Thursday, 3 July 2014

1952 British Army Denim Battledress Blouse

The DNA of the humble battledress blouse can clearly be seen in post-war casual and work jackets - most famously in civilian versions of the American "Ike" jacket.

British Army Denim Battledress

The blouse began life when, looking for a replacement for WW1 era Service Dress (SD) more suited to modern combat operations, the British War Department settled on Battledress in 1937.
Much shorter than its SD tunic predecessor, the BD blouse was originally worn over a collarless shirt and buttoned at the back to a pair of matching trousers.

British Army Denim Battledress

Issued on a large scale in 1939, this is the itchy heavy wool uniform that most British and Dominion troops set off to war with.

A Working Dress version was also made in selvedge denim - cut larger to be worn over the wool uniform for doing dirty jobs around barracks. (So you will need to size down.) However, as we all know, denim is ever practical and the material proved ideal for operations in hotter climates - it was widely issued, or "acquired" by troops fighting in the Mediterranean.

Made from green or brown selvedge selvedge denim (I'd guestimate the denim to be around the 11oz mark) these are robust little jackets.
With pleats front and rear they're quite roomy too. The buckled belt nips in the waist to give a quite boxy silhouette.

British Army Denim Battledress
The trousers are identical to their woollen cousins, obviously apart from the one line of selvedge visible on the strong felled out-seam.

With a high waist line hovering dangerously close to the nipples, they were clearly meant to give a silhouette that emphasised height - important when attempting to instil fear in the the hearts of advancing German infantry!

British Army Denim Battledress
Waist belt buckle detail.
In fact such large stocks of denim and wool battledress blouses were left behind by the British at Dunkirk they were recycled by the Germans and issued to U Boat crews. 

Various patterns of the wool blouse were made over the years, with the most alterations being made to the collar and button placket, but the denim versions always stuck closely to those first issued in 1937 - with a simple rise & fall collar clipped at the top, and the exposed buttons of the later 1940 "Austerity Pattern." The removal of the covered placket an economy measure that saved on cloth.

British Army Denim Battledress
Simple rise-and-fall collar clipped at the top.
These blouses were made to be used hard, so the bakelite buttons are held on by cleats - easy to remove for washing. I suspect soldiers back then had other things in their mind than developing fades on their denim!

The blouse you see here was made in 1952 by Denham. There were a myriad number of contractors over the years, all with small differences between them. (Sadly I could not find any information on Denham.)

Original War Department label.
As a combat uniform battledress was still worn in the Korean War, but fell in to disuse with the issue of Herringbone Twill uniforms poached from the Americans.

As our own cotton combat uniform came in to service there was no real need for denim or wool battledress and it ceased to be issued in 1961.

British Army Denim Battledress
Pocket detail with what look like bakelite disc buttons.
American uniform items have always been extremely popular, with companies like Buzz Rickson's offering top dollar recreations. They're fantastic I agree, but I'd argue that, although not as well known, British denim uniforms are just as stylish. To Nigel Cabourn's credit he did a version of the trousers for his SS14 collection.

Worn with jeans the blouses look great over a guernsey or a submariner jumper, or a work shirt in summer. Just the thing for cutting about town. (Or a clandestine meeting with your resistance contact to blow up a bridge!) 

Earlier examples are becoming scarce, but post war versions are still straightforward to find.

I found mine on Ebay, but it is worth checking surplus suppliers to see what they have. There are also various reproduction companies making copies for re-enactor types, though the denim is not selvedge.

I'd argue you're better off with an original.

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