The British Army uniform developed along roughly the same lines as uniforms in
other European armies. Its signature colour standardised on red, for foot units, and dark blue for most others, at the end of the seventeenth century,
then khaki (for everyday wear) and blue (for parade) in the 1930s. Netherwear and equipment followed European fashion. Exotic costume, such as that of
hussars and zouaves, was either embraced late and toned down, or not embraced at all.
The history of the British Army uniform is notable for an early and even eager embrace of camouflage in the form of khaki during the late nineteenth century. This reflected the exigencies of colonial war and the freedom allowed, and taken by, many of the officers who fought it. But it may also have had an aesthetic impulse. Armies in Europe were settling on mostly dark blue tunics and black equipment as a halfway house between display and practicality. This was not possible for the British army, wedded as it was to red tunics which in turn required white equipment to look pleasing. To become less conspicuous, the British army had no choice but to abandon red altogether on service.
British army uniforms currently exist in several grades, which are worn depending on the requirements of a unit or individual, ranging from ceremonial uniforms to combat dress. While there are officially fifteen different grades (or 'Numbers'), many of these are rarely worn or phased out altogether. Note that uniform distinctions can vary greatly from one Regiment or Corps to another, and the following descriptions are a generalisation.
Full Dress - The most elaborate order dress, which is now rarely worn except by the Foot Guards, Household Cavalry, King's Troop and military bands when performing State or Ceremonial duties.
Levée Dress - A special order of Full Dress primarily for wearing at levées and official balls. Probably not seen since levées were stopped on the outbreak of World War II.
No.1: Blues - Dark blue tunic and trousers (/ overalls) (or skirt) with a blue peaked cap. There are some colour distinctions: for example, the tunic and trousers of the Light Division are dark green, the caps of the Light Cavalry regiments are red, and the overalls (trousers) of the King's Royal Hussars are crimson. Blues are only worn on ceremonial occasions, and, in some regiments, by the Duty Officer.
No.2: Service Dress - Khaki jacket with trousers or a skirt. Highland Regiments wear a Kilt and the King's Royal Hussars wear crimson trousers. It is worn with a cap, however some units wear their beret, or Glengarry, and The Queen's Royal Hussars wear their tent hat (the only head dress worn without a cap badge or other distinction). This uniform is worn for most formal duties by all units.
No.3: Tropical Full Dress - Formerly all white uniforms worn with No.1 dress cap. Since the 1970s a white linen tunic worn with No.1 dress cap and trousers.
No.4: Officers tropical Service Dress - Resembles the Officer's No. 2 dress except in tan tropical worsted material and worn for activities other than parades and formations, which neccesitates either the No. 3 Dress or No. 6 Dress.
No.5: WW2 Battle Dress Now no longer worn, replaced by No. 2 Dress in 1962.
No.6: OR’s tropical Service Dress - The 'bush jacket' uniform (in Australia, this is known as the 'safari uniform'). It consists of a tan bush-style 4-button jacket worn with or without a shirt and tie underneath and tan trousers. It is worn by all ranks for parades and formations (as with No. 2 Dress), unless No. 3 dress is worn, and by ORs for all other occasions.
No.7: Tropical Working Dress - The tropical shirt-and-trousers uniform, consisting of a tan long-sleeve shirt worn with tan 'battle dress' trousers (kilt or trews for Scottish regiments), stable belt and regimental headgear.
No.8: Combat Dress - DPM field jacket (smock) and trousers, worn with beret, helmet or camouflaged hat. The current issue is known as Combat Soldier 95, although older, specialist (eg., the DPM Parachute Smock and Smock Windproof DPM)or private purchase items are often worn.
No.9: Tropical Combat Dress - Identical to the No. 8 DPM, except it is made of lighter weight rip-stop cotton and is patterned for either the jungle or desert environments (unlike the U.S. Army, which has the specialized Army Combat Uniform for all non-polar environments, the British Army still has separate patterns for each region of the world).
No.10: Mess Dress - Short Jacket, with which men wear trousers (/overalls) or a kilt, and women a long skirt. Worn by the rank of Sergeant upwards for formal functions, its colours can vary greatly from unit to unit but generally match the traditional full dress of the regiment or corps. Thus jackets can be scarlet, dark blue or green with lapels and waistcoats in regimental colours.
No.11: Tropical Mess Dress - A white jacket is substituted for the coloured one of temperate mess dress. Waistcoats are not worn.
No.12: Working Dress - Formerly Olive green shirt and trousers, it has been replaced with smart Combat Dress: ironed shirt and trousers worn with beret and stable belt (identical to that of No. 7 Dress). The current uniform worn by soldiers most of the time, it is to be supplemented by the new Barrack Dress.
No.13: Barrack Dress - Trousers and shirt from No.2 dress with olive pullover and stable belt. To be replaced by a more practical olive green dress.
No.14: Barrack Dress (shirt sleeve order)