Uniform Matters: If it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It

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I’ve noticed quite a few comments both in Navy Times and on Facebook’s Female Navy Officers page about uniform changes. As usual, many are complaining about them.

I do recall when I was in the Navy, uniform changes came about every few years, with no rhyme or reason, and then a few years later, they were changed again. I wonder if it is a ploy to keep the uniform manufacturers in business, because there certainly does not seem to be any operational reasons for the changes. The Navy even has an FAQ page to help sailors deal with uniform issues.

Well, there are changes afoot for the women’s uniforms in the interest of “gender neutrality”. Of course, what this means is that the women will now have to wear headgear and other uniform items that were designed with men in mind, gender-neutral being a synonym for “male.” At the same time, a review is ongoing that is evaluating women’s uniforms for “comfort and fit.”

According to Navy Times, a survey was begun in March 2011 by the Navy’s uniform development lab to review reactions from 375 female officers and enlisted about their uniforms. They are also measuring and evaluating both men and women as part of a body type study to see whether body composition changes are needed for body armor and flight equipment.

Really? Not only are there normal variations between genders, but there are also variations within genders… not knowing how the body armor is currently designed, this appears to be a no-brainer.

I recall when I first went to sea in 1980, there were no wash khaki uniforms (the cotton blend uniforms officers and chiefs wear on ships) made for women. We had to buy men’s trousers and shirts and alter them to fit. The result was that we looked sloppy and unprofessional. Luckily, the women’s khakis came out in 1981, and while they fit better, boy did we miss the roomy pockets of the men’s trousers. Sigh. Guess we can’t have everything.

But well-fitting body armor? That seems to be a pretty serious operational necessity. Hard to believe that after 10 years of war, the Navy is just getting around to doing this.

Navy Times also reported that at the Naval Academy, female midshipmen and members of the band will don male combination covers and “Dixie cups” through the next academic year. Women assigned to the Navy Ceremonial Guard will also wear Dixie cups and service dress blue jumpers* during ceremonies. And female band members at the Fleet Forces and Pacific Fleet bands will wear Dixie cups during performances.

I have no qualms about female sailors wearing the cracker-jack uniform, but let’s not forget that women have bumps and curves in places where males do not. Tailor the jumper tops to accommodate the female body. It’s not being exhibitionist…it’s being realistic. When someone feels good and looks good, they will act accordingly.

There will also be design changes to women’s service dress coats, slacks and shirts. While some changes are intended to make the uniform more comfortable and better fitting, the service dress coats are being altered to be more similar to male dress coat design. A very bad idea, I think.

The female officer dress uniform was designed about 1943ish by an American designer known simply as Mainbocher. The female officer uniforms of today (both the dress blues and the dress whites) closely resemble his design, which was well fitting and classic. My only complaint about the dress uniform were the very ugly and floppy bow-like ties, which required collar-stays to keep them in place (ugh!).

They were worn until the early 1990s, when a tab-like design replaced them, which looked much more professional. Dress uniforms should not only feel good, but should look good. Male officer uniforms make them look handsome and dashing…female uniforms should be flattering as well. Women should look like women and feel good when wearing them, and that in turn helps them feel and act more professional.

All of these changes are apparently part of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’ effort to make a more gender-neutral service. What I would like to see as a policy point is for women and men to be treated in an equally gender-neutral manner, with the same opportunities based on merit or capability rather than gender. That would be more important than making sure we all try to look alike in the name of neutrality.