They look kind of lonely hanging there in the back corner, a dozen Navy blues and Army greens, huddled together against a store-full of Palm Beach pinstripes and "I beg your Chardon" jeans. Until recently, it seemed that the hapless handful of brass-buttoned dress uniforms would be making their last stand on the racks of S.H. Berman's Clothing, downstairs from the nation's war machine in the Pentagon Mall.
Now, with new orders from the top, reinforcements will be on the way. The Army has nixed the natty civilian wear that for decades has ben standard among officers in Washington. "I am concerned by the widespread wearing of civilian clothes," wrote Army Chief of Staff General Edward Meyer in a March 19 memo. The Marines, too, are concerned. Starting April 6, uniforms will be a must.
The Navy, noting the large investments that many of its personnel have made in their fasionable civilian wardrobes, is "encouraging" the wearing of uniforms every day beginning May 4, pending a reevaluation at summer's end, a spokesman said.
The Air Force, it must be noted, was clearly the trend-setter here. They began requiring uniforms in 1975.
Yes. A little history: Back in the early 50s, former-general-and-later-president Eisenhower, saying that the nation's capitol was beginning to resemble an armed camp, approved the wearing of civilian clothes by military personnel stationed in Washington. For years, most servicemen were required to deck out in official blues and greens only on Wednesdays.
As time passed and America's war in Vietnam dragged on, many seemed relieved by the relaxed codes. With long-haired protesters harassing military recruiters and staging almost weekly demonstrations at the Pentagon, military people became political scapegoats; uniforms somehow implied complicity, and it was easier to wear a sport coat and avoid the grief.
With the election of President Reagan, whose penchant for pomp is well known among the military brass, new dress orders suddenly came down.
"You figure if [the military higher-ups] want to get all this money from the president, they're going to want to show him that their houses are in order," said one military spokesman. "In the military, if you want to look good, you make sure your shoes are shined and your tie is straight. The generals are sending a message. They want money, and they're ready for inspection of the troops."
The sentiment of the troops seems to be with the generals, but perhaps for different reasons:
"It's a lot easier to wear a uniform," said Marine Maj. Fred Peck. "You don't have to figure out what to wear in the morning . . . You don't have to wear a tie either." Also, Peck said, "you don't have that extra expense of having to keep a sharp, up-to-date civilian wardrobe. A lot of people go out and spend a hell of a lot of money on civilian clothes when they are assigned to Washington."
At current prices, Peck has a point. Consider $200 to $400 for a civilian suit, $25 for a shirt, $15 for a tie, different shoes to go with different color outfits. At S.H. Berman's, where prices are a little higher than those at the nearby Henderson Hall PX, store owner Chris Caras can outfit an officer with the approved hat, coat, pants, shirt and tie for $204.20, he says. And no one knows if you wear a uniform two days in a row.
"I'm all for the uniform requirements," said Capt. Dale Thornton, an Army Medical Service Corps program manager. "With Vietnam over, people are more proud to wear a uniform."
As for Caras, who has owned S.H. Berman's for 15 years, it doesn't make much difference to him. Though he considers it his job to educate his customers on the finer points of fashion, to make sure they get the right shirt and tie matched up with the right suit and so on, uniform requirements will not kill him.
"Look," he says, waving a diamond pinky ring through the air, you can't wear uniforms all the time . . . the advantage of being in this building is that we could turn into an all-military store if necessary.
"It's like what I tell my customers. I dress all the dummies in the [store] windows. Why shouldn't I be able to dress you?"