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What is a Mess Dress?

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  • Written By: Henry Gaudet
  • Edited By: A. Joseph
  • Last Modified Date: 01 December 2016
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A mess dress is a formal military uniform. It generally is worn for white-tie or black-tie events where civilian men normally would dress in a tuxedo. The tradition of a mess dress begins with the British Army, whose members began wearing them to balls and formal events in 1845 as an alternative to the officer’s full dress uniforms worn at the time. In the early 20th century, the tradition was adopted by all branches of the British military, the United States military and all Commonwealth nations. Most other nations around the world have not, however, adopted this custom, and they use standard uniforms or dress uniforms when attending formal events.

Regulations regarding a particular mess dress vary with each nation and branch of service. Different units within that military branch might have their own variations on the standard mess dress. For instance, depending on the regiment, British Army officers might wear the mess jacket with only the top button fastened, referred to as “cavalry style,” or it might be worn with a black bow tie. Many services also allow a-warm weather variation on the standard mess dress.

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Color schemes of a uniform’s jacket, collars, cuffs, lapels and waistcoats might vary to designate a regiment or unit. British mess jackets might be red, blue or green, depending on the branch and unit. Scottish regiments might include tartan in the uniform and might also have a mess dress that includes kilts. U.S. mess dress, on the other hand, offers far less variety, and the uniforms most often are blue.

Modern mess dress for male personnel tends to resemble tuxedo designs with military flourishes. Waist-length mess jackets might include epaulets, embroidered cuffs or cords to display rank. Lapels might not be present. Cummerbunds or waistcoats commonly are used, and black or white ties often are incorporated, depending on the event. Dress shoes usually are worn, though some uniforms call for cavalry boots. For some uniforms, cloaks or capes are included as outerwear.

Female uniforms tend to closely resemble the male mess dress, with jackets being the standard. Instead of trousers, though, women service members usually wear long skirts. Gloves and handbags might be used as well, depending on the branch of service.

In some military forces, a mess dress is reserved for the officers. Other military organizations allow all personnel to wear the formal uniform. In the U.S. Marine Corps, only officers and non-commissioned officers can wear mess dress, with junior enlisted personnel wearing the standard dress uniform for formal functions.

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