These Vintage Military Uniforms Feature the Forerunners of Modern Performance Materials

Startlingly modern, these garments dating from WWII showcase the evolution of heat-trapping, moisture-wicking and windproof fabrics.

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It’s difficult to overemphasize the influence of military kit on modern-day performance athletic clothing. The battlefield is the ultimate testing ground for materials and design, and the innovations in uniform development mirror in importance those that occurred in ballistics, airpower, seapower and even tactics. As time passes, these innovations subsequently trickle down into the civilian market, giving rise to hi-tech performance clothing that, to the average consumer, seems to have been conceived out of thin air. The reality, of course, is far different.

At Silverman’s, a London-based supplier of military kit established in 1946, there is a special reverence for early military kit. Indeed, the company’s facilities are chock full of it, bursting with vintage surplus mostly invisible to the consumer who wanders in off the streets in search of a new pair of work boots or an insulated jacket. But there are gems to be found amongst all the detritus of war, some of which are just too cool not to show here.

Look closely and you’ll quickly see the through-lines between this gear, developed for soldiers to execute daring missions behind enemy lines, and modern gear that makes use of similar technology, whether for sweat wicking, thermal insulation, fire retardation or other purposes. Strikingly modern in feel and construction, some of these vintage pieces look and feel like they could have been manufactured today.

1940s Camouflage SAS Smock

A windproof smock issued to the Special Air Service in the 1940 during the Second World War, this garment was originally a pull-over design with a gusset present at the neck, but was later modified with a zipper. It’s made of gabardine, a tight-weave cotton that swells when wet to prevent further water ingress and is also quick-drying (compare to modern Coolmax from DuPont). The camouflage pattern is a broad-stroke design first introduced in 1942.

WWII-Era Irvin Sheepskin Pilot’s Jacket

Made especially for the Fleet Air Arm, Coast Command and Air Sea Rescue, these special pilot’s jackets were made of sheepskin and featured yellow hoods for identifying downed pilots in the water. The hood was also particularly warm for defense against extreme weather conditions, and these jackets were often spotted being worn near the British coast in winter. Though sheepskin is a decidedly organic material, it gained popularity during the Second World War for its insulating and moisture-wicking properties. (PolarTec, developed in the 1970s, has many of the advantages of wool, seen in the lining of this jacket, without the bulk and discomfort).

1942 Windproof SAS Smock

British officer David Stirling conceived of the idea for the Special Air Service while recuperating in a Cairo Hospital in 1941. This windproof smock, dated to 1942, dates from the time of the North African campaign, when his forces wreaked havoc against German and Italian targets. The smock is made of gabardine cotton, similar to the camouflage version above, though this one has not been modified with a zipper and is in largely new condition. The gabardine has a strangely modern feel, despite the material’s invention in the late 19th century.

Air Ministry Dual Purpose Smock

Not many details are available regarding this garment manufactured by G.Q. Parachute Company, but the design is that of a step-in smock used for parachuting. Possibly copied from a similar German design, it may be the forerunner to the Denison parachute smock (see below) that was in widespread use up until its replacement by the “Smock, Parachutist DPM” in the 1970s.

Denison Smock

The classic parachutist’s smock, made of heavyweight twill, so effective and distinctive that it was broadly adapted and still in continuous use following World War II. Developed during the War, it was made with a half-zip at the neck and a crotch flap, as it was intended to be worn over the soldier’s battle dress uniform but under his equipment-bearing web gear. A green denim oversmock was then worn over the web gear, to prevent it from snagging on a parachute. Highly collectible and rare in this condition, the Denison was used by the British Parachute Regiment, Special Operations Executive agents and others.

Special Reconnaissance Jacket

Rarer than hen’s teeth, this special jacket belonged to an officer of the Green Jackets CORC(A), Covert Observation and Reporting Company (Airborne). Though not vintage, it’s a modern example of the mix of old school materials (wool) with modern tech (fire-retardant materials — perhaps Nomex).

Used in the mountains of northern Iraq, it’s made of natural wool to prevent sweat freezing at night and causing hypothermia, as recon operations require sitting absolutely still for potentially days on end. The garment is also fire-retardant and features a special dog tag. Notice also the pouch sowed up-side down — this makes access to the pocket’s contents easier to access when lying in a prone position. The jacket’s airborne wings are perhaps the rarest variant in the British order of battle.

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