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The Navy's newly unveiled covers for female officers and chiefs look a lot like those worn by men — but are tailored for a better fit.
The new covers were announced in late December as part of a wide-ranging order from Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who has pushed for unisex uniforms in both the Navy and Marine Corps. In addition to the combination covers, female sailors E-6 and below will don "Dixie cup" hats and service dress blue jumpers.
Officials plan to begin a limited fit test by May for these new items to ensure they're comfortable, before the design is approved and added to the sea bag.
While the combination cover prototype is complete, officials are still working on the service dress blue jumpers and trousers and the Dixie cup. Top personnel officials see this as an opportunity to streamline women's uniforms to better match men's.
"We're going to continue to look at other uniform options that are starkly different from each other and try to bring them closer together," said Vice Adm. Bill Moran, the chief of naval personnel, in a Dec. 19 interview. "But I think we also need to be very committed to not just throw women in men's uniforms — that we need to design these uniforms with women in mind, so that they fit properly, they look sharp and women want to wear them."
And the changes could affect men, too: Officials say the lessons learned may lead to improvements to male uniforms.
Mabus said he believes the days of female sailors standing out in the ranks is over.
"These changes ensure greater uniformity in our service and ceremonial dress, but more importantly, they send a clear signal that we are one in dress, one in standard, and one in team," he said in a news release.
The combo cover fit test is a new approach after women expressed widespread dissatisfaction with the previous wear test, where Naval Academy female midshipmen donned off-the-shelf male covers. The hats wobbled on their heads and induced headaches, 80 percent of the testers reported.
The newly designed combination cover is an attempt to fix that. It has an elongated opening for a better fit and is designed to sit lower on the head so that it doesn't flop. The brim and insignia band have been down-sized to be more proportional to a woman's head and shoulders.
There could be some alterations to the sailor cap. Officials are looking at sizing and also examining whether a liner or bobby pin will be needed to tether it to a woman's head.
Officials are also working on a female version of the updated service dress blues, which feature a side zipper on the blouse to make them easier to get into. The SDB trousers have a zipper that renders the 13 buttons purely decorative. Moran said he hopes to roll out the SDBs for women in tandem with the men's uniform by 2015.
Officials are eyeing other changes, too. Women will also try on the male necktie, Moran said. "The feedback we've gotten is, 'Why should we have a different tie?' And, frankly, if we don't have to have a women's necktie, it drives costs down."
Officials say they're working toward a fit test for all these items by May, which will start with a few dozen sailors at East Coast-based shore installations and expand once they have determined the items are viable. Officials were unable to provide an estimated cost of these initiatives because the final designs haven't been selected and there is no contract yet with manufacturers.
Rather than a wider wear test where sailors comment on the item's style, the fit test will focus solely on comfort and functionality.
The common cover campaign has its detractors — sailors and officers who like their "bucket"-style hats — but the effort is gaining momentum and may be inevitable. Mabus recently directed the Marines to adopt the male hat as a common cover (a month after the possibility that male Marines would wear female-style covers, termed "girly hats," erupted in the press).
Asked whether the Navy would scuttle the common covers if the wear test finds widespread dissatisfaction, Moran replied: "I guess we'd deal with that when we got to it. I think based on what we know so far, it's do-able."
Moran said he has no plans to eliminate some popular female-specific accessories, such as the khaki overblouse or the optional black beret.
But the lessons of the overhaul may have implications elsewhere, namely for male head gear. In the previous wear test, the female mids exposed a known flaw with the male combo cover, one that generations of male chiefs and officers have dismissed: It's uncomfortable. The rigid, round frame squeezes the skull.
Moran is no fan.
"It should fit better and it doesn't," he said. "We all get headaches from it. We get that hat-head going and the big indent on your forehead if you've worn it long enough.
"We can fix those things," he said.