"In a conflict between two armies with uniforms, all other things being equal, the guys with the more elaborate uniforms will lose."
Named for Vladimir Aleksandrovich Sukhomlinov, snappy dresser and Minister of War for the Imperial Russian Army up until 1915. His name has given rise to a piece of military lore which is often echoed in fiction. The "Sukhomlinov Effect" states that in any military conflict between a uniformed and non-uniformed army, the guys with uniforms will lose (armour being an exception, presumably). Special attention here goes to the uniforms of the officers: big hats, jangling medals, and feather plumes are the kiss of death.
The narrative reasons are obvious. First, the trope has an anti-authoritarian vibe, given that fancy uniforms symbolise wealth and power, and audiences tend to root for the underdog. Second, overly elaborate wargear suggests a certain amount of decadence - you're more interested in displays of wealth than what is practical and sensible in combat, so you're probably not going to be so good in a fight.
This is noted as one of Murphy's Laws of Combat: "No combat-ready unit has ever passed inspection. No inspection-ready unit has ever passed combat."
In Real Life, the trope gets periodically averted and played straight for a reason: before the nearly-universal adoption of camouflage uniforms for field duty during World War One and relegation of elaborate uniforms to city dress and ceremonial dress, the sumptuous uniform was a propaganda piece as much as it was clothing. It was designed to impress, to show the power of the nation and leader who fielded it. Cue the unfortunate effect of leaders who saw their state and power base eroded trying to outshine any potential opponent for diplomatic and propaganda reasons. The fact the same leaders who see they are about to lose are terribly fond of "White Elephant" complex and advanced weaponry also plays itself straight periodically.
Also, the flashier your uniform, the easier you are to hit. Back in the olden days, it was the only way that soldiers could tell who was in charge and therefore, who to take their orders from. Given the fact that fighting then relied on maintaining a cohesive formation, this was pretty much a necessity. However, as military firearms became more and more accurate, marksmen would make a point of aiming at the fancy horse-riding guy with the big feathery hat every time, and so those uniforms became a liability. It took the better half of a century until military men decided to wear something a little more discreet.
Compare Non-Uniform Uniform, Custom Uniform (these two for the good guys), Gas Mask Mooks (for the bad guys), Bling of War, Highly Conspicuous Uniform, Impractically Fancy Outfit, Scary Impractical Armour. Can overlap with Slobs vs. Snobs.
- Star Wars:
- Taking this to its logical extreme with the Ewoks.
- There's also the central Jedi vs. Sith conflict. The Jedi traditionally wear simple robes, while many of the Sith opt for something more complex (and intimidating). Of course, the Jedi don't always win...
- Full-on plastoid armor-suited stormtroopers versus rebel scum.
- Exaggerated inversion in the prequels: the uniformed Republic clones win against the non-uniformed droid armies. And against the Jedi.
- Played straight in the prequels otherwise—the Empire effectively replaces the Republic, and their politicians and military commanders (from the Emperor downwards) dress far more humbly than the Republic's elected queens and senators.
- Indiana Jones vs. the Nazis
- Die Hard: Bruce Willis in a muscle shirt vs. guys in suits.
- In The Bartimaeus Trilogy, during The Golem's Eye, Bartimaeus remarks that the less effective the army, the more over-the-top their uniforms.
"You could hear their metal bits jingling like bells on cat's collars from far off down the street."
- Sort of, in Discworld.
- Vimes prefers that a watchman's armor should be a bit beat-up and dingy, to show that it's been doing its job, and by and large, the better coppers do tend to look a bit scruffier, while the ones with the impressively-kept armor tend to be too concerned with keeping it that way to be good at their jobs (Vimes has similar concerns about actual dress uniforms).
- The exception: Carrot, who is obsessed with being a good copper to the point of not only following all the rules to the letter, but finding a way to make following all the rules to the letter work; his armor is very impressively kept because it's in the rules.
- Detritus is also mentioned as having exceptionally shiny armor, because he doesn't get bored of polishing. Later it is revealed Troll Kings are made of diamond, and "shiny" is profoundly high praise among trolls, this may also be cultural.
- Babylon 5:
- The Trope is employed and then inverted with the Centauri and Narn. At first, the Centauri bling paints them as a decadent, foppish race who are easily bullied by the plain, aggressive Narn. Then the Centauri get a little help and the Narn get pretty well stomped on.
- The humans were almost beaten by the Minbari, but they refrained from destroying the humans. This plays the trope straighter than it might appear at first: the humans decorate like humans tend to, while the Minbari tend to be less flashy and more elegant and minimalist.
- Dinosaurs, where the emblem of the two-legged army is a target.
- Played with in Red Dwarf, with Rimmer's theory that the army with the shortest haircut always wins.
