Wednesday, June 28, 2023
Is the Army’s New Tactical Bra Ready for Deployment?
At least with men, we have been trying to get it right for two thousand years. so the potential upside is that we may get this right and produce a hyper practical solution that becomes a new standard.
do recall that .not too long ago, sports bras were not a thing at all.
so yes, we can perhap be hopeful, or discover just what least bad actually looks and feels like.
The evolution of our fitness industry was something i never anticipated back in 1972 when i came to Vancouver. I had just passed through basic training, so was looking for anything to help train. it barely existed. Today we have almost a majority of men using personal trainers and looking like it, and yes the ladies have almost all chosen to fall into line. And everyone now respects real fitness.
It was still a remarkably slow evolution. The next slow step will be the introduction of groomed earth and grass running and walking tracks added onto our undersused running track system. This allows barefoot walking and running even to original olympic standards and will become super popular.
Is the Army’s New Tactical Bra Ready for Deployment?
It’s fire-resistant but not bulletproof, and was developed with help from eighteen thousand female soldiers.
By June 19, 2023
We owe many of the things that we wear and use every day to the military: beanies, cargo pants, T-shirts, trenchcoats, and aviator glasses.Illustration by Anna Haifisch
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Last summer, with the momentousness of a gender-reveal party and the exuberance of a ticker-tape parade, the United States Army announced its first combat-ready bra to the world. They called it the Army Tactical Brassiere (a.k.a. the A.T.B.). Conceived four years ago, the garment is still being tinkered with, but one day it will be a wardrobe staple for all women in the Army. David Accetta, the chief public-affairs officer for the research division developing the undergarment, the devcom Soldier Center (“devcom” stands for U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command), told Army Times that, if the brassiere is officially approved by the Army Uniform Board, “we would see that as a win for female soldiers.” Ashley Cushon, the project engineer of the team working on the item, assured me that it would “reduce the cognitive burden on the wearer.” And a military Web site reported that the A.T.B. would improve “overall soldier performance and lethality.” Gadzooks! Yes, it’s flame-resistant, but what else can it do? Shoot bullets? Hypnotize the enemy? Turn its wearer invisible?
I decided that I needed to try on The Bra. Full disclosure: there is no undergarment in the world that would gird my loins enough to prepare me for combat. I shy away from quarrels; I am afraid of bear spray. Clothes and gear, however, are another story, and, surprisingly, we owe many of the things that we wear and use every day to the military: beanies, cargo pants, T-shirts, trenchcoats, and aviator glasses—and can we agree that sanitary napkins count as gear? Duct tape, Cheetos, and Silly Putty all have military origins.
At ten hundred hours, on a cold morning in March, I arrived at the seventy-eight-acre Soldier System Center, a military installation in Natick, Massachusetts, west of Boston, to meet The Bra. At the first of two security gates, I was greeted by Accetta. (Tip: If you can’t arrange for a vetted Trusted Traveler escort, as I did, you’ll need to bring two I.D.s. Your draft record or your Defense Biometric Identification will work.) Accetta and I trudged down Upper Entrance Lane, past yellow plastic crash barriers plastered with such aphorisms as “People First” and “Winning Matters,” until we reached Building 4, MacArthur Hall, C.C.D.C. (a.k.a. devcom) Soldier Center. (Accetta said, “I’m convinced there’s an acronym generator at D.O.D.”) Whoever names these organizations must get paid by the word.
The original purpose of devcom Soldier Center, which was founded as the Quartermaster Research Facility, in 1949, was to update equipment that had proved tragically inadequate during the Second World War. For instance, the tents. They might have fared fine if the war had taken place in Santa Barbara, California, in May, indoors. In the muggy South Pacific jungle, though, the fabric succumbed to mildew and disintegrated after two weeks. Soldiers wearing uninsulated boots when they invaded the Aleutian Islands sustained more injuries from trench foot and exposure than they did from enemy fire.
