While assembling equipment for a charity road rally (appropriate outerwear, hats, stopwatch, notebooks and pens, etc.), we found ourselves in one of the city’s pre-eminent military surplus stores. We bought a couple of pairs of goggles. We did so, we told ourselves (and anyone else who asked) to protect the driver and navigator’s eyes from the swirling winds of the dusty trail. The goggles worked, both for protection and to drive our charity vehicular efforts to new heights of automotive fashion. But more than that, the stop in at the surplus store (hung floor to ceiling with khaki hats, trousers, and jackets) has prompted some thoughts about the perfect interweaving of form and function that is military surplus.
Military clothing is, in a word, practical. It is made to the highest possible tolerance for wear, tear, and weather. It is purchased by governments that spare no expense to clothe and protect their people in uniform. And with its classic lines and accoutrements, military wear can look good as well. There is, as they say, something about someone in uniform.
Take the jackets, for instance. Plenty of doubly reinforced pockets, heavy duty buttons, and they’re everywhere: breast pockets angled for easy access, spacious side pockets. Some even feature large pockets in the back of the jackets. Then there are the elbow patches, often with rubber lining; so too with the shoulders, reinforced and secretly rubberized. We even found one that had a neat 2 inch hole cut (and reinforced, of course) in the armpits. A brilliant accommodation for staying cool during strenuous outdoor activity.
The trousers and sweaters too are extra strong, with large pockets, and extra material in the places where it counts.
We recently purchased a pair of World War II woolen trousers: heavy, lined wool, button fly, snug at the waist with plenty of room in the legs. Combined with a pair of vintage braces and you have the perfect khaki combination.
The secret is, of course, not to go completely over the top with surplus. Combine those woolen trousers with a tweed jacket, an Irish knit sweater, or an oxford cloth shirt. We love those black steel-capped boots but don’t wear them with the surplus trousers or you’ll start to look AWOL. Might we suggest the boots with jeans or chinos, and wear brogues with the military trousers. One jacket we purchased included instructions: “If zipper snags, DON’T FORCE!” Always good advice in matters of style, and indeed for most of the rest of life too.
While there’s a sea of green out there in the surplus world, it need not all be drab. Recent events have created an influx of desert colours and mottled camouflage. Depending on the branch of the service that captures your eye, you can find clothing in blue, grey, black, and even red.
Every one of the international clothing chains has its own version of the military jacket these days; with multiple pockets, sometimes with a drawstring at the waist, others with hoods, epaulettes, even faux regimental insignia. So too, with the imitation military trousers, shorts, shirts, and sweaters. But the material is often half the thickness of the real thing and twice or three times the price.
For years we’ve advised friends who are in the market for a peacoat to please steer clear of the mall or any big name shop. Head straight for the military surplus store, get yourself an authentic, quality garment, and be happy that you also just saved a few hundred dollars.
Whether your next adventure takes you to foreign mountain tops, lakeside camping or simply ambling out to the pub, you might want to consider adding a little government issue to the wardrobe. Drop by your local surplus store and enjoy digging through the racks and rafters. And if you can’t find any clothing that suits your taste, there’s plenty of other great equipment for the intrepid: belts, gloves, flashlights, scarves, knapsacks and yes, goggles.
Some instructions on the large inner label of one Canadian Armed Forces winter coat from the 1970s:
-USER LABEL-COAT, COMBAT G5
-The breast pocket and side pockets are designed to carry 20 rd (round) rifle magazines. The nylon loops in the side pockets keeps the mags secure and prevent rattling. Use them! Use the breast pocket for personal items.
-The drawcord at the bottom hem can be tightened to keep out cold, wind, hold the coat close to body when pockets are heavily loaded and to prevent billowing when para-jumping.
-If zipper snags DON’T FORCE! Work loose gently. Lubricate with pencil lead or candle wax.
-Launder only. DON’T DRY CLEAN, STARCH, DO NOT PRESS THIS GARMENT.
-DO NOT REMOVE THIS LABEL.