- Inverted in Firefly where sharply dressed Empire soldiers beat the Browncoats who stick to much less impressive uniforms.
- Inverted with Starfleet throughout the Star Trek series and films.
- Zigzagged in Warhammer 40,000:
The uniforms of the Imperial Guard are camouflaged in order to protect their wearers by hiding them from sight.
- While Bling of War is a nearly omnipresent trope (behold the Praetorians and Pyran Dragoons, it's rarely the reason for a loss due to the Status Quo Is God nature of the setting.
- And then there's the Space Marines, who wear bright colors specifically so the enemy will see them coming.
The principle is that what the enemy cannot see he cannot kill. This is not the way of the Adeptus Astartes. A Space Marine’s armour is bright with heraldry that proclaims his devotion to his Chapter and the beloved Emperor of Mankind. Our principle is that what the enemy can see, he will soon learn to fear…Chaplain Aston of the Fire Hawks 10th Company
- Space 1889 generally inverted, the Europeans have colorful uniforms and will easily defeat rat-tag enemies.
- Star Wars: The Clone Wars plays this trope straight: An army of identical droids vs an army of identical on the surface, unique at heart clones.
- In reality, this is averted just as often as it's played straight. Particular examples include most colonial wars, a LOT of wars from antiquity, many wars that pit an advanced power against a less advanced one (like the Second Italian invasion of Ethiopia), and (ironically, given who Sukhomlinov was) the southern half of the Russian Front of WWI for the first year or so, where the Austro-Hungarians had far less fancy uniforms than the Russians, but had them in Summer colors for a winter war. Played straight by some of the rest of the WWI Russian Front (where the Germans beat the Russians handily, though as the war went on, the Russians had fewer and fewer uniforms period), the Winter War, most independence wars (hence why they are "Independence Wars" rather than "Nationalist Revolts that were stomped flat within a month"), and the Yugoslav Revolution in WWII.
- Before the Battle of Monmouth in the American Revolution, General Washington ordered his troops not to wear their coats while marching to their attack on the British forces. Since the day's high temperature was well over 100°F, this meant his troops were in much better shape to fight. That said, the battle ended in a draw, with both armies reaching some of their goals.
- At the end of the The American Civil War, General Robert E. Lee from the Confederacy came to the ceremony in his full dress uniform, while General Ulysses S. Grant from the Union showed up in his well-worn field uniform. An observer remarked that, by appearances, one would've expected Grant to be surrendering to Lee.
- The only reason they even let Grant into the surrender ceremony was because the troops recognized him on sight. If the guards were different, they might not have even allowed Grant to attend.
- During the war, the North, having the most textile factories, had the more consistent uniforms (making for a better-dressed army), while the South frequently had to make do with a "butternut" color instead of grey.
- On the other hand, the Confederacy aimed higher, having a much more elaborate system of officers' badges of rank, with gold lace in amounts increasing according to rank arranged in decorative patterns on their képis and sleeves. The latter, taking the shape of "Hungarian knots", could cover as much as the entire lower arm.
- Put almost 50,000 Ottoman soldiers dressed in colorful perfumed silks with musical accompaniment against 2,500 professional soldiers and 3,000 conscripts drawn from several southern European nations with almost undecorated armor, and you get the Great Siege of Malta.
- In WWII, the Germans had snappy uniforms designed by Hugo Boss. Guess who lost.
- On the other hand, during the hardest moment of WWII for the Soviets, Stalin decided to bling his army up. During 1942–1943, the Red Army switched from pretty drab and unassuming khakis◊ to what was essentially Tsarist era uniforms with Soviet badges instead. One of the most expensive imports bought by the USSR from the Allies during WWII was gold thread. And, you guessed it, USSR both won the war and outblinged Nazi Germany.
- As a side note, only the SA◊ and SS peacetime uniforms◊ were designed and made by Hugo Boss since 1928, as there was no access to political power before 1933 and therefore the SA/SS were private organizations which had to pay a private company for them. The field uniform on Feldgrau fabric was the standard design of the Wehrmacht, with different insignia for each arm of service and made by dozens of factories – of which Hugo Boss had been the first, as an old-time political and financial supporter of the Nazi party, but not the only one.
- Subverted by the Empire of Japan, whose Army and Navy had rather plain looking uniforms yet still lost the war.
- In the Polish-Soviet War, the Poles came to the peace conference in splendid Bling of War, as an invocation of Good Old Ways. The Russians came in unkempt and spartan clothing, which was, however, just as much an ideological affectation as the Polish clothes. This is an inversion as the Poles won that war.