The Soldier Center’s purview these days includes not just textiles and uniforms but shelters, airdrop systems, weaponry, and food. Projects have included a uniform that can change color and one that would enable troops to leap over twenty-foot walls; a courage pill; an “instant chapel,” which can be parachuted into war zones and which contains camouflage-patterned Jewish prayer shawls and compasses that point toward Mecca; a prototype for a protein bar (but doused with kerosene to insure that a soldier would eat it only in an emergency); and, as part of a pest-control experiment in 1974, irradiated cockroaches, which (whoops) escaped from garbage bags in the town dump and invaded homes—a screwup that required six months of repeated DDT and chlordane spraying to fix.
Today, the Soldier Center’s labs are more Willy Wonka-ish than ever. There are two climate chambers—one designated Tropics, the other Arctic—which can re-create just about any environment on earth in order to test products and the responses of human beings. Want to have your vitals monitored while you cycle on a stationary bike with forty-m.p.h. winds gusting your way, at temperatures of up to a hundred and sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit? You can do it here. Copper mannequins equipped with more than a hundred sensors are used to test hopefully protective garments, to see how soldiers would weather flash-fire scenarios similar to those resulting from an I.E.D. And, in Building 36, the Combat Feeding Division food-research people are concocting an assortment of meals in tubes—caffeinated chocolate pudding and truffle macaroni and cheese—to be consumed through straws jutting from ports in helmets. Each M.R.E.—meal ready-to-eat—is topped off with xylitol-enriched chewing gum to replace teeth brushing.
But lunch could wait (it’ll remain edible for three years). It was time for Accetta and me to report to the Design Pattern Prototype Shop and meet Ashley Cushon, The Bra’s designer, and Annette LaFleur, the team leader in charge of Army uniforms. Both had on chic black civvies. LaFleur’s group is made up of ten clothing designers and an industrial designer, none of whom have a military background. (Their experience includes fashion illustration, bridal couture, and sportswear design.) “We develop everything from dress uniforms to Arctic Protection Systems to body armor,” LaFleur said, as she showed me the studio. Around the room, headless mannequins modelled camo-patterned prototypes. The first one I saw was the I.H.W.C.U.-F. (Improved Hot Weather Combat Uniform—Female). One of the tailoring adjustments made to accommodate women’s bodies, an accompanying poster bewilderingly explained, is “a pen pocket shifted to allow for elbow bend.” I coveted an oversized jacket-and-suspendered-trousers combo in umber canvas, but it is meant for smoke jumpers—firefighters who parachute into hot spots and need protection both for landing and from biochemical gases.
Across from the firefighters, another mannequin showed off the new physical-fitness getup for pregnant soldiers—shorts with an expandable waist and a jacket capable of swelling. Workout wear for expectant servicewomen is a recent development. Maternity work uniforms (formal and combat) have been around since 1980, created to address complaints that the unsightly appearance of pregnant servicewomen wearing ill-fitting clothes was lowering troop morale. (Since the nineteen-seventies, it has been unconstitutional to kick a woman out of the military for being pregnant.) Laid out on a nearby table was an olive-drab top with a liftable panel, next to a museum-like label reading “Nursing T-Shirt.”
On to the A.T.B.! Just inside the door to the studio, four fibreglass dummies with perky, igloo-shaped breasts posed unabashedly in sturdy-looking black brassieres paired with black nylon Army Physical Fitness Uniform sweatpants. Each was different and represented what the design team calls a Concept. Concept A is a pullover style with padded cups; B is a “shelf style” pull-on with a racer back; Concepts C and D have cross-back straps. C has adjustable compression—the one to choose if you like the feel of a boa constrictor wrapped around your bust. D, with its zipper-front closure and contoured seams running parabolically under each breast, would befit a superhero who’s looking to zip into action lickety-split.
All four resemble the kinds of sports bras sold at Lululemon, but there are differences. These are fire-resistant, whereas the ones you can buy in stores are basically Duraflame logs spun into fabric. A.T.B.s are made of proprietary compression-knit fibres designed to wick moisture and dry quickly. Another feature of the Army Tactical Bra is that it’s tactical. “ ‘Tactical’ covers anything you wear in combat or training for combat,” Cushon said. “So you have to consider how the A.T.B.’s hardware and seaming placement is affected by other clothing items.”
