The U.S. Army is rolling out new Army Combat Uniforms (ACUs) — and from a fashion perspective, the men and women who serve will look like a mess.

The new ACU features a redesigned pattern, called the Operational Camouflage Pattern (OCP), that doesn’t match current uniform patterns, and soldiers will be slowly transitioning to the new look over the next few years. That means Army soldiers will be mixing the old with the new.

“Soldiers are authorized to mix and match T-shirts, belts and boots,” the Army said. The new look is based on Crye Precision’s MultiCam pattern that was developed over a decade ago and has been used on a limited basis by soldiers deploying to combat zones overseas.

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Daniel A. Dailey said “presenting a professional appearance is very important to soldiers. But we will not inconvenience or burden our troops. We will still be the most lethal fighting force the world has ever known even if our belts don’t match for the next few years.”

The military fashion faux pas is due to the implementation costs. Service members get yearly clothing allowances and would not be able to dole out the full cost of replacing all of their uniforms at once. So the top brass is giving them until the fall of 2019 to be fully transitioned into the new look.

Until then, expect to see soldiers wearing new OCP looks along with the former gray-green Universal Camouflage Pattern (UCP) and the flame-resistant ACUs that feature a MultiCam pattern (called the Operation Enduring Freedom Camouflage Pattern), which the U.S. Army said have been issued to deploying service members since 2010.

“All enlisted soldiers receive an annual stipend for the purchase of uniforms and accessories,” said Dailey in a statement last month. “I myself will wait until I am issued my clothing allowance before purchasing a uniform with the Operational Camouflage Pattern. I encourage all soldiers and leaders to do the same by budgeting for a new uniform, belt, boots and T-shirts as you receive your clothing allowance over the next two to three years.”

The OCPs are being shipped to military exchange shops in three phases, and were made available for purchase by active duty personnel this past week. New recruits will be issued the OCPs starting in January 2016. U.S. Army National Guard, the U.S. Army Reserve and the Senior Reserve Officer Training Corps will be issued the OCPs in the summer of next year.

The Army Times reported that the first phase of shipments will go to 19 bases including Fort Bragg, N.C. and Fort Campbell, Ky. as well as Fort Hood, Texas and Fort Drum, N.Y. The paper also reported that the U.S. Army is expected to have a desert and a jungle version of the OCP sometime down the road. The Army said a full ACU costs about $102, which includes overcoat, pants, hat, T-shirt, underwear and belt.

Aside from the new pattern, the OCP features design changes that include redesigned shoulder-sleeve pockets with a zipper opening, two pen pockets on the sleeve (instead of three) and the “elimination of the elbow and knee patch hook and loop,” the Army said.

It’s important to note that uniforms are extremely functional items. For professional soldiers, uniforms are considered essential equipment. At the least, uniforms should offer plenty of room in the shoulders and around joints to make movement easy — especially in combat situations. In peacetime, flexible designs make it easier for conducting training missions and for doing maintenance on armored equipment, weapons and vehicles — and for fresh recruits, doing push-ups.

Patterns are also critical, and can save a soldier’s life. The U.S. Army spent several years conducting field research on the new pattern. Today’s military uniforms are also as varied as they are complex. Each branch of the armed forces — and even individual division and unit within each branch — can have specialized uniforms.

One of the more diversified and largest uniform makers is American Apparel. No, not the retail company that once featured scantily clad women in its print ads, but the Selma, Ala.-based manufacturer of coats, pants and coveralls (see http://amappinc.com). The company supplies its goods to the U.S. Army as well as the Navy and Air Force. Since 1987, the company has outfitted over 2 million soldiers each year.

Military uniforms have a long and storied past going back to the Romans. Uniforms included breastplates and chain mail and also served as symbols of status and wealth. Later on in human history, British troops wore distinctive uniforms to intimidate the opposing force. And wearing the same uniform helped commanders distinguish their troops from the enemy. Uniforms and insignia were also colorful and ornate — even when used in combat.

But that changed during World War I when drab colors were commonplace, and were based on British khaki used in India since 1848. Comfort, durability and function had won out over bright colors, felt and feathers.

In the U.S. Army, basic uniforms stayed the same for decades. But a series of conflicts — including Vietnam, Panama and Grenada — informed uniform designs. By the mid-1980s, the Army adopted a Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) in woodland camouflage. It was a perfect uniform for the Cold War era where U.S. troops were “combat-ready” against a Soviet threat to be fought in the forests of East and West Germany — and in the Fulda Gap.

The woodland BDU was used up until Desert Storm, when the U.S. Army hastened distribution of desert-hued patterns for soldiers who were deploying to Southwest Asia. During Desert Storm, some of the European-based U.S. troops deployed to Iraq didn’t receive desert camo in time for the ground war and wore their woodland BDUs. These soldiers, from the 3rd Armored Division, were quickly nicknamed the “Russian Killers” by captured Iraqi soldiers.

It’s unclear if recent events in the Ukraine are now informing the design of combat uniforms. The new OCP has the look of the old woodland BDUs worn by the “Russian Killers.” Three weeks ago, the U.S. Defense Secretary said there would be a brigade’s worth of tanks and other armored vehicles moving into Eastern Europe and the Baltics — close to the border of Russia. The involved countries include Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. The U.S. Department of Defense said the U.S. forces are participating in “training maneuvers” in those countries.

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