- Mostly played straight with Romanians throughout their history, corroborated with other factors. They kept the Turks and Hungarians at bay for tens of years with this simple recipe: they'd come to conquer, smug, with few people and big ego, and Romanians peasants still in The Dung Ages would rally up from every part of the country or the region with Torches and Pitchforks, wait for them in a swamp or at the top of a valley, and massacre them. There are tales of lakes of blood, probably mostly of Romanians', but Romanians would still win by sheer number and willpower. There's the famous poem "The Third Letter", where the Sultan boasts about his superiority and conquering spree in front of "an old man, a stub [of a human being]", the king of the opposition, only to get defeated and probably even killed in the upcoming battle.
- The Real Life version of the Sultan, Bayezid I, played the trope in a worse way - he survived the battle, but 7 years later, he lost the fateful Battle of Ankara against the "barbarian" and obviously less well dressed Turco-Mongol army of Timur Lenk, got captured and held in a (literal) cage with gilded bars.
- Later again played straight with the 1900s king overthrown by a guy just released from jail to help the current power which was quickly royally screwed. Then this rag-tag leader joins with the Nazis and as the fashion statement changes, so does his power fall.
- The Vietnam War. Guerillas in plainclothes vs. the US Army, or North Vietnam vs. the US Army—to this day, the Vietnamese military has comparatively austere dresses.
- Ironically, the Vietnam-era United States Army is legendary for having relatively plain uniforms; the prevailing image of American troops from that era are GIs dressed in unadorned green field attire with matching helmets, usually well worn from active duty, while officers usually wore uniforms that were little changed from World War II. Such attire is more elaborate than anything the North Vietnamese had obviously, but not by much.
- To some degree, subverted by the Geneva Convention. A captured uniformed soldier is generally afforded Prisoner of War status, while mercenaries and non-uniformed combatants may be tried and, if determined not to be lawful combatants, may be executed at the discretion of the custodial nation. Read more at the other wiki.
- Zig-zagged with the Libyan civil war. The non-uniformed rebels won, but they were aided by NATO pilots, presumably with uniforms. Probably played straight, however, in that the NATO pilots' uniforms were less elaborate than those of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. For instance, here◊ is NATO pilot Prince William of the UK in his dress uniform. Here◊ is Libyan Armed Forces Colonel Muammar Khadaphi in his dress uniform.
- The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan is a fine example. The Soviets, infamous for their love of Bling of War and Chest of Medals, lost against Mujahideen rebels who wore little more than rags and camo. It helps that said rebels were being supplied by certain western countries.
- Russian ex–Minister of Defence Serdyukov, currently removed from office and under investigation for corruption, was known for two things: pilfering away military budgets and incorporating new uniforms to replace the infamous "Uniform #8" look in the Russian army.
- Actually demonstrated in the Wars of Italian Unification, fought by the Kingdom of Sardinia and its successor Italy against the Austrian Empire and its successor the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the first three wars, Sardinian / Italian troops wore magnificent dark blue uniforms (hailed as the most gorgeous in Europe)◊ and fought the less beautiful white uniforms of the Austrian Army◊, and were utterly defeated in the first, scraped together a minor victory thanks to French assistance in the second and were handed two embarrassing defeats at Custoza (site of the decisive battle of the 1848 campaign of the first war. Another Austrian victory) and Lissa and barely succeeded at keeping half of the Austrian Army away from the decisive German front (where Prussia, allied with Italy, won the war), while Garibaldi, whose volunteers troops wore plain red shirts (really◊ plain◊), were practically undefeatable. Between the third and the fourth, the Italian front of World War One, the Austro-Hungarian Army had switched to less beautiful blue-grey uniforms◊, while Italy had adopted infamously plain grey-green uniforms, and the Italian front of World War One ended with the complete annihilation of the Austro-Hungarian Army as a coherent fighting force and Austro-Hungarian surrender and collapse.
- This trope does have some justification. If you lose, you do want to improve the morale of your army, and issuing new uniforms, awarding medals etc is a good way to do that and also not coincidentally cover up your own fuckups.
- Not to mention, when you are losing, your men have a lot more opportunities to do deeds which would earn medals, ribbons, awards etc.
- The US Armed forces as an example. Note the ratio of medals in wars the US won (say, Gulf War 1, no Medals of Honor awarded at all), to the unmitigated disasters like Vietnam and the War on Terror, where... well, let's just say the metal and cloth were handed out like M&Ms.
- In both cases, the US Armed Forces were arguably victims of their own initial successes and expanded their goals, or had their goals expanded, beyond what was originally planned for. There's even a term for it, mission creep.
- Only in the US is this claim even possible. Outside, no one thinks the US won, as they failed to achieve stated objectives. But, that's another trope.
- In his memoirs, Colin Powell recalls being incredulous at seeing a departing Lt. Colonel at a change-of-command ceremony in Vietnam being given the Silver Star, Bronze Star, Legion of Merit, and other awards for a fairly straightforward tour of duty. Powell identified this as an example of what was wrong with the Army of that era.