Among the challenges that the designers at Maidenform do not face: how to insure that a soldier’s intimate apparel will remain intact after a hundred launderings, since mending is tricky when you are being shot at. For this reason, many of the garments have double closures—a zipper plus generic Velcro, say. However, according to LaFleur, “the really complex part is sizing. We strive to fit the fifth through the ninety-fifth percentile of our population, which is quite different from a private company that manufactures to a select target market.” In 2012, the Army collected body measurements from four thousand and eighty-two male and a thousand nine hundred and eighty-six female soldiers, through the U.S. Army Anthropometric Survey. LaFleur and her team use this data when designing uniforms. (The information was made public in 2017, and now you, too, can know the number of centimetres in the average “ball of foot circumference” or “ear breadth” or “tenth rib height.”)
But the A.T.B. team wanted to know more. So they authorized the Soldier Center’s consumer-research team, which includes a psychologist, to craft a questionnaire that was sent to eighteen thousand female soldiers, asking them what they needed in a bra.
What did they find out? LaFleur told me she was sorry, but that information was hush-hush. I begged. At last, I was given a few nuggets from their findings: namely, some female soldiers bind their breasts with adhesive tape or Ace bandages to reduce bounciness; others buy sports bras a size smaller than usual or wear two or three bras at once to increase support. Pretty much everyone wants a black bra, because it won’t show dirt and grime.
The idea of an Army bra was first broached in 2018, when Cushon tried to develop the Biometric Algorithm Monitoring Brassiere (bambi), which would not only keep bosoms in place but would use built-in sensors to monitor physiological changes in the wearer. The high-tech performance undergarment had the potential to tell you if you were tired. It was a non-starter.
I asked when she thought the A.T.B. might be included in the clothing bag issued to enlisting soldiers. As soon as various tweaks were made, she said, the bras would undergo testing. What sort of tweaks? “We’re considering decreasing the amount of loft in the spacer knit to make the design lower profile,” she said. Translation: make the fabric less thick. After the “user evaluations” are analyzed, The Bra will be fielded (Army-speak for “distributed”). But, she added, that action falls under the domain of Soldier Protective Equipment at Fort Belvoir, near Alexandria, Virginia.
If you are curious, as I was, why Cushon and her team didn’t make the A.T.B. bulletproof, it is because that would be superfluous. When a soldier is in harm’s way, the brassiere would be worn under a nearly invincible fortress of finery. “We’ve gotten pretty good at the science of stopping bullets. To do it with as little weight as possible, that’s the challenge,” Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Miller, the product manager of Soldier Protective Equipment at Fort Belvoir, told me when I visited the base. Except for underwear, his jurisdiction encompasses “pretty much everything that touches a soldier’s body,” he said, including Integrated Head Protection Systems (helmets, duh). I also met with Major Kim Pierre-Zamora, who specializes in body armor.
In a conference room, I was allowed to play dress-up, trying on one green or greige piece of clothing on top of another, lasagna style. (In the Army, layering is a way to add or subtract protective pieces.) The first component I put on was the Ballistic Combat Shirt—Female, a tight-fitting, camo-patterned long-sleeved top that made me feel and look as if I were wearing a trendy straitjacket from the Marquis de Sade’s 1944 spring collection. “This is the only female-specific item in the kit,” Pierre-Zamora said, explaining that it’s a “variant of the male—excuse me, unisex—shirt. We are gender-agnostic, but we didn’t want to keep giving the female soldiers mediums, and just say, ‘Hey, go deal with it.’ ”
The B.C.S.-F., she explained, is customized with “side bust protection,” “a sweep in the waist to account for women who may have more curves,” and “shorter sleeves to account for the female form.” It also has a U-shaped notch along the back of the neck, a feature designed for women wearing ponytails but which is now built into the unisex shirt as well, since it turns out that men, too, prefer not to have what Pierre-Zamora called “a big piece of soft ballistics stabbing them in the neck.” In 2021, the military revamped its hair regulations, and it is now permissible to keep hair in buns, twists, cornrows, braids, and ponytails, as long as it does not extend past the shoulder blades while a soldier is standing at attention; hair can be cut as short as she desires. Also acceptable are “solid lip and nail colors (non-extreme).” F.Y.I.: Nail shapes such as coffin, ballerina, and stiletto are forbidden; men are now allowed to wear clear nail polish.
