Giving Female Aspirants Back Their Pockets | Procedure

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Annapolis, Maryland is a naval city through and through. Home of the United States Naval Academy, the iconography of Annapolis would be incomplete without the images of midshipmen marching down Main Street in their summer white or service dress blue uniforms. Male midshipmen are often stopped on the street for photos with tourists looking for that classic navy look. Female wannabes, not so much.

The Naval Academy differs from other naval commands in the frequency with which its members wear uniforms, particularly service dress uniforms. For example, the plebs must always wear a uniform issued for the whole year. The plebs and the youth (sophomores) are required to wear their uniforms when in town. There are even parts of the Yard (campus) where you can only walk around in uniform.

The frequent wearing of the uniform at the Academy is a greater burden for women than for men. Midshipmen are abused on the Yard and in town because their uniforms are not designed for a feminine figure. The number of times I’ve been called “sir” around town or one of the “gents” while walking with a group of male wannabes is beyond my fingers on both hands.

Most egregiously, male aspirants mock female aspirants, especially those in positions of power, based on how they look in uniform. Either they look too much like a man or they look pregnant. Women can’t win. With the amount of time aspirants spend in uniform, why do female aspirants always expect more flattering uniforms? Women in the Naval Academy, especially those in visible leadership positions, desperately need functional, feminine uniforms.

The story

The first female midshipmen entered the Naval Academy in 1976 as members of the Class of 1980. In the photographs, these midshipmen are clearly wearing ill-fitting male uniforms that are not designed for their bodies. Forty years later, female wannabes aren’t much different. Work blues, the day-to-day work uniform for midshipmen, consists of a white-style summer outfit in a dark navy blue hue. This uniform is notoriously unflattering to female aspirants. Women’s “men’s style” pants feature two small front pockets, a pleated back with no pockets, and a huge fly that extends above the wearer’s natural waistline and creates an unflattering bulge when standing or sitting. The phased out “feminine” pants featured a side zipper that was much more complementary to the feminine silhouette, but only had two tiny front pockets barely big enough for an ID card. Why does the Naval Academy feel the need to sacrifice functionality for femininity in uniform? Summer white, service blue, and khaki uniforms have similar issues for women. If the Navy wants to make “masculine” style clothing for women, they should at least keep those uniforms functional.

In 2015, then-Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus led reforms to make uniforms more neutral. These included the new women’s enlisted crackerjack uniforms and white officer service outfits, and the retirement of the beloved women’s bucket blanket. These are changes that many women in the Navy did not want. According to a 2017 Task and objective article, Mabus rejected women sailors’ ideas about uniform changes, especially those implementing better-fitting alternatives to pre-existing uniforms. While female enlisted sailors received a stipend to cover these uniform changes, female officers were forced to pay out of pocket. Mabus used Naval Academy Midshipmen to test many of his uniform ideas beginning in 2013. Since then, Midshipmen have been issued most of these gender-neutral uniforms.

However, in the fleet, Mabus faced stiff opposition from women sailors, officers, and Congress when implementing these changes. In 2017, Congress has pushed back deadlines for the purchase of these uniforms by Navy servicemen, allowing women to retain aspects of their beloved uniform items. However, many have wondered how some of these changes were implemented quickly while others, such as the call for better pants, were ignored. Overall, Secretary Mabus’ goal of a gender-neutral Navy uniform was not realized, but the effort left women with even more hated uniform items.

WAVE recruits stand in formation during a close order drill at the Naval Training Center in Bainbridge, Maryland, July 1955. Naval Institute Photographic Archives

When the first women were commissioned into the Naval Reserve under the Women Accepted for Volunteer Armed Services (WAVES) program, greater care was taken in the design of women’s uniforms. Under the guidance of WAVES’ first principal, then Lieutenant Commander Mildred McAfee Horton, president of the all-female Wellesley college on sabbatical to serve, the uniform was designed by famed American couture designer Mainbocher, led by famed fashion designer Main Boscher. These chic, trendy and high-end uniforms have turned heads on the women’s fashion scene, a far cry from today’s women’s uniforms. The title of an article New York Herald column of August 1942 reads as follows: “The uniforms of the waves: feminine, professional.” Not what most female members of the Navy today want in a uniform. We want a functional and professional uniform, not just feminine. The Navy needs to find a middle ground between gender-neutral semi-functional uniforms and fashionable uniforms.

The trust factor

I’ll be the first to admit that having an unflattering uniform was one of the last things on my mind during pleb year. I had much more pressing issues between school, sports, military obligations, and pleasing my upperclassmen. Despite being in peak physical condition after the plebeian summer, the uniforms made me look frumpy and unkempt. I thought it was just part of the process; that I didn’t need to look like the best version of myself to be a good wannabe. I realize now that this is not the mentality the Navy should want for young women training to be leaders. Having a flattering uniform is a matter of trust. I want to be the most presentable version of myself while training the plebs or leading a division of the fleet.

This isn’t the first time that female uniform discrepancies have been featured in Procedure. During my research, I found many articles written on this subject, the most recent in 2018. However, no action has been taken. The real problem is how professionalism is characterized in maritime services. “Gender neutral” as a principle of professional uniform is idealized as masculine. We’ve all heard that looks are important, whether trying to impress a superior or working with subordinates, but that only applies to male attributes. Imagine if men were forced to wear tailored skirts, tights and heels to achieve a certain level of professionalism demanded by their job. This is what the current uniform regulations require of women. The move towards gender-neutral uniforms discriminates against women. Forcing women to dress up as men is not a gender neutral option. The Navy should recognize the differences between the male and female figure and reflect this in its uniforms, especially ceremonial uniforms.

The Naval Academy has taken steps to create a more inclusive environment for women in recent years. My Summer of Plebs was the first time the Academy allowed more diverse hair styles to accommodate women of color. The Academy has also created a uniform board to address some of the aforementioned issues. However, this table is not intended for uniform design, but rather for use by the Plebeian Summer to determine which uniform items are no longer needed and what uniform discrepancies exist in the Midshipmen’s Settlement . In the two years since the council was established, I have seen no change. The Academy owes its midshipmen a functionally feminine uniform.

Much of this uniform mess could have been avoided if senior leaders had accepted the demands of female sailors and officers instead of switching to gender-neutral uniforms. By offering a variety of pants designed for different body shapes, women could find a pair that suits them best. This has been a solution in civilian clothing stores that offer “curvy” jeans to recognize the difference between female bodies while allowing the wearer to feel confident in their appearance.

The real solution to this problem is choice, the choice to choose what makes women – and men – more confident. Just as there are many different options for civilian women to dress professionally, there are myriad styles the Navy could adopt. This is true regardless of gender. Women in the civilian business sector can dress functionally, femininely and professionally without undermining their authority or professional respect. With increasingly diverse armed forces, it is high time that senior leaders recognize that being in uniform is not synonymous with being in uniform.

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