Epaulette (pronunciation: /ˈɛpǝlɛt/) is a French word meaning "little shoulders" (epaule, referring to "shoulder"), originally meant only one type of ornamental shoulder piece or decoration used as insignia or rank by the military and other organizations.
Epaulettes are fastened to the shoulder by a shoulder strap, parallel to the shoulder seam and the button near the collar. An item of the military uniform that is intended to be worn with an epaulette will, therefore, have a shoulder strap. The placement of the epaulette, its colour and the length and diameter of its bullion fringe are used to signify the wearer's rank. Between the fringe and the shoulder, the piece is often a metal piece in the form of a crescent. Although sometimes worn in the field, epaulettes are more common on a dress or ceremonial uniforms. Shoulder straps are also found civilian clothing that derives from military uniforms such as the trench coat, the safari jacket and other garments.
History of the Epaulette
Before rank insignia were devised, the rank of an officer was determined by whether one epaulette was on the left shoulder, or the right shoulder or both. Later a "counter-epaulette" (with no fringe) was given to those who wore only one. Besides silver or gold for officers, epaulettes came in cloth for the enlisted men of various arms. Various cavalry specialities were given metal epaulettes referred to as scales, rarely worn on the field.
Officers of the United States Army at the time of the Civil War wore gold for artillery and silver for infantry. This was in keeping with the practice of the French Army. In Europe, some light infantry wore cloth counter-epaulettes. "Flying artillery" wore "wings", similar to an epaulette but with only a bit of fringe on the outside, which matched the shoulder seam. Heavy artillery wore small balls representing ammunition on their shoulders.
Epaulettes have mostly been replaced by insignia pins and sleeve patches to denote rank. These are often placed on a five-sided flap of cloth called a shoulder strap, which is sewn into the shoulder seam and buttoned like the epaulette.
An intermediate step in the navies of the world is the shoulderboard, which neither has a fringe nor extends beyond the shoulder seam. Various armies, such as the Russian Army, still have shoulder boards.
From the US Navy's shoulder board, the US Army and Air force developed the shoulder mark, a cloth tube with one stripe far from the collar for senior officers, an additional stripe at the top for general officers, no stripes for junior officers and enlisted men and embroidered or pinned rank insignia. These are worn on all class B uniform shirts; the US Navy wears soft epaulettes only on long sleeve white shirts. The Coast Guard wears Naval style soft epaulettes on all class B uniform shirts.
In Canada, epaulette or epaulet is often used (erroneously or colloquially) to describe the shoulder strap of a military or police shirt, jacket or tunic and is used informally as a synonym for slip-on, a flat cloth sleeve (called in the US, a shoulder mark) worn ("slipped on") on the shoulder strap.
After Unification and prior to the issue of the Distinct Environmental Uniform, musicians of the Band Branch wore epaulettes of braided gold cord on the CF uniform.
The formal uniform of all levels of Scout Canada youth and leader uniforms (except Beavers youth) to denote section. As the shirt is common across all section, the epaulette is used to identify section.
They are also used denote roles of responsibility with either a single strip ("Assistant Patrol Leader" in Scouts, "Second" in Cubs) or a double strip ("Patrol Leader" in Scouts, "Sixer" in Cubs"). There was apparently a triple strip for "Senior Sixer" and "Senior Patrol Leader" at one time.
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German Army uniforms are known for a five-cord "figure-of-eight" decoration which fits atop the shoulder. This is called a shoulder knot. Although it was once on US Army uniforms, it remains only in the mess uniform.
British uniform shirt cuffs were once decorated with buttons and coloured patches to indicate the rank of officers.