Next, I Velcroed the Yoke and Collar Attachment snugly around my throat, and then ripped it off, because breathing is important to me. The pièce de résistance, literally, is the Modular Scalable Vest with pockets (front, back, and sides), into which armor plates can be inserted. Since 2018, it has come in eight sizes, three of them engineered for “small-statured individuals,” Miller explained. “Those sizes were purposely built for females, based on our anthropomorphic data, but we use the unisex label so that men are not discouraged from wearing those sizes.”
Finally, I stepped into the Blast Pelvic Protector, a pair of open-sided camo shorts that look like a Pampers product. As Pierre-Zamora put it, these “safeguard against underfoot blast and offer nine-mil protection right here at home plate for your reproductive organs.” To complete the ensemble, I donned a rucksack. (The donning required two assistants and took many minutes.) About thirty-five pounds heavier, I did the only thing I was capable of: I sat down. (Fact that will change the way you watch war movies: the average infantryman kitted up for a three-day mission carries a hundred and eighteen pounds of equipment.)
Back in Natick, I asked to try on The Bra. If you think Victoria has a secret, wait until you encounter the wall of obfuscation put up by the U.S. Army. “I worry the fit accuracy won’t be there,” Cushon said warily, warning me that, in such a case, “your comments would not be valid.”
LaFleur was just as evasive. “It may feel one way when you try it on but differently if you train in it,” she said, and offered a compromise: “Would it be O.K. just to take them off the mannequins so you can look at their construction?”
While the armed forces pondered my request, I dove into some historical research. The first American soldier ever to wear a bra-like thingamajig, I discovered, was Robert Shurtleff, who joined the Light Infantry Company of the 4th Massachusetts Regiment in 1782 as an élite fighter. Shurtleff served for seventeen months before losing consciousness in Philadelphia from a fever. The doctor who treated him discovered that he was a she—Deborah Sampson—who’d bound her breasts with a linen cloth. Women were not allowed, and Sampson’s stint in the Continental Army ended.
Women didn’t enter the military officially until 1901, and then only through a back door, when the Army Nurse Corps was founded. Those first nurses, about a hundred of them, were virginally attired in long, high-necked white dresses. The first woman to legally enlist in the military was Loretta Perfectus Walsh, who joined the Navy Reserves as a chief yeoman in 1917; in the next few years, she was followed by eleven thousand other female yeomen. The title makes it sound as if these women would at least be swabbing the deck while ducking artillery fire, but the yeomen—or yeomanettes, as they were called—mostly performed secretarial duties, although a few became switchboard operators (called Hello Girls) and fingerprint experts. There was no uniform for the women, but Walsh found a man’s jacket and improvised. In a photo, grinning triumphantly as she salutes, she’s wearing a wide-brimmed hat, a white shirt, and a neckerchief tied in a bow, looking like the world’s happiest Girl Scout leader.
I contacted Tanya Roth, the author of “Her Cold War: Women in the U.S. Military, 1945-1980,” who Zoomed with me from her house, in St. Louis. “When World War II hits, that’s when things get interesting,” she said. On July 1, 1943, women became full-fledged members of the Army, after Franklin Roosevelt signed legislation that changed the name of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (waac) to the Women’s Army Corps (wac) and endowed it with all the privileges and benefits of its male counterpart. This included snazzier uniforms. A hundred and fifty thousand women dutifully signed up during the war, mainly working clerical jobs, and they looked pretty swell while doing them. Others worked in munitions factories, doing jobs formerly held by men. To protect them, the eyewear company Willson Goggles manufactured the Saf-t-Bra, a plastic contraption that fit over breasts like a pair of conjoined hard hats.
In 1942, Vogue quoted a male soldier saying of his female counterparts, “To look unattractive these days is downright ‘morale-breaking and should be considered treason.’ ” The next year, that magