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Unisex uniforms will mean changes to covers and crackerjacks

Nov. 12, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Female mids at the Naval Academy wear the male combination covers as part of their uniform. Wear-testers said the covers are ill-fitting, bulky and headache-inducing.
Female mids at the Naval Academy wear the male combination covers as part of their uniform. Wear-testers said the covers are ill-fitting, bulky and headache-inducing. (U.S. Naval academy)
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Female band members have wear-tested 'Dixie cups' and blue crackerjacks, and uniform officials say the feedback was largely positive. (Navy)
If approved, it appears likely women would wear the same Dixie cups worn by men, with some minor modifications to help with fit. (MC2 Alysia Hernandez / Navy)

The advancing push for unisex uniforms comes straight from the top.

The advancing push for unisex uniforms comes straight from the top.

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The advancing push for unisex uniforms comes straight from the top.

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who has made gender equity one of his signature issues, thinks the days of women looking different from their shipmates is over.

“One of the things that I think we ought to do, is that when we look out, we shouldn’t see male sailors or female sailors,” Mabus told Navy Times. “We ought to see sailors. United States sailors.”

Intended as a move to reduce discrimination against women, this effort will revamp female sailors’ seabags to give them uniforms that better match their shipmates’. Here are the options officials are seriously weighing:

Blue crackerjacks. Female sailors would don the dark iconic sailor suit. With a few tailoring changes, these could easily be made to conform to a woman’s body.

Combo covers. Chiefs and officers would wear male-style combination covers instead of “the bucket” hat currently worn. Options include designing a new cover (the most likely option) or simply giving them the male cover (which women hated in a recent wear test).

‘Dixie cups.’ Female sailors will sport the white sailor hat, ditching the bucket hat they now wear, similar in shape to that worn by chiefs and officers. It may be modified to be proportional to women’s head sizes.

While senior officials have yet to decide the next step, Navy personnel sources said that the wear test is building momentum and change is imminent.

Price, however, could be a significant hurdle. Redesigning covers and uniforms, testing them and then issuing them to all female officers and enlisted could be a luxury at a time the Navy istrying to justify keeping 11 aircraft carriers. Just fielding hats for the Navy’s 55,459 women likely would cost more than $1.3 million.

Officials must tread carefully. The Marine Corps’ parallel effort spawned a “girly hat” fiasco. Mockery by the media, including Fox News, “The Colbert Report” and The New York Post, compelled the Marine Corps to end the possibility of male Marines wearing female-style hats.

As with the Navy, the option for women to wear male-style covers is still on the table.

Plus, the only concrete step in the effort — the combination cover wear test — yielded negative results.

More than 900 female midshipmen donned male combination covers as part of the wear test conducted at the Naval Academy. They hated it. Eight in 10 reported it didn’t fit or flopped around on their heads. More than half complained it gave them a headache.

“The current one really doesn’t work for females for several reasons,” said Chief Musician Dawn Henry, a clarinet player with the Naval Academy Band who’s worn the male cover during concerts for more than a year. The main complaints, Henry said, are that the male cover is too big, it “wobbles on the head,” and that “we’re oftentimes mistaken as males, especially those with short haircuts.”

Indeed, the Navy’s uniform lab “recommends that due to overwhelming dissatisfaction with the combination cover, its use for females not be pursued,” concluded the May 2013 report by the Navy Clothing and Textile Research Facility in Natick, Mass.; Navy Times obtained a copy of the report.

Still, the effort is not back to square one. These findings and the much more limited tests of the Dixie cup and jumper have persuaded uniform officials the best option is to modify the female covers and jumpers and retest them in the next year, with the result aligning with Mabus’ vision.

Mabus endorsed the idea of creating a new cover while discussing the initiative with Navy Times — specifically to address complaints the men’s hat fits women improperly.

“I think, if the covers change ... it’s going to be shaped to fit a woman’s head, because they’re different than the jarheads we men have,” Mabus told Navy Times on Nov. 6 while making a public appearance.

Dress blues and 'Dixie cups'

For Mabus, the idea comes down to having shipmates look alike. Women have had different uniform items and designs for a century, since the women first joined the Nurse Corps or enlisted to be yeoman before World War I.

More conformity is called for today to ensure that female sailors are treated like everybody else, Mabus says, and not like in decades past when women were limited to fields such as nursing and weren’t permitted to fly planes or drive ships.

“We don’t ask any other group to wear a different uniform,” Mabus said. “So, let’s take it through the process, see what happens.”

The sailor uniform proposals may be the least controversial, in part because they would require only small modifications.

So far, wear tests have been limited to the score of female musicians in the Fleet Forces Command and Pacific Fleet bands, as well as women assigned to the Navy Ceremonial Guard in Washington, D.C.

