, coupled with the need to conserve leather as a scarce war material, caused the Army to remove the hooks and belts altogether. Many soldiers took their coat belts off as quickly as the mood switched to Swing.

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Time to Swing! Soldiers dressed in service coats with “swing pleats” break down with pretty actress Hedy Lamarr.  Some wear waist belts but others have already removed them.

Throughout World War II, German propagandists chastised the US Army for issuing uniforms that resembled “loose golfing clothes” to its troops. The Germans never knew why American service coats had dual pleat openings. But the real reason may have been that the Army got tired of having to repair so many jackets after swing events, and was simply forced to change its service uniform design.

Wartime production costs caused the Army to eliminate “wasteful” side-shoulder vents from the back of service uniform coats made after June 8, 1942. This action was among several drastic measures taken by the US Government to prevent critical shortages of wool material. However, millions of coats had already been produced, and these continued to be issued and worn by newly inducted soldiers well past that date. Swing dancing in uniform was always performed best while wearing the service uniform coat with its unique “bi-swing” back!

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Some details on trousers and insignias:

Service uniform trousers were cut on the line of civilian trousers, without cuffs and without pleats. They had a button fly front, 2 side slit pockets and a watch pocket just below the belt line on the right side.


A view of the uniform trousers showing how they could be worn in the wide, loose style favored by civilian fashion. This view also shows the back and side pockets, as well as the general fit of the trousers.

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Collar Insignia placement for the coat collar and lapels of the enlisted uniform, as shown in War Department Field Manual (FM 21-100), Soldier’s Handbook, of July 23, 1941. Distinctive insignia were small heraldic-like shields that distinguished between units.

click to enlargeSleeve Insignia and Qualification Badges for enlisted soldiers, as shown in War Department Field Manual (FM 21-100), Soldier’s Handbook, of July 23, 1941. Each service stripe represented 3 years of honorable duty. The overseas (war service) chevrons and wound chevrons were extremely rare at this time, and the latter was soon replaced by award of the Purple Heart medal.

Enlisted rank insignia was worn on the sleeves, as shown in War Department Field Manual (FM 21-100), Soldier’s Handbook, of July 23, 1941.. The soldiers in the photographs who are wearing a “T” incorporated into their chevrons are various grades of Technician. 

Officer rank insignia was worn on the shoulders. Officer ornamentation was quite distinct from enlisted devices, but it is beyond the scope of this article to give a detailed summary of this complex uniform area.



U.S. Army Uniforms of World War II, by Shelby Stanton, Stackpole Books, 1991

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about this style of the US Army service uniform.)