Last year my daughter accepted a civilian position to design uniforms for the Navy. People often ask me how Lauren, 25, became interested in such a specialized career, and I don’t have an easy answer for this mystery of parenthood. Why do our children turn out the way they do? Like many parents of newly-minted adults, I can only gather clues in my search to know my daughter better. We haven’t lived under the same roof in eight years. Now I string together the information I collect, each discovery a jewel in a priceless necklace.
When Lauren told me I could sign up for the U.S. Navy Daily Digest Bulletin, the same one she receives in her work inbox every day, I seized my chance for a glimpse into her world. Here I would read the words that she reads and pick up acronyms in her new vocabulary. In the daily email, delivered between 4:13 and 4:17 each morning, I’ve learned about Helicopter Sea Combat (HSC) squadrons that conduct search-and-rescue (SAR) operations, and about Replenishment at Sea (RAS), a maneuver in which cargo and millions of gallons of fuel are transferred from one moving vessel to another. In April 2016, I read that the iconic Dixie cups—those white canvas hats with an upturned brim—had been issued to female recruits for the first time. The change was part of the Navy’s push for greater “uniformity in uniforms,” an initiative introduced by then-Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus. Male American Sailors have worn the Dixie cup hat since 1886.
Lauren was six and her sister just three when I got a divorce and moved to Massachusetts. The girls and I settled in Arlington, a town eight miles northwest of Boston. The first house we lived in overlooked a path—the path—ridden by Paul Revere. Just up the road, the town of Lexington stages annual reenactments of the battle that began the Revolutionary War. In Massachusetts we commemorate these events on Patriots’ Day, always the third Monday in April. The Boston Marathon is held on that day. I have a photograph of Lauren, taken in Lexington in 1998, at her first Patriots’ Day parade. She’s wearing a black three-cornered hat called a tricorn, a souvenir sold by a sidewalk vendor. She’s smiling; one of her front teeth is missing. She’s waving a small American flag. If there were a soundtrack to the photo, we’d hear bright fifes and the rat-a-tat-tat of drums in the background, as companies of Minutemen with drummer boys march in the parade down Massachusetts Avenue.
The reenactors take pride in their historically accurate uniforms: their jackets of dark blue gabardine, and their tan vests secured with brass buttons. They wear knickers and woolen stockings. They shine the buckles on their leather shoes. I don’t remember how long the souvenir hat from the parade lasted, but as I trace Lauren’s early interest in history and the military, maybe that tricorn hat marks the beginning. It taught her that uniforms identify members of a group. Uniforms signify belonging.
On April 4, 2016, when the first Dixie cups were issued to females, one recruit was quoted in the Daily Digest Bulletin as saying, “Something as simple as our cover [hat] is so symbolic in regards to equality and uniformity in the military.” There was a photo of female recruits lined up in their new covers so that Recruit Division Commanders (RDCs) could ensure the hats were being worn properly, according to the manner-of-wear policies governing all components of a uniform. The women received instructions on securing the Dixie cup if they had braids or wore their hair in a bun.
In third grade, Lauren’s class took a field trip to the Jason Russell House in Arlington. The colonial farmhouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places because it saw the bloodiest fighting on the first day of the American Revolution. At the entrance, a carved marble marker reads: Site of the house of Jason Russell, where he and eleven others were captured, disarmed and killed by the retreating British on April 19, 1775. It happened as British troops were pulling back from their defeat in the Battle of Lexington. Lauren would have seen a reproduction of a heavy red coat on display there, and a spinning wheel near the hearth, laced with strands of wool. Though the old farmhouse has been restored, visible scars from the battle remain. The interior walls are pocked with holes left by British musket balls.
By fourth grade, Lauren’s interest in history was more than a passing fancy. For a research project, students could choose their own topic of study, provided it wasn’t a current sports figure—namely, whoever had made the latest heroic home run, basket, touchdown, or goal for Boston’s beloved teams. Even her teacher was surprised when Lauren told him what she wanted to research.
“I’m interested in the French colonization of Indochina,” she said.
Ten years old. She was uncannily aware, and so curious that she made adults question why they weren’t more curious about such things too. Is it any wonder I’m still trying to understand her? An old soul, people sometimes remarked about my little girl, a patriot born on Flag Day.
In middle school, for a final project on the American Civil War, she decided to make a Union soldier’s uniform. Most kids were giving an oral report or creating a diorama in a shoebox. Lauren made the uniform in miniature, complete with epaulettes and buttons of small gold beads. Hunched over the kitchen table, she attached fine gold braid around the cuffs of a tiny blue frock coat. At some point, late in the night before the project was due, she realized how hard it was to create something in miniature, especially the knots of an epaulette. She didn’t ask me for any help, though. I’m not sure if I even drove her to the fabric store—I must have—but it’s possible that she walked there on her own.
