“Gentlemen, this is an executive suit,” barks the silver-haired man at the front of the classroom. He points to a photo of a Brooks Brothers model beaming down from a projector screen.
The 35 senior officers gathered take note. They’ve seen these suits before, but now they’re preparing to wear them. At the Fort Meade Army installation, the officers are examining the cuffs, the lapels, the fit of the suits they usually reserve for Easter services.
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.”
Most of these officers don’t have closets full of button-downs, so the workshop is an indispensable tool. The course is part of the Army Career and Alumni Program, under the Transition Assistance Program. It is funded by the departments of Defense, Labor and Veteran Affairs and is offered to all personnel who are leaving the military.
Although these programs, which began after the 1991 Persian Gulf War, once focused only on employment assistance, they now offer a holistic approach to the challenges that troops face in civilian life. Workshops teach how to relocate, how to start a business and even how to structure a cover letter.
And how to stand in a less intimidating manner.
The executive program began in March 2011 as a kind of one-stop shop for information about transitioning to civilian life. But for eight years, Barone has volunteered nearly every month at military installations in the area to teach a “Dress for Success” course for service members at all levels. He considers it one of the most valuable workshops that military personnel can take.
“Anybody can teach them about insurance benefits, but clothing is personal,” Barone says. “They know the basics: that a belt has to match the shoes, but which shoes? How is the suit supposed to fit? Does it work for their body type? It’s all about the fine-tuning.”
Barone strives to use relatable examples. “They understand quality. I’ll say, ‘Here’s a Toyota and here’s a Mercedes. See the difference?’ It’s the same with suits.”
Originally from a family of tailors in Sicily, Barone immigrated to the United States when he was 9, and has owned Sofio’s Custom Clothiers and Tailors in McLean for 15 years. In class, he tells the officers that clothes matter: that a $1,000 suit is the uniform of executives and lobbyists and contractors.
“Some of the men have their doubts at the beginning of the course, but after, they always thank me,” Barone says. “I want to give them knowledge. If they’re armed with knowledge, people will respect them, on a sales floor or in the workplace.”
The program highlights a larger effort by the U.S. military to provide veterans with practical services for an increasingly competitive job market. Although this week-long executive transition program is for senior officials, all military branches provide extra courses to help younger veterans, too.
In May, the Labor Department reported that the unemployment rate for post-Sept. 11 veterans was 12.7 percent, compared with the 8.2 percent national unemployment rate. In recent years, the unemployment rate among veterans ages 20 to 24 has risen to as high as 30 percent.
Such numbers give Matthews pause, and service members are becoming aware that perfecting their clothing and mannerisms may give them an edge over other job applicants.
“In this economy, you may have nine other folks who are as capable for the position as you are,” he said. “We want them to understand that they are walking into a different arena, where the rules are very different.”
Matthews has yet to hear complaints from Army personnel; in fact, the fashion component is often one of the most popular portions of the program.
“The number one comment we get is, ‘I am so glad I had this experience. It was an eye opener.’ ”
“This isn’t just about clothes, it’s about change,” he says. “And change isn’t necessarily bad. I’m just happy I can help and that after the class, clothing is one less thing they’re unsure about.”