Saturday, January 17, 2009

Officers and Gentlemen: Old terms for a new world

The National Building Museum and the Commander in Chief's Inaugural Ball,

History is a part of each of our homes whether we recognize it or not: Your family jewelry is still on your wrist, their china on your table, and their trophies in your library. As a family, we have those.

We also have the history we carry within our words and dress drawn from hundreds of battles, lives lost long before we came to be, silent offerings of respect for blood, sweat, and tears shed so that we can free... So that I could be lucky enough to live to watch these remarkable hope-filled moments unfold in Washington.

As the Commander-in-Chief Inaugural Ball approaches, I tend to be more wistful about the uniforms than my Husband can likely afford to be...

United States Navy Officer Mess Dress Uniform, Male, October through May.

United States Navy Officer Mess Dress, Male, tropical weight, May through October.

Something about the ceremonial sabers' presence...

United States Navy, Officer's and United States Naval Academy Sabre

Or the West Point India Whites uniform still moves me anew each time I see them.

When I pointedly asked Josh why the women's dinner dress uniforms looked like a waiters suit, he responded, as I imagine a manual or drill sergeant somewhere instructs, "They're military uniforms; they are not supposed to look good." This would be easier to believe if the men’s dinner dress were equally as unsuited to their figures and gender:

United States Navy Officer Mess Dress Uniform, Female, October through May.

United States Navy Officer Mess Dress, Female, tropical weight, May through October.

The term the Navy uses to describe the black-tie tuxedo equivalent is "Mess Dress," as you can plainly see. Hardly does it justice and moreover, when I see it on an invitation or announcement, as a civilian unexposed to military indoc, I cringe. Seems like: Show up sloppy! God, you're a mess and we love you for it, come on over just the way you are, Slugger! Seems there must be better term but history prevails.

At the Commander-in-Chief Inaugural Ball in Washington hosted by the Obama's, the guests will be turned out in such uniformed finery as you or I will ever see...

United States Army Officer, Dinner Dress

United States Marine Corps. Officer, Blue Dress

United States Marine Corps. Officer, Blue White Dress, summer

Unfortunately though, not everyone owns dinner or mess dress uniforms any longer. The nation has become more casual, and the military has kept pace; few people accept formal invites unless they are part of their professional obligations and even fewer want to stomach the cost of the mess uniform. My Husband has had one since he was commissioned. He wore this uniform when we married and due to deployment schedules always colliding with the ball dates, has had little cause to dust if off since. He also owns a tuxedo or two and I suspect the lack of other black and white tie uniform appearances causes him to don a tux rather than put on this beautiful uniform for civilian hosted events.

In recent times, this country has been remarkably kind, generous, and effusive in thanking our service people and I am hopeful that a return to an understanding of why they do it, not only that they do it, is soon to follow. For many, especially those of a more senior rank, these uniforms are an indication not of their career choice, but of their vocation. Often, we receive mail and initiations addressed to "Mr." and while my Husband understands this, I often think of my Father's annoyance early on when he received an invitation addressed to "Mr." rather than, "Dr." a prefix he worked thirteen years to earn. After a time, Dad gave up and accepted this was the nature of the world in which we lived (but he still never left his room in the morning without a shower, shave, and perfectly pressed clothing). I am always grateful when we receive a phone call asking for Josh's correct rank, it tells me people care enough about the pursuit of his lifetime, and of our family, to ask how the gentleman-officer is correctly addressed.

The mainstream presence of the uniform has largely disappeared in the civilian world. I will not speculate on the reasons, that is a job best left to the men and women who wear the uniforms of this great nation.

All I can say is that I am beside myself to be home in New York this week as this pregnancy nears end, and so wish I could be there to see this great man accept his office, and dance with my dashing Husband to celebrate such a day arriving, such a great hope coming to bear...

Incase you are addressing in future when I am more able to get out and Josh returns home once again, however, it is "Lt. and Mrs...."


~Tessa~Scoffs said...

I grew up a block away from NAB North Island. My (Marine) grandfather flew there and my father was stationed on a ship docked at 32nd Street when he met my mother. I know your post on uniforms was officer related but can I just add this? When we were growing up, "swabbies" were constantly seen around town in their chambray blue shirts and navy sailor pants. I now have a nephew who enlisted in the Navy and he is NEVER in his uniform. I asked him about this and he said it is no longer allowed. They literally must go straight home to change. They cannot even stop at the store for a quart of milk whilst in their uniforms.

Blushing hostess said...

For security purposes, certainly. But that depends on the command in many cases... you will indeed see folks attending events so forth in uniform at Josh's base and stopping at the store, h/e which is usually a commissary these days given the cost of civilian groceries!

tintin said...

The Army was very strict about wearing fatigues off post when I was a brat as well as soldier. You had to wear Class As in town and what's the point of that when most of these military towns can't stand the military.

Today I see Army fatigues a lot. Seems those restrictions have been let up due to the current situation.

I think my father wore his dress blues (never had a Mess uniform) twice in his 22 year career. Marines seem to have a real thing for breaking out Mess dress and having all male dinners at the O club with cigars and port afterwards.

In my four years in the Army I wore Class A's maybe three times. We lived in fatigues. Great pictures. I think the Air Force Mess looks like a janitor uniform in the White House.

Jennifer said...

The Army and the Air Force now use their cammies as their "office" unifrom which is why they are allowed to wear them around town. It's their daily business, meet the public uniform. The Navy and the Marines do not and you should not see a sailor or Marine around town in cammies or any other working uniform (coveralls, utilities etc). Exceptions can include military police or EOD crews. The MPs wear their cammies at the gate and thus it is their organization "office" garb.

Blushing hostess said...

Oh, Jennifer. Come on by Jacksonville - not only do they come out in coveralls - they walk around talking on cell phones no clue they have walked past an O5. And I just came from lunch in Mayport where three services converge and I sat between a table of the new navy camo and cg coveralls... interesting, no?

Also interesting: my Husband just got the new threads... I am really going to miss those khakis.

mespetites said...

In my experience the change of uniform are not set in stone. For example, here in the South we often do not change to Blues until November. To clarify the rules on uniforms about town - you cannot wear your working uniform about town/off base. People used to wear their dress uniforms and khaki's more often which were worn about town. Today the military services, like any company or community, is more casual and people often show up to work in working uniform, vice changing once you have arrived. And as such, they do not wear those about town. There are new working uniforms (which are quite ugly in my humble opinion) which can be worn about town. This, you will find, stirs quite a bit of debate. Wait, I've just read your comments - Blushing Hostess are you here in JAX?

mespetites said...

I also wanted to add that only from service members have I received a correctly addressed invitation. My own good friend who worked in the White House of a previous administration didn't get it quite right. Oh well! Makes you long wistfully for when service members were revered as part of society and a commission immediately thought upon as aristocracy. Oh how things change!

Katja S. said...

As somebody raised in the British tradition, where the whole concept of mess dress originated, I find it strange that Americans do not have to buy mess dress. My British friends needed it as soon as they were commissioned, and depending on the regiment, they are very expensive -- £2,000 or more for the Life Guards or the Blues and Royals -- that's about five times as much as your uniforms.
Also, in the UK unmarried officers traditionally live and dine in the mess. This had its roots in the regimental tradition that is part of our British heritage. I think one of the problems is that Americans took over our terms without having the history and the same traditions (e.g., I don't think there is an officers' mess in the US) hence the misunderstanding.