Gender-Blind Fleet, Huh?

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The Navy Uniform Board is messing around with uniforms again…this time to make the uniforms “gender blind.” In other words, the women will now be wearing men’s uniforms and covers. Won’t that be swell? This is in response to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus’ commitment to service where opportunities are gender blind, according to the independent Navy Times newspaper. Doesn’t the uniform board understand that does not mean that women have to look like men?

I recall in the late 1970s when women were first assigned to ships, there were no shipboard uniforms for women officers…the “wash khakis” were not yet made for women, but we had to wear something other than our dress uniforms (with skirts) on the ships.

So, many of us altered the men’s uniforms to fit. They were not very flattering, but they were necessary to do the dirty shipboard jobs. The covers, i.e. hats for you civilian folks, were not an issue, as most people wore ship’s ball caps when on the ship. Since the uniforms were not authorized to be worn on liberty, this was not a problem.

Pants were not yet authorized for our dress blue uniform, either. But we did wear pants when we had to enter port wearing our blues. Women were not going to stand watch wearing skirts and pumps. It was for expediency, safety, and comfort, more than an attempt to look like our male peers.

Now the uniform board is calling for a ‘gender neutral’ cover for both enlisted and officers to wear with their dress uniforms. So, instead of the combination cover and blue suit now worn, enlisted women E-1 to E-6 will wear the Dixie hat and blue crackerjack uniforms. Enlisted women E-7 and above and women officers will wear the men’s combination cover. I think it will look stupid.

In the 1940s when women were allowed to enter the Navy as WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service), having fashionable uniforms was an important recruiting tool. The establishment wanted women’s uniforms to be chic and elegant so that women who wore them would be considered feminine, not butch like so many women were stereotyped.

It was hoped the fashionable attire would entice women to join. The Navy’s uniforms were the most appealing, having been designed by the noted American fashion designer Mainbocher. The dress blue and dress white uniforms and combination covers women officers and chiefs wear today are still very similar in design, and are very flattering.

Uniform changes over the years have been made to ensure comfort and safety for women aboard ships and in doing jobs that require getting down and dirty. The fabric and style have been changed to meet the changing job opportunities for women. Just a few years ago, the Navy changed from the dungaree uniform for both enlisted men and women to the blue camouflage uniforms. They are decidedly gender neutral.

But making women wear the same headgear as men in their dress uniforms is not gender blind at all, but male. And it certainly is a shame to ruin the flattering look of the designer uniforms for the ill-conceived notion that it will somehow give women more opportunities. I am all for increased opportunities for women…but in the end, we still will look like women no matter how ‘gender blind’ the uniforms become. And we like it that way.