Sofio Barone, 62, an image consultant and tailor, has only two hours to lead the visual transition from soldier to civilian, as these men and women take a course to prepare for their retirement from the military. He gives them their orders.
1. Stop saying “sir.”
2. Slouch just enough.
3. Banish acronyms.
4. Replace medals and ribbons with pocket squares.
The women will wear pumps and the men will buy violet ties. They will hang up the uniform that denotes rank, completing a clothing swap swaddled in meaning. Today, they’re learning how to mesh with the world of contractors. That corporate camouflage isn’t earned, but purchased from boutiques and malls in McLean and Bethesda.
“I need a volunteer,” Barone says.
They’re used to hearing those words.
Col. Jeffrey Brlecic, 49, rises from his chair and stands at attention before his peers as the master tailor dissects the suit he purchased years ago at a going-out-of-business sale.
“Has this been untied recently?” Barone asks, referring to the colonel’s silk tie.
The class chuckles.
“Reversible belt? Gentlemen! You’re going to need two belts from now on,” Barone jibes playfully. “And this green suit! It’s like we can’t get you out of the Army.”
For more than an hour, these soon-to-be civilians have listened to the tailor talk about body structure, color contrast and the need for a snazzy designer pen. Now, one by one, they’re volunteering for inspection, learning the pieces they’ll need to wear in their new lives.
“These are things they’ve never had to think about before. They’ve never had to think twice about what they wear to work,” says George Matthews, the transition services manager at Fort Meade.
“I really wanted to get some pointers on my suit,” says Brlecic, who will retire in November after 26 years in the Army. “It was good to know my suit wouldn’t work for a first interview, but for a second interview or the job itself, it’s fine.”
The five women in the class, too, have learned the power of brooches and hosiery. One can use femininity, not sexuality, to one’s advantage, Barone says.
“I’ve always loved fashion and design, so I’m genuinely excited to retire the uniform,” said Maj. Cindy Blassingame, 53, who modeled a red silk scarf and black suit in front of the class. “I think the most important thing is that we’re learning how to sell ourselves again.”
“It’s going to be odd to figure out what to wear every day,” said Jodie Fairbank, 34, a staff sergeant who just returned from a classified deployment. “But it’s even harder to have to change our body language. People can always tell we’re soldiers from the way we carry ourselves.”