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Formal unis for top 2 leaders bring controversy

Aug. 28, 2012 - 05:01PM   |   Last Updated: Aug. 28, 2012 - 05:01PM  |  
Former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James A. Roy in their special uniforms for the change-of-command ceremony Aug. 10.
Former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James A. Roy in their special uniforms for the change-of-command ceremony Aug. 10. (Petty Officer 1st Class Chad J. McNeeley / Navy)
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If you think the ceremonial uniform for the chief of staff and chief master sergeant of the Air Force is an eyesore, you're fresh out of luck.

The uniform, which is worn only by Gen. Mark Welsh III and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Roy, has been adopted as the official attire for both men at certain ceremonies.

That means you'll be seeing it again when Welsh or Roy attend Medal of Honor ceremonies, transition ceremonies and other formal events held during the daytime, officials said.

While the Air Force may be fine with the ceremonial garb, Air Force Times readers have mostly given the flashy threads a thumbs-down.

Since the Aug. 10 transition ceremony at which many folks got their first glimpse of the ceremonial uniform, comments have surfaced in many Air Force circles questioning what those uniforms were all about, including these on the Air Force Times website:

"Hey! Where's his reflective PT belt?"

"Looks like a Russian."

"He needs a spikey [sic] helmet."

The ceremony did not mark the first time the uniforms were on display. Former Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz wore the uniform to ceremonial functions, such as a Medal of Honor ceremony in September 2010.

Schwartz thought that he and Roy needed a uniform for formal events during the day that they were not presiding over, an Air Force Uniform board official said. The Air Force's formal uniform for such occasions is typically worn only in the evening.

Each uniform costs $700, which the chief of staff and chief master sergeant of the Air Force pay for out of their own pockets, said Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. John Sheets.

The uniforms were specifically tailored for Welsh and Roy, just like any business suit, Sheets said.

The special uniform looks to be unique for the Air Force, as the other services don't appear to have those restrictions on uniforms for formal occasions.

The Army service uniform, also known as "dress blues," is the uniform for formal events unless otherwise specified, said Army spokes-man Lt. Col. Tom Alexander Jr.

With the Navy, the uniform depends on the event, time of year and command, all of which is spelled out in Navy regulations.

The Marine Corps' uniform for formal events varies based on the audience, said Corps spokesman 1st Lt. Eric Flanagan.

If the audience is wearing business suits, the uniform is the green service alphas, Flanagan said.

For events where the audience wears tuxedos, Marines would wear the mess dress uniform, he said.

And for events that require something more formal than alphas but less formal than mess dress, Marines would wear their dress blues, Flanagan said.

Fuzzy history

Experts could not say definitively whether the chief of staff or chief master sergeant of the Air Force have ever had a special uniform before.

The most distinctive aspect of the chief of staff's uniform has been the embroidered clouds and thunderbolts circling his dress cap, but the chairman and vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff can also wear that embroidery if they are from the Air Force, experts said.

Whoever designed the suddenly much-maligned ceremonial uniform can take heart in the fact that changes to Air Force uniforms have not gone over well in the past.

Case in point: In October 1991, Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill McPeak unveiled a new version of the dress blues. Unlike the ceremonial uniforms, the McPeak uniforms were for all airmen.

The new and improved blues pared down the ribbon rack, got rid of outer patch pockets and many of the decorative buttons, and changed other distinctive features of the uniform.

It was widely panned by Air Force Times readers at the time, such as retired Master Sgt. David A. Highlands of Milwaukee.

"Instead of looking like soldiers in blue uniforms, we will all look like stewards from the Love Boat," Highlands wrote in a letter to Air Force Times.

The "jury-rigged squid suit" was an affront to Air Force tradition, he wrote.

"Hopefully, it will be another five years before this candidate for the ‘worst dressed' list is completely phased in," Highlands wrote. "That way, I won't ever have to worry about being caught dead wearing it."

The uniform was abandoned shortly after McPeak's successor took over.

McPeak declined to comment for this story.

A fashion hit

While many of you didn't like the current ceremonial uniform, fashion experts have been more kind.

"This uniform is belted at the natural wais, which is very flattering for the male physique and looks completely normal on a formal military uniform, but is a style that doesn't necessarily translate to real life," said George Kotsiopoulos, co-host of "The Fashion Police" on E! "Coincidentally, many looks from the men's fall collections featured coats belted at the natural waist, so perhaps men in the U.S. will embrace the look. However, this look is strictly for men in good physical shape, which is what we'd expect from our military leaders. They look great!"

The uniform conveys "power" through the blocks of navy blue color, the boxiness of its shape and the epaulettes, which bring added emphasis to the shoulders, said Janice Ellinwood, department chair of fashion design and merchandising at Marymount University in Arlington, Va.

"The other theme here is repetition repetition of the medals, the stars, the buttons, etc. Visual repetition works like a word that is expressed over and over again," Ellinwood said in an email. "That word sinks into the brain and stays there. While we can say that the repetition of the medals and stars means power, they also exclaim ‘Honor! Honor! Honor!'"

But one expert thinks it needs to be toned down.

"For me, it screams a little bit too military," said Sherry Schofield-Tomschin, a professor at Kent State University's fashion school. "Honestly, when I first opened the image the first things that jumped into my head were a) foreign military, b) dated/old-fashioned, and c) too brightly colored.

"But there is no question that the public will not view this uniform and think pilot or flight attendant," she said.

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