These uniforms are called battle dress uniforms because they are intended for use during "battles", as opposed to "garrison" dress uniforms worn at parades and functions. The general design and configuration of the U.S. BDU uniform was similar to that of Vietnam-era jungle fatigues, which were in turn similar in configuration to specialty uniforms worn by U.S. paratroopers during World War II.

The Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) first appeared in September 1981 in the woodland camouflage pattern. It was based primarily on the woodland colors of northern Europe. It used shades of green, brown, tan, and black, initially printed onto cotton-nylon blend twill cloth, known as the "Temperate Weight" uniform. A lightweight "Tropical Weight" BDU uniform was introduced in 1987 with the pattern printed on 100% cotton rip-stop poplin cloth.

The tropical weight uniform was not as durable as the temperate weight uniform. The tropical uniform would only last for 4–6 months of use when rotating four uniforms for duty, while the temperate uniform would last over a year under the same conditions.

It was the first camouflaged uniform approved by the Army since the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, where the ERDL pattern was in limited use. The BDU soon replaced all earlier camouflage pattern uniforms for all wooded, jungle, and tropical environments, and, by 1989, had completely replaced the standard olive drab uniforms that had been used since 1952.