AskDefine | Define epaulette

Dictionary Definition

epaulette n : adornment consisting of an ornamental cloth pad worn on the shoulder [syn: epaulet]

User Contributed Dictionary


Alternative spellings



  1. An ornamentation, worn on the shoulders of a military uniform, as a sign of rank
  2. A similar piece of trimming on a lady’s dress
  3. A plate on the anterior wings of some hymenopteral insects
  4. The red patch on the shoulders of a red-winged blackbird

Extensive Definition

Epaulette ( is a French word meaning "little shoulder" (from épaule, meaning "shoulder"). Epaulettes are a type of ornamental shoulder piece or decoration used as insignia or rank by the military and other organizations. Colloquially, the word has also come to refer to some types of shoulder strap.
Epaulettes are fastened to the shoulder by a passant, a small strap parallel to the shoulder seam and the button near the collar, or by laces on the underside of the epaulette passing through holes in the shoulder of the coat. The placement of the epaulette, its color and the length and diameter of its bullion fringe are used to signify the wearer's rank. At the join of the fringe and the shoulderpiece is often a metal piece in the form of a crescent. Although originally worn in the field, epaulettes are more common today on dress or ceremonial uniforms. Shoulder straps are also found on civilian clothing that derives from military uniforms such as the trench coat, the safari jacket and other garments.

History of the Epaulette

Epaulettes were used in the French army to indicate rank. Epaulettes may be derived from the shoulder pteruges of ancient Roman military costumes. The rank of an officer could be determined by whether an epaulette was worn on the left shoulder, the right shoulder or on both. Later a "counter-epaulette" (with no fringe) was worn on the opposite shoulder of those who wore only a single epaulette. Epaulettes were made in silver or gold for officers, and in cloth of various colors for the enlisted men of various arms. By the early eighteenth century, epaulettes became the distinguishing feature of an officer, leading to officers of military units without epaulettes to petition their government for the right to wear epaulettes, to ensure that they would be recognized as officers. Certain cavalry specialties wore flexible metal epaulettes referred to as shoulder scales, rarely worn on the field. 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.
Today, epaulettes have mostly been replaced by a five-sided flap of cloth called a shoulder strap, which is sewn into the shoulder seam and the end buttoned like an epaulette.
An intermediate form in some services, such as the Russian Army, is the shoulderboard, which neither has a fringe nor extends beyond the shoulder seam.
From the shoulderboard was developed the shoulder mark, a flat cloth tube that is worn over the shoulder strap and carries embroidered or pinned-on rank insignia. The advantages of this are the ability to easily change the insignia as occasions warrant.


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.
Epaulettes are still worn on some Army Full Dress, Patrol Dress, and Mess Dress uniforms. Epaulettes in the form of shoulder boards are worn with the officer's white Naval Service Dress.


The French Army infantry wore silver epaulettes, while mounted units wore gold epaulettes. To be visible, the rank insignia was of contrasting metal, hence the rank insignia today is gold for the infantry and silver for the cavalry.
Nowadays, only school (as ESM Saint-Cyr) and guard (as Garde Républicaine) units wear regularly epaulets. NCOs wear only one epaulet on the left shoulder, and officers wear two epaulets.


German Army uniforms are known for a four cord braided "figure-of-eight" decoration which acts as a shoulder board. This is called a shoulder knot. Although it was once seen on US Army uniforms, it remains only in the mess uniform.

United Kingdom

Epaulettes first appeared on British uniforms in the second half of the 18th century. The epaulette was officially incorporated into Royal Navy uniform regulations in 1795, although some officers wore them before this date. Flag Officers were to wear silver stars on their epaulettes to distinguish their ranks. Captains were to have plain epaulettes, the Junior Captains and Commanders having only one apiece to be worn on the right and left shoulders respectively.
Before World War I the British Army stopped wearing epaulettes in the field, switching to rank insignia embroidered on the cuffs of the uniform jacket. This was found to make officers a target for snipers, so the insignia was moved to the shoulder straps, where it was less conspicuous.
The current combat uniform (DPM) has the epaulette insignia on a strap at the centre of the chest.
The epaulettes of military uniforms were sometimes made of chainmail in the past and those of some British cavalry regiments are still made in this fashion.

United States

Epaulettes were authorized for the United States Navy in the first official uniform regulations, 'Uniform of the Navy of the United States, 1797'. Captains wore an epaulette on each shoulder, lieutenants wore only one, on the right shoulder.
Epaulettes were specified for all United States Army officers in 1832; infantry officers wore silver epaulettes, while those of the artillery and other branches wore gold epaulettes, following the French manner. The rank insignia was of a contrasting metal, silver on gold and vice-versa.
In 1851 the epaulettes became universally gold. Both majors and second lieutenants had no specific insignia. A major would have been recognizable as he would have worn the more elaborate epaulette fringes of a senior field officer. The rank insignia was silver for senior officers and gold for the bars of captains and first lieutenants. The reason for the choice of silver eagles over gold ones is thought to be one of economy; there were more cavalry and artillery colonels than infantry so it was cheaper to replace the numerically fewer gold ones.
Shoulder straps were adopted to replace epaulettes for field duty in 1836.


See also

epaulette in German: Epaulette
epaulette in Spanish: Charretera
epaulette in French: Épaulette (militaire)
epaulette in Dutch: Epaulet
epaulette in Japanese: 肩章
epaulette in Polish: Naramiennik
epaulette in Russian: Эполет
epaulette in Swedish: Epålett
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