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Uniform uniformity: Dress blues wear test could bring servicewide changes

Jul. 15, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Relief and Appointment
Sgt. Maj. Angela Maness and Sgt. Maj. Eric Stockton stand beside one another during their relief-and-appointment ceremony at Marine Barracks Washington on June 27. Select women there are wearing substantially the same dress blues uniforms as men, part of a test to determine whether the Corps will adopt one style for all Marines. (Sgt. Dengrier M. Baez / Marine Corps)
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Maj. Sarah Armstrong, parade staff commander, marches to her position during the retirement ceremony of Lt. Gen. George J. Flynn, former director for Joint Force Development, at Marine Barracks Washington, D.C., on May 9. Flynn retired after approximately 38 years of active service for country and Corps. (Lance Cpl. Dan Hosack)

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Common dress blues uniforms for Marines, regardless of gender, could be on the horizon pending results of a multimonth wear test underway at Marine Barracks Washington, D.C.

Women stationed there have been wearing men’s white dress covers since the start of this year’s parade season. A select few also are wearing a modified version of the male dress blues jacket featuring its distinctive mandarin-style collar trimmed with the Corps’ gold eagle, globe and anchor insignia.

The experiment began quietly this spring, an initiative led by the commandant, Gen. Jim Amos, and the barracks commander, Col. Christian Cabaniss, said Capt. Jack Norton, a spokesman there. After Aug. 31, the end of parade season, Cabaniss will solicit feedback from the women who tested out the new gear.

For now, only women will be surveyed, Norton said.

It’s unclear how the Marines’ feedback will be collected, he added. It will be compiled into a report and submitted to Amos, who for now appears to be keeping his distance from the wear test. His spokesman, Lt. Col. Wesley Hayes, declined to discuss the matter or answer questions about it.

The uniform experiment comes as the service continues to introduce changes aimed at improving gender equality, most falling in line with the Defense Department’s mandate to open more jobs to women. For instance, starting next year, female Marines will be required to perform pullups on their annual Physical Fitness Tests, as men do, and the service is developing “gender-neutral” physical standards that will become part of Marines’ job requirements. Additionally, officials are making a concerted effort to put more women in key leadership roles.

And “as we’re re-evaluating the role of women in the Marine Corps as a whole,” Norton said, “we’re also re-evaluating the uniforms that are being used.”

How the wear test works

During Friday Evening Parades aboard 8th and I and Tuesday Sunset Parades at the Marine Corps War Memorial in nearby Arlington, Va., women on the parade field working in a hosting capacity wear the female blues uniform with the men’s round white dress cover instead of the taller narrow-frame cap current regulations prescribe, Norton said. The handful of women serving as parade deck staff — including 8th and I’s top enlisted Marine, Sgt. Maj. Angela Maness, and the parade staff commander, Maj. Sarah Armstrong — wear the male dress blues jacket, as well as the men’s cover.

The traditional female version of the dress blues jacket has a blazer-style lapel collar with white dress shirt visible underneath. It has a tailored fit but no belt.

By contrast, the men’s jacket is more boxy, with a short stand-up collar, brass buttons down the center of the chest, and a belt — white for enlisted Marines and blue to match the jacket for officers. For the dress blue-white uniform, worn frequently for ceremonies at Marine Barracks Washington, a belt extending across the chest also is worn.

For this summer’s wear test, jacket modifications have been limited mostly to tailoring for fit, Norton said. The breast pockets with their brass-button accents also were removed on the enlisted version of the blues jacket worn by Maness.

“What we’ve done is take the male blues jackets that we have in our warehouse inventory and tailor them to fit women,” he said. “Going forward, there may be a need to develop a new female jacket from start to finish, but we don’t know at this point.”

Marine Barracks Washington was selected as a testing ground for the potential uniform changes, Norton said, because the Marines stationed there have so many occasions to wear the dress blues. Many of the 1,200 Marines on post don the Corps’ snappiest and most recognizable uniform at least twice a week during the summer for the parades, which show off the Marines’ marching bands and ceremonial units.

Past resistance to change

If a unisex dress blues jacket and cover are adopted for use across the Marine Corps, it would be a small change compared with many recent developments for female Marines — but likely a controversial one nonetheless. Previous efforts to change the dress uniform for women have met opposition from male and female Marines alike.

In 1999, for instance, the Marine Corps Uniform Board asked 14 women at 8th and I and Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., to wear test skirts featuring scarlet “blood stripes” along the sides. Reactions were mixed, though some women strongly objected, calling the hips accent unflattering.

“Not all women are shaped the same way,” one of the testers, Maj. Carolina Fermin-Knuth, told The Washington Post following the experiment. “I don’t think stripes on a skirt do any woman a favor.”

Ultimately, then-commandant Gen. Charles Krulak nixed the proposal, saying through a spokeswoman that the overall reception to the new look had been poor.

Then, in 2002, the Marine Corps Uniform board again mulled changes to the female blues uniform to make it more like the male version, including the addition of the white belt and adding more red piping to frame and accent the jacket. Female Marines complained then that the changes made their uniforms unfeminine and accentuated potential problem areas.

“They’d have to make the coat longer because otherwise, you’d have a lot of women with their butts sticking out,” Gunnery Sgt. Rita DeSanno told Stars and Stripes.

The measure was voted down, and the commandant concurred with the board’s findings.

In 2005, Marine Corps Systems Command employed a different approach, polling female Marines across the Corps for their feedback on a proposed dress blues coat featuring the stand-up mandarin collar, but without the white belt, red piping on the sleeves or upper breast pockets.

Again, reviews were harsh. In Japan, 90 percent of female Marines voted against the proposed changes to the dress uniform, according to Marine Corps reports from the time. Overall, 68 percent of female respondents and 59 percent of total respondents voted against the change.

Amos and uniforms

Since becoming commandant in 2010, Amos has implemented some significant changes to the Corps’ uniform regulations, most aimed at making troops appear more fit and professional.

In 2011, for instance, Amos made waves by ending the practice of rolling the sleeves on Marines’ desert camouflage utility uniforms. More than 60 percent of troops surveyed voted against making the change, but the Marine Corps Uniform Board overrode their feedback and approved it anyway.

This year, as part of a continued effort to evaluate professional appearance and root out overweight Marines, Amos made the “bravo” or “charlie” service dress Friday’s uniform of the day for stateside troops not in the field.

Not all of Amos’ uniform updates have been more restrictive, however. In late 2011, he reversed a controversial ban on so-called KIA bracelets that honor fallen service members. At the time, commands had started cracking down on Marines who wore them in breach of the service’s uniform regulations. When troops complained, Amos stepped in, acknowledging the “strong bonds of fidelity that Marines have for one another, especially for those Marines who we have lost.”

Amos has been seen since wearing a KIA bracelet himself.

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