In 1845, the British military introduced evening dress intended for formal occasions held in mess halls and elsewhere. This new concept of mess dress was later instituted by armed forces in other Commonwealth countries and eventually in the United States around the turn of the twentieth century.
Mess Dress Trouser Galon
Readers who are curious about the military equivalents of Black Tie and White Tie around the world will find an excellent summary of international mess dress in Wikipedia’s “Mess Dress” article. Generally speaking, while there is a wide variety of styles used by different military branches – and sometimes even within a given branch – some common themes emerge across the board:
Evening Dress Uniforms – U.S. Marine Corps Uniforms 1983 -1984.jpg
mess jackets are waist-length jackets that can have shawl or peak lapels or no lapels at all (the latter are known as cavalry style mess jackets and their upright collars require them to be worn without neckwear); unlike civilian formal jackets they usually feature epaulets and rank insignia
American mess jackets are most commonly blue or white, the latter typically reserved for warm climates or summer months
in the militaries of the British Commonwealth, red is also a popular color for mess jackets, often with black shawl collars
bow ties are usually black, with white generally reserved for White Tie equivalent uniforms
waistcoats and cummerbunds come in many different colors although the white waistcoat is generally reserved for White Tie functions. Note, in the Army cummerbunds are worn with pleats facing down, rather than up as outlined here.
White Tie equivalents are only for officers and even then they are optional for some junior officers; lower ranks use a Black Tie equivalent for all formal functions
Mess Dress in 2011
Specific Regulations Surprisingly, the tailcoat remains optional mess dress for a number of military branches even to this day.
For further details of national mess dress, including its historical development, see Wikipedia’s individual articles on the uniforms of various armed forces. For the most precise details possible, readers should consult official regulations issued by the corresponding military organizations. The following are online versions of some of those regulations:
Mess Dress and White Dress Uniforms – U.S. Marine Corps Uniforms 1983 -1984
Dress and Personal Appearance of Air Force Personnel PDF – see Mess Dress and Formal Dress regulations in chapter 4; note that “Formal Dress” is White Tie equivalent and only for officers (although the manual mistakenly refers to the White Tie coat as a tuxedo instead of a tailcoat)