Green Faces, Blue Jeans: Blue Jeans during Vietnam

by Tricia Menke, NMAS Curator of Education

The jungles of Vietnam in the midst of the Vietnam War may not seem like the best place to make a fashion statement, but the U.S. Navy SEALs have never played by the rules. The “men with green faces” quickly discovered upon arrival in Vietnam that the climate was harsh and Navy-issued pants were not necessarily cut out for the environment. To contend with the pests and the unforgiving jungle, SEALs turned to a tried and true American classic: the blue jean.

An American Classic

By the time SEALs arrived in Vietnam, blue jeans were already almost a century old. Patented in 1873 by Levi Strauss and tailor Jacob Davis, the original brown “duck trousers” or “waist overalls” were created to withstand the harsh conditions of mines in the American West.1 In 1890, Levi Strauss & Co. introduced the more flexible blue denim which proved even more popular than the brown original. Until the mid-twentieth century, blue jeans remained firmly entrenched in the working world, but that began to change when Hollywood icons like James Dean and Marlon Brando wore them on the silver screen. Youth of the 1950s coined the new term “jeans” for the iconic pants and blue jeans as leisure wear took off with the American public.

Levi’s original brown duck trousers, ca. 1873. Courtesy of the National Museum of American History.

“With Strength and Ease, They Always Please”

Despite their new status as a fashion statement in the mid-twentieth century, jeans manufacturers continued making a product that could withstand severe working conditions. And men in the military took notice. In World War II, jeans companies altered their designs to meet the needs of the military, with brands like Levi’s manufacturing denim dungarees for sailors, Marines, and shipyard personnel.2 So beloved were the denim workwear of WWII that service members returned home and continued wearing their dungarees for years to come.

When conflict broke out in Vietnam, blue jeans were a favorite for men and women across the United States. Levi’s and other brands were no longer making jeans specifically for the military, but that didn’t stop the first Navy SEALs from wearing their favorite denim. In 1966, the SEALs were a brand new special force who were essentially making up their rules as they went along. Just as these SEALs traded their Navy-issued M60 machine gun for the Stoner 63, some SEALs chose to trade their standard-issue camouflage for Levi’s 501 or 505 jeans. The heavy-duty denim lived up to its long history of durability, by repelling mosquitos, leeches, and the Vietnamese jungle. The comfortable fabric was also quieter when wading through water and dried more quickly than sailor cammies. Unlike their WWII predecessors, these denim pants were not government-issued, but instead were personal purchases made either before the war or at Navy Exchanges around the world. Choosing to wear jeans was a truly personal choice, as explained by retired Captain Rick Woolard, commander of SEAL Teams in Vietnam: “I tried Levi’s and did not find them as comfortable or functional as jungle cammies, but did not object to my men wearing them. New jeans were pretty stiff, and you definitely wanted a pair that was well broken in.”3

As a brand-new addition to American Special Forces, the SEALs quickly earned their reputation as highly proficient, lethal warriors. The fact that they were the only service members dressed like movie star heroes only cemented their status that much more. “You would see guys with Coral Boots on, with their Levi’s and their Rolex watch. You could pick out a [SEAL] in a heartbeat.”4 These bad boys of the Navy may have originally donned the Levi’s for practical reasons but the blue denim also served a secondary purpose of elevating these elite sailors above your average bluejacket.

At Home and Aboard

Ironically, hippies and anti-Vietnam War protesters were also wearing jeans, in their own anti-establishment fashion. Like Marlon Brando and the new Navy SEALs, these social rebels adapted denim as an unofficial uniform at protests and other forms of civil disobedience. But unlike the classic style of Levi’s 501 and 505 that the SEALs were utilizing in Vietnam, hippies chose bolder styles with bell-bottoms and embellished their jeans with embroidery, sequins, and paint.5 Although at opposite ends of the war debate, both the SEALs and the hippies utilized jeans as a way to set themselves apart from the norm. For SEALs, it was both a practical choice and a status choice that separated them from other sailors. For counterculture youth at home, blue jeans were a symbol of rebelliousness, informality, and unisexuality.

Anti-war protesters attend a rally wearing blue jeans in New York City, 1969. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In the 1960s and 1970s, “America’s Finest” pants proved to be truly made for every American, from the SEALs creeping through the Vietnamese jungle to the protesters marching in the streets. SEALs returning from Vietnam continued to wear their denim, but after the SEAL Teams were pulled from Vietnam in 1971, the practice of wearing blue jeans on duty ended. The newly established SEALs had proven their worth and Navy leadership came away with lessons learned on what supplies SEALs would need going forward. Better constructed tactical-style uniforms replaced the Coral Boots and blue jeans of the Vietnam era. Today’s SEALs still get away with a more relaxed style than your average sailor, but you’re unlikely to see them rocking Levi’s on their next clandestine mission.


  1. Stromberg, Joseph. “The Origin of Blue Jeans.” Smithsonian Magazine. 6 Sept 2011.
  2. Panek, Tracey. “How World War II Changed Levis.” Levi Strauss & Co. 30 Sept 2020.
  3. As quoted in Chris Danforth. “The Men with Blue Jeans: Navy SEALs in Vietnam Wore Levi’s.” Heddels. 3 Dec 2020.
  4. Vietnam SEAL Roger Hayden, as quoted in “The Men with Blue Jeans.”
  5. “History of Denim & the Origin of Jeans.” Hawthorn Clothing.

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