For the mini-uniform, she sculpted an inner frame of wire, a sort of hollow metal mannequin, then mounted the dressed frame to foamboard. She glued a printed image of leather boots beneath the light blue trousers. The uniform would have been the perfect size for a Ken doll if he had ever dressed as a Union soldier.
Lauren was—is—understandably bitter about receiving a ‘B’ on that project. Her teacher’s comment was something like I would have given you an A if this had been life-sized.
“Does he have any idea how time-consuming it would be to sew a life-sized Civil War uniform?” she asks now. “I wish we still had it,” she adds. A custodian probably swept it into the trash, the first uniform my daughter ever made.
The official designation of the Dixie cup hat is Alternative Combination Cover (ACC). The ACC can be worn by both men and women in service dress uniforms. Maria Frazier, a Seaman Recruit from Ohio, said in the April 2016 article, “I am very excited to be one of the first females to be given the opportunity to wear the Dixie cup. I believe we’ve come really far as a country and as a service.” I want to believe in that progress too, for the sake of my daughters and their futures—for America’s future, though we seem surrounded by evidence to the contrary. Still, women account for nearly 16% of active-duty military personnel today. Regarding women wearing the Dixie cup, Maria Frazier’s commander added, “Females have been performing to the standard equal to their male counterparts. With these new covers, we look more like a team.” All officers and chiefs will be required to wear the ACC by October 2018.
When my girls were younger, we attended Memorial Day and Veterans Day events in Arlington. There were wreath-laying and remembrance ceremonies held at Monument Park, where the town maintains memorials to residents who served in a war. Those who died in a conflict have a gold star next to their name. I remember one cold morning in November, when I got up early so I’d have time to buy several bunches of carnations. I bundled the girls in hats and gloves and gave each of them flowers to place at the monuments. Another year we stood on the sidewalk in the rain for a Memorial Day parade. I didn’t appreciate how swiftly their childhoods would pass, but knew those early years were my chance to involve them in what I believed was important.
While Lauren was in high school, I joined a Sewing Team with a nonprofit organization. Mainly I sewed quilts and pillowcases bound for VA hospitals around the country, even as far as Landstuhl Regional Medical Center (LRMC) in Germany. For one pillowcase, I used a soft cotton fabric that depicted a team of bulldogs playing baseball. Lauren sewed a case in white flannel, covered in printed blue anchors. She was drawn to nautical patterns even then, and to sewing as a mode of expression. The homemade pillowcases convey to wounded service members that people back home, even total strangers, haven’t forgotten about them. Lauren sends cards and care packages at Christmas.
To love history is to face military history in its most brutal moments. In 11th grade, Lauren cried at the dining table as she laid out materials for making a replica of Andersonville. In the Confederate military prison for Union soldiers, open from February 1864 to April 1865, an estimated thirteen thousand Union men died of starvation, violence, and disease. After seeing Andersonville survivors, Walt Whitman wrote, “There are deeds, crimes that may be forgiven, but this is not among them.” Lauren glued balsa-wood crosses in a corner of the model to form a small graveyard.
During high school summers, she attended drama camp and spent hours in the costume shop. Working on plays, she discovered that costume design was the perfect marriage of history and theater. As a senior, she sewed a dress for a history unit on classism in America. At the top of the shift, she used fabric with a fleur-de-lis pattern to signify the wealthiest class. On the lower hem, she chose plain muslin, and shredded the edges so the fabric appeared torn. That project never made it home from school either.
Four years later, she earned an undergraduate degree in Costume Design, with a minor in History. For a college production set during the Trojan War, she studied Bronze Age armor and weaponry; for another, the uniforms that female nurses would have worn in 1967. She then pursued an M.F.A. in Costume Design at Boston University. In her second semester, I attended an opera for which she’d designed and constructed one of the lead dresses. Somewhere I’ve saved a snippet of orange silk from a period garment she made that year.
The hours in the BU program, as in many graduate programs, were grueling. Some nights Lauren slept on a ragged couch in the costume shop, surrounded by creepy mannequins; there wasn’t time to return to her apartment and get back for class the next morning. When I saw her once every month or two, bags had developed under her eyes, and her olive skin had turned pale. She worked in a bowling alley on weekends.
During her internship at the Huntington Theater, the hours were unpredictable too, especially when she had to repair damaged costumes after evening performances. She sometimes sewed until dawn to put elaborate wardrobes back in order, replacing broken zippers and mending torn seams. Those all-nighters helped her decide that she wanted a more stable life than what the theater could offer. Her dedication to history had intensified in college, where she completed research on uniforms of the Civil War. Eighteen months into the BU program, she started looking for a civilian job with the military.
