Her camouflage maternity uniform was such a comfortable fit, Air Force Capt. Mollie Eshel said her co-workers didn’t notice she was pregnant until something like her 34th week.
Eshel, 32, was part of a group of 60 female airmen who have tested a prototype of the uniform the Air Force Uniform Office hopes to roll out next October.
“Most people didn’t even notice that it was different, so that was kind of a plus,” said Eshel, a deputy branch chief in the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. “It’s been really comfortable to wear all the way through.”
With a $1.7 million budget and 18 staff members, the small uniform office headquartered at Wright-Patterson oversees the outfitting of hundreds of thousands of Air Force personnel serving around the globe in all kinds of climates and terrains on Earth and above it.
“We sit among our customers,” said Yvonne Wilson, Air Force Uniform Office section chief. “We have an opportunity to talk to them and see what works in a uniform design and get that immediate feedback.”
Uniforms are reviewed for changes every 10 years. With testing and production, it takes about three years to field a new clothing item, officials said.
“We’re not going to do change for change sake,” said Col. William Mosle, chief of the Human Systems Program office that oversees the office. “We’re going to do change to improve it, to make it fit better, to make it more comfortable, to be able to support the mission better.”
One uniform fits all
The redesigned maternity Airmen Battle Uniform was meant to be more comfortable and fit better based on what pregnant airmen say they needed most, said Stacey Butler, a clothing designer who led the changes.
New fabrics stretch more easily, and the uniform has more pockets and looks more like what airmen wear on the job, designers say. “To look like their fellow airmen was important,” Butler said.
In the old maternity version still in use, some women have had to cut a nylon stretch panel to make the uniform fit comfortably or change to bigger sizes as many as three times during their pregnancy, she said.
The new uniform has more buttons to convert to a bigger size, and sports more pockets to store cell phones, keys, pencils and military ID cards — something airmen asked for, Butler said. A stretch panel does not have an elastic band in the waist.
“So far, it is comfortable for them to wear through the entire pregnancy,” the clothing designer said. “I think I had only one person change sizes through their pregnancy.”
The Army and the Coast Guard expect to take the same uniform off the rack and stitch their own versions for soldiers and sailors, she said.
A wardrobe for everyone
With more women in the Air Force — and the increasing fitness of airmen overall — clothing designs have changed, said Wilson, who has worked at the office for nearly 40 years.
Today, nearly one out of five airmen are women, the highest percentage among U.S. military branches.
“We have more women in the Air Force than we did have,” Wilson said. “We’re making their uniforms more comfortable for them. We’ve improved those configurations to better suit their needs.”
In choosing clothing for occupations that run the gamut from firefighters to pilots, the uniform office’s staff includes textile technologists, engineers, configuration managers and a technical writer.
Their influence on what airmen wear starts at boot camp.
Air Force recruits sort through 70 clothing-related items — from Airmen Battle Uniforms and athletic gear to socks and boots — that will outfit nearly 37,000 trainees in fiscal year 2018. That’s nearly 2.6 million items at a cost of $59.4 million, according to the Air Force.
Under the Berry Amendment, the military is required to use 100 percent American-made sourced-materials and manufacturers to produce clothing for troops, officials said.
“That can be very difficult in a textile market that has continually seen the manufacturers move overseas,” said Lynda T. Rutledge, director and program executive officer of the Agile Combat Support Directorate at Wright-Patterson, which has oversight of the uniform office. “That’s really one of the biggest challenges.”