Where to buy Air Force Uniforms for COT

You have a lot of options when it comes to buying uniforms for Air Force Commissioned Officer Training (COT). One option, of course, is to just show up to COT with an empty suitcase and a credit card with about $2k of available credit. The instructors at COT will make sure you get the right stuff, in the right amount, BUT you will pay full retail price. If you have a bit more time than money, you can save a lot of cash by shopping around. Today, we will talk about a few of your options.

General Shopping Tips

Sometimes you can get used uniforms which already have Air Force tapes on the ABU blouse. This is a nice perk because it saves you the cost of the Air Force tape and getting it sewn on.

If you are looking at used uniforms on eBay or at the thrift shop, be cautious of uniforms with enlisted sleeve stripes sewn on them (blues shirts, service coats, and ABU blouses). You will need to remove the stripes before you wear the uniform. As an officer, your rank is on your collar or your shoulders, so you won’t have anything on your sleeves. When you remove the stripes, you often find stains or holes or, at the very least, uneven fading under the stripes which renders the uniforms no longer serviceable to you. Sometimes you can find uniforms that had stripes sewn on but were never actually washed or worn, and sometimes even still have the tags on. This avoids the fading issue, but there is still a chance of damaging the shirt when you remove the stripes (causing holes). If you get a good price, these can be worth it.

If you are shopping online, take a look at the Air Force uniform size charts online. Uniform sizing is weird, at least for women. My Air Force uniforms are 2-3 sizes larger than my civilian dress clothes and they still fit a bit snugly. You may be shocked when you see what size uniforms you need. Don’t stress about it – no one will know the size but you.

If you buy ABUs (camouflage uniforms) at AAFES or from Kel-Lac (see below for more info on both of these), consider paying for permanent blousing. In the Air Force, your ABU pants must be “bloused,” meaning that you essentially tuck the bottom of your pants into a rubber band which goes around your leg at the top of your boot, to keep your pants neat. You can achieve this in many ways, including hair bands, blousing bands of various kinds, or permanent blousing. Permanent blousing means that they shorten your pants to the height of your boot, and then sew elastic into the new hem so you don’t need to keep track of little rubber bands. I’m a fan. It costs about $10 at most base tailor shops.

Places to shop

AAFES (on your local base)

AAFES is your local uniform sales or BX on-base (the Army and Air Force have AAFES, the Navy has the NEX). If your local base is Army and you need Air Force uniforms, don’t expect a lot. 

Pros: You can try things on, touch and feel the cloth to feel the difference between options (like the polyester vs the wool slacks), and the folks who work there can usually help you get the right stuff if you are unsure. Just ask! Sometimes your recruiter will even take you and help you get what you need.

Cons: Can be expensive, requires base access (ID card, recruiter, friend/spouse with an ID card or, on a good day, your signed contract)

AAFES.com (AAFES online)

Not all uniform items are available online, but a lot of stuff is available, and shipping is usually free if you spend more than $50. In order to use AAFES.com you will need to register with your social security number. This won’t work if you’re not in the system yet, so you may want to either check periodically, or email AFIT and check your status if it won’t let you create an account.

Pros: no need to drive, free shipping, no sales tax

Cons: not all items available all the time, may not be able to register for an account right away, no helpful staff.

Local Base Thrift shop

Most bases have a thrift shop on base somewhere. The thrift shop will almost certainly have WEIRD hours (mine is M-F 10am-2pm). It will also likely be located someplace weird, so get directions from the folks at the gate.

Pros: CHEAP, lots of uniform items (I paid about $4 per piece for my PT uniforms, blues, and ABUs, and several items were new with tags), no fakes (regular thrift shops sometimes have outdated items or knockoffs mixed in with the current uniform items).

Cons: Staff aren’t uniform experts and usually can’t help you figure out what you need (or stop you from, saying, buying women’s ABUs if you’re a dude). You typically need military ID or a copy of your military contract to purchase uniform items, and you need to be able to get on base (military ID or driver’s license plus contract should suffice).

Airman’s Attic

This is a free shop on base, available only to “junior” personnel. At my base, that means E-1 through E-5 (Airman Basic through Staff Sergeant) and O-1 through O-3 (2d Lieutenant through Captain), but I have been to a few local bases that don’t allow officers to use the Airman’s Attic at all. Check the eligibility policy for your local shop before going. You will be asked to sign in, so they can track how many people are using the shop. If you are eligible, you can just walk in and take whatever you want. Please be courteous and take only what you need.

Pros: FREE!!

Cons: As with the base thrift shops, the hours are usually weird (and of course not the same weird hours as the thrift shop), and the staff usually can’t answer any uniform questions.

eBay

eBay can be an amazing source for uniforms, but it’s luck of the draw whether you will find what you need, in the size you need, when you need it. It’s a good bet for rank insignia and other items that don’t really come in sizes. The best people to buy from on eBay are people who are leaving the military. Folks are issued uniforms when they get ready to deploy, some of which never get used. I bought sets of ABUs, brand new with tags, for $30 on eBay.

 

Pros: Convenient, often cheap

 

Cons: Low inventory, people may sell counterfeit items, may have to pay shipping, and some people just go buy the stuff at AAFES and sell it at a markup on eBay, so watch out!

1800nametape.com

This place is definitely my go-to for name tapes and name plates (the plastic engraved name tag for blues). They also sell rank insignia, and some other stuff. I would definitely plan to order your name tapes from here, but if you can, get your rank insignia from AAFES.

Pros: cheap, fast, convenient

Cons: insignia bought here are more expensive than at AAFES

Kel-Lac

If you know your sizes and don’t want to drive to the not-so-local base once to buy your uniform items, then again to pick them up from the tailor shop, Kel-Lac can be a great option. For about $60, you can get an ABU blouse with all of your tapes and such sewn on. If you know your sizes, this is a convenient and foolproof option, but you do pay a slight premium (about $10) compared to buying at AAFES and going to the tailor shop.

Pros: convenient

Cons: expensive, takes time for production and shipping, have to know your sizes (no returns on customized items)

Surplus stores

Just don’t do it. Surplus stores often sell defective, badly worn, or knockoff gear for the price you would pay at AAFES. If you don’t have access to a base, AAFES.com isn’t working, and you can’t figure out your sizes to order from Kel-Lac, just wait until you get to COT. Stuff that you get from a surplus store is almost certainly not going to be serviceable for your purposes, and they will charge you an arm and a leg for it.

 

Where did you do your shopping for COT? Were you happy with it?

 

This post is part of a series of posts on COT and how to prepare for it. If you have questions or concerns, please feel free to reach out. More information is coming soon!

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2 comments

  • Ali

    Hi! I ran into this blog from leadwiththeleft.com. Thanks for these tips. I have submitted my package to the Air Force to be a commissioned officer. I still need to go through MEPS but I’m trying to mentally prepare before the day comes. I look forward to more posts regarding COT!

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