The easiest alterations would be to the service dress blue jumper. Female sailors already wear the white crackerjacks and officials could model the blues after them. In addition, the new blues have a side zipper that makes it easier to slip on the jumper. The cheapest option is to have women wear off-the-rack male jumpers, but that’s unlikely.

“You could put anybody in the male uniform,” said Capt. Jeffrey Krusling, the officer plans and policy branch head at the chief of naval personnel’s headquarters in Arlington, Va. “I think that fit would have to be closely looked at. There is a significant difference obviously between the male and female and the fit, I don’t think it’d be ideal in the male uniform. Most likely [we’d] have to do some sort of modifications to that.”

Krusling, who oversees the Uniform Matters office, sketched out the options that are expected to be presented to the uniform board and then the Navy’s leadership in the coming weeks or months. However, he was reluctant to discuss his staff’s favored options for fear of hemming in the top officials who will make the final call, including Mabus and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert.

The Dixie cup was popular with wearers and would likely need little or no alteration, aside from offering it in sizes that fit women’s heads and hairstyles, he said.

“I think size does have to be considered and that’s one of the items that we are looking at, to be honest,” Krusling said. “If this decision were made, whether it would have to have a modified cover or not, that’s not 100 percent clear at this point.”

“In a perfect world you’d have a cover that is made exclusively [for women],” he added. “But it wasn’t a showstopper.”

'It flops around'

The officer and chief headgear is more contentious.

About 930 female mids at Annapolis were given two sets of male combo covers and told to start wearing them. Many seem to have been given hats that were too small. Male mids and professors also disliked them, and the test went downhill.

But despite the negative findings, and the fact the wear test wrapped in February, female mids continue to wear them.

In a survey, female mids rated their hats as “less feminine” and “disproportional,” complaining that they were “heavy” and “would not stay in position.” Fully 82 percent said they were unhappy with the fit.

“It’s big, it’s bulky, it flops around,” said one female officer, who interacted with mids involved in the test.

The current female cover has an oval shape and frame that rests on the wearer’s crown and accommodates women who wear their hair in a bun. By contrast, the male combo cover has a circular brim that sits snug around the wearer’s head. Women with long hair must wear it in a bun and that makes it especially awkward for the male cover. The bun pushes the cover up on the back of the head and makes it wobble. And the rigid frame can leave a red mark on your forehead, as many mids in ill-fitting hats discovered.

The report recommended against adopting the male combo cover as-is.

“From this limited test, results indicate that to improve satisfaction, the overall design of the cover would need to be modified to improve the fit and appearance,” a Natick expert wrote in the report. “Therefore, no changes should be made to the current female combination covers and uniform regulations should be maintained as is.”

If the effort is to go forward, the report added, officials should design a better fitting female cover with the round shape of the male cover but that is more proportional to a woman’s size. It recommends testing this design with focus groups and then conducting a more representative wear test sample that goes beyond mids and musicians.

Female officers must purchase their own hats and note that switching covers is an expensive proposition: The current one costs $103. They also worry that Mabus’ “gender neutral initiative” may eliminate other female items, like the optional black beret or the popular khaki overblouse.

Henry, the chief musician who still wears the male combo cover with the band, is no fan and believes the Navy needs to go back to the drawing board to develop a better common cover design.

“If the Navy decides to move forward to try to design something new and something different, I think it would be very important to obviously wear test it again,” Henry told Navy Times in a Nov. 8 phone interview. “Really take the time and make sure it works and not rush just to get something just so that we look more uniform.”

A few even worry that Mabus is steamrolling a process better led by women in the service. One expert close to the effort said the uniform board rejected the initiative this summer based on opposition from women and questioned why it was coming forward again.

“Women don’t know this has been proposed and [it’s] already at the SECNAV level,” said this active-duty expert, who asked to remain anonymous out of concern for his career. “The talk was that they didn’t want to tell SECNAV that he had a really bad idea, and they are trying to wait him out, but it’s now growing legs.”

Personnel officials said they know there’s issues with the cover’s comfort, which arose in the wear test they commissioned, and are committed to modifying it. Their goal is to produce a “hybrid” hat that combines the round shape of the male cover with an oval-shaped frame that fits a woman’s head and hair. One personnel official said he believes that they’ll make “significant progress” on this in 2014 and cautioned the effort was still early.

“Sailors should be prepared that the Navy is moving toward this one cover, and they should feel good that the uniform board and the Uniform Matters office are looking closely at the fit and functionality,” observed one personnel official, who asked for anonymity to discuss progress before Navy leadership has decided. “The fit and comfort are important.”

Staff writer Meghann Myers contributed to this report.

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