Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Epaulette [pronunciation: ĕp'-ǝ-lĕt], a French word meaning "little shoulders" (epaule, referring to "shoulder"), is an ornamental shoulder piece or decoration used as insignia or rank by military or other organizations. The placement of the epaulette, its color and the length and diameter of its buillion fringe were used to siginify the wearer's rank. Although sometimes worn in the field, epaulettes are more common on dress or ceremonial uniforms. Epaulettes are also found on the trench coat, the safari jacket, and other garments.
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.
Officers of the United States Army at the time of the Civil War wore gold for artillery and silver for infantry. In Europe, some light infantry wore cloth counter-epaulettes. "Flying artillery" wore "wings," like 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Epaulettes have mostly been replaced by insignia pins and sleeve patches to denote rank. British uniform shirt cuffs were once decorated with buttons and colored patches to indicate the rank of officers.
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