Insignia and symbols have always been a cornerstone of military uniforms. It has a lot to do with identification and also moral. In the heat of battle, insignia can say a lot of things for one, who is friendly and who is the enemy, secondly who is in charge lastly, how much experience someone has. Generally speaking these symbols were meant to be clear and concise, but also aesthetically pleasing for moral. One symbol that has transcended through the 20th and 21st centuries, as not only a military symbol, but also a symbol that represents a country and its fashion, is the Royal Air Force Roundel.
The roundel was created in 1915 during World War One, for the planes of the Royal Flying Corps (the precursor of the Royal Air Force). It was the habit of soldiers in the trenches during the early part of the war, to shoot at anything in the sky, even if they were their own planes. In an attempt to counter this practice, the Royal Flying Corps began to paint Union Flags on the bottom of their wings, unfortunately the flags looked very similar to the Iron Cross symbol that the Germans had on their planes. This led to friendly fire. The British then turned to their French allies and adopted the concept of having the national colors in a circular cockade or roundel. It would be this symbol that would rule the skies over the dreadful fighting in the trenches.
The symbol would be used for the remainder of the First World War and was dropped during the inter war years because the Royal Flying Corps, begining in 1918 the Royal Air Force, used primarily silver painted airplanes. Then during the 1930’s, the RAF began to use camouflage for their planes again. The symbol was back and this time for good.
During World War Two, the RAF’s Roundel gained even more popularity as being a symbol of the pilots who saved England from the Blitz and ultimately defeating Nazi Germany. After the war it would continue to be used as a symbol of the RAF and is still in use today.
The Mod fashion wave of the 1960’s introduced the symbol into the fashion world. The band, “The Who” began to wear the roundel and Union Flags during their live shows. It became the symbol of British pop art at the time, especially through the paintings of Jasper Johns. It soon became an iconic symbol of Mods and the Mods Revival. Artists including The Who, The Jam, Ben Harper and Paul Weller, continue to use the roundel in their marketing today.
The roundel’s presence in pop art of the 1960’s led to its introduction in fashion. It has made a come back recently through the fashion labels of Ben Sherman and even with the Lambretta scooter company. The Royal Air Force in the last 5 years, has also taken advantage of its popularity and now sells a great deal of merchandise with the symbol on it.
Below I have included just a few fashion items that the Roundel has influnced, but there really is so many that it would be hard to list them all.
Story of the Ben Sherman Label A Ben Sherman T-Shirt
A BBC America Advert using the symbol The band “The Who” T-shirt
The symbol itself has attracted controversy, because the United Kingdom’s Ministery of Defense have sued, in some cases successfully, but in most cases not, to maintain the exclusive rights to the symbol. In response to the popularity of the symbol, the RAF now sells its own clothing line named the “RAF Collection”.
This is a great example of a military symbol, at first only designed to distinguish friend from foe, taking on a life of it’s own through pop culture. The symbol itself has grown far beyond a brand and is now a cherished lovemark of English fashion and culture.