In the Navy’s morning bulletin, there’s a section called Faces of the Fleet. Once I studied the color photograph of a World War II veteran, a retired Chief Petty Officer (CPO) who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was invited aboard the USS America to share his story. In the picture he looks dignified and alert in his uniform, though his body is understandably frail. He makes his way down a line of CPOs, shaking each one’s hand. My grandfather served aboard the USS Utah as a Seaman 2nd Class starting in 1927. He left the Utah as a Seaman 1st Class in 1933 for the Reina Mercedes. He completed his career on the Monaghan. In a fragile album my grandmother gave me before she died, there’s a faded snapshot of him at Annapolis, in Service Dress Whites and a Dixie cup hat.
One of Lauren’s earliest assignments with the Navy was a trip to the Naval Academy in Maryland. Her task was to help fit female cadets with dress uniforms for their Commissioning (graduation) Ceremony in May 2016. For the first time, female midshipmen would wear pants instead of skirts at the ceremony, and dress jackets with mandarin collars instead of lapels. This was part of the push by Navy Secretary Mabus to standardize uniforms for gender neutrality, which he believed would “symbolically break down barriers” and truly integrate women into the ranks. His policies were not without controversy. In an article in the Navy Times, a helicopter pilot criticized the initiative anonymously. “It’s not ‘gender neutrality’ to us,” she said. “It’s ‘You’ll dress like a man.’” Others have complained that women bear the financial burden of the changes. Ironically, it can cost a female officer more than $500 to replace a service dress white uniform to comply with the gender-neutral regulations.
Lauren works with a uniform team at the Natick Soldier System Center (SSC) outside of Boston, in the Navy Clothing and Textile Research Facility (NCTRF). The NCTRF also handles uniforms for the Marines and the Coast Guard. Before she could take the position, she had to pass numerous background checks, and waited months to hear if she’d gotten the required security clearance. That’s when I felt the most helpless. My daughter was at the cusp of her dream job, but there was nothing I could do to make it happen, or to cushion the blow if it didn’t go her way.
Her official title is Clothing Designer. Her co-workers have titles like Boot Designer and Textile Technologist. She spends hours sewing alongside a Master Tailor, an 85-year-old Italian man named Vincenzo. For my birthday, she gave me a book that he wrote about his childhood during World War II. His family hid deep in the Alps for a year to escape Mussolini. They foraged for food and firewood, and slept in battered tents. Vincenzo grew so thin that he used pieces of twine to secure clothing to his body.
I try to picture Lauren and Vincenzo, seated at their naval sewing machines. His hair is white, and hers must be in a bun so it won’t get caught in dangerous moving parts. Perhaps there are rows of industrial thread nearby. Does their sewing room have windows? Is Canvas Navy Twill (CNT) stored in drawers they can open, or do they requisition it from someone with a different title? Is Lauren allowed to sign for materials, or does she have to ask Vincenzo to do that? I wonder if she uses a government-issued tape measure.
One of my favorite features in the email bulletin is This Day in Naval History. It’s full of events I didn’t know about, such as the day in 1829 when the brig-sloop Hornet disappeared in a gale off of Mexico. The ship and her crew of 140 were never found. On October 4, 1921, the USS Olympia sailed to France to bring home the Unknown Soldier. The date September 30, 2016, holds a place of honor in my personal calendar of naval history. On that day, Lauren was awarded her first coin from an Admiral. The front of the coin is engraved with the words Connected – Caring – Committed, and the inscription For Outstanding Service. On the back are the letters NEXCOM, the department of the Navy that oversees uniforms and NCTRF. There’s an image of a sailor with a sea bag at his side, against a red-white-and-blue background of stars and stripes.
When I pose questions about her work, with a nonchalance meant to hide my intense interest in every detail of what she does, Lauren doesn’t share much. It’s true that a lot of the information is classified. She recently took a trip to Michigan and I asked her what was there. “A warehouse with some pants,” she texted. Another time she had a project for the Coast Guard, and I wondered what garments she’d worked on. “I can’t tell you what they were,” she said.
About once a month she travels to a factory that’s being transformed into a manufacturing plant for uniforms. She’s teaching former munitions-line workers how to sew using fire-retardant (FR) textiles. There’s no seam-ripping allowed with FR textiles; fire could penetrate the extra holes. If not sewn perfectly on the first pass through the machine, the materials must be discarded. It was for her work in the manufacturing plant that she received the coin.
In January she emailed a link to an article about a project her team had just completed: the new two-piece Improved Flame Retardant Variant (IFRV) Coverall, designed by one of her colleagues. Admiral Phil Davidson, commander of the U.S. Fleet Forces (USFF), was quoted as saying, “Shipboard wearability and functionality were of extreme importance with the development of the IFRV.” I bet Lauren talks like that at work every day, after a guard has verified her badge at the entrance, and the gates have closed behind her.