Patches have a rich history of adorning clothing. Either used functionally to repair holes or for distinguishing an individual in uniform, the patch could be on anyone from military members to counter-culturists. It is a trend that allows a full sense of self-expression and individuality and has made an impact on the fashion world enough to make it to runways. The patch continues to be styled in endlessly interesting ways, but where did it come from?
The Beginnings of Patches and Military Use: 1800s
The first instances of embroidered patches dates to 3rd century China, where intricate designs were used to patch holes in clothing. It was not until centuries later, during the industrial revolution, when embroidered patches became a machine produced, widely available object.
It was at this time in the 1800s when military patches first started being used by British officers to communicate their higher ranks. Soon, this concept was spread to the American military and was used sparingly during the American Civil War with the Union and Confederacy wearing distinguishing patches.
Military Patches: 1910s-1960s
Still, there was no standardization of patches until World War I, where an official authorization of limited use patches was issued. During this time, the US Army’s 81st infantry division created the first shoulder sleeve insignia (SSI), which would become a common trend in other divisions. This was an olive green, circular felt patch with an illustration of a “wildcat” on it.
During World War II military patches became more elaborate and widely used. Most interestingly, it was during this time when the United State military began commissioning the Walt Disney Company to make patches with some of their biggest characters on them. It was common to see Mickey, Minnie, or Goofy on patches, but the most common character was Donald Duck, who became an icon of the war, starring in many of the company’s wartime propaganda films. Following this war, into Vietnam and beyond patches went through all types of changes in style and theme but remained a consistent part of military uniforms.
Hippie Patches: 1960s-1970s
It was at the Vietnam war era where countercultures got their hands on embroidered patches. Starting in the mid-1960s we found the rise of the hippie movement fueled by their aversion to the war. They ditched traditional western culture and armed themselves with peace signs and flowers. Followers of the movement wore a lot of secondhand clothing and so patching clothing became somewhat of a necessity to them. Of course, they did so with their own hippie style and decorated their jackets and pants with either drawn or embroidered patches of iconography related to their ideals.
Punk Patches: 1970s-1980s
Following the hippie movement in the 70s and into the 80s we saw punks do their own take on patches. In a complete 180 of ideology, no longer were counter-culturists spreading peace and love but rather anger and anarchy. However, even with this ideological shift, the use of patches remained very similar. Patches were still a chance to adorn oneself with messages and beliefs as well as patch their secondhand clothing. Again, being made from either embroidery or by being hand drawn, patches were everywhere on jackets and pants of punks spreading political messaging, band preferences, and angry mantras.
It is hard to ignore the impact countercultural movements like the hippies and punks have had on fashion today. Designers like Vivienne Westwood have based their whole brand around the punk aesthetic. Today patches are still making their way onto runways and had a big resurgence as recently as 2016. Gucci included patches on several of their 2016 runways, where we saw the ornaments on jackets, jumpsuits, flared pants, and dresses. Marc Jacobs and Dolce & Gabbana similarly had patch jackets on their runway shows that year. It’s safe to say that patches have cemented themselves in the fashion world with a rich history to back it up.