Uniforms and other military textiles

The Royal Military Museum possesses a rich and varied collection of military textiles. Safeguarding official military outfits and flags from the creation of the kingdom of Belgium onwards is one of the Museum’s main missions. However, as many battles were fought on our territory the collection profile is much wider, both in time and in geography. The RMM therefore keeps uniforms from all great European powers, from the Napoleonic era till the present.

The number of personal equipment pieces is humongous: 17,487 uniforms, 9,863 head covers, 16,650 pieces of equipment such as cartridge belts, backpacks, gas masks, holsters, survival kits, etc. Some 1,500 textile rank distinctions complete the collection.

Origins of the military uniform

The oldest uniforms date back to the Thirty-Year War (1618-1647): that is when the long leather coat with baldric, powder horns (also called the 12 apostles) and burgonet appears. It is during this large-scale conflict that military uniforms as such are first introduced in Northern Europe. A few decenniums down the line they are used all over Europe (18th century), in parallel with the constitution of national armies, the first true professional fighting forces. As the State now covers the expenses for the personal equipment of the soldier, the State also determines how and when the uniform is to be worn, what cut and colour it is to follow and which regiment or rank signs have to be worn with it. The evolution of the uniform follows the technical evolution of weapons and fighting tactics.

Guns of that period use black powder, which covers the battlefield in heavy smoke and reduces visibility. National colours then appear: red for Great Britain, white for Austria, green for Russia, etc. This colour code also makes for order and team spirit.

By the beginning of the 19th century every soldier is to be recognized through the colour of his coat, his regimental and rank signs on sleeves or shoulders and his headgear, often adorned with a cockade in the national colours.

The most colourful uniforms are worn during the Napoleonic wars; they project power, prestige and belligerent spirit. Uniforms of nearly all European powers during the First Empire are to be admired at the Royal Military Museum.

Uniforms of victorious armies are closely scrutinized by less successful forces, who adopt new and interesting uniform elements. That is why the general cut of 19th century uniforms is quite similar all over Europe. Infantry and cavalry wear similar uniforms and headgear, regardless of nationality. The officer’s bicorn, the infantry shako, the elite troop busby or the cavalry metal helmet are introduced everywhere. Let’s not forget the hussars and lancers, with their dolmans, kurtkas and chapkas. This uniform variety is to be admired at the RMM in all its diversity, from basic service dress to full ceremonial dress.

19th century Belgian uniforms are inspired by French models, but in the 20th century Britain is the example to follow. Fighting equipment now is the kaki battle dress. The Royal Military Museum can proudly say its First and Second World War uniform collections are one of the largest in Europe, with equipment from nearly every involved country.

Flags and standards

Uniforms are not the only textile pieces in the collection. With its 3,200 different items the vexillology inventory is also quite impressive: flags, standards, banners, ship’s flags, emblems, etc. Flag accessories, such as poles, masts and flagstaff are also collected. Top pieces include the first Belgian flags, still with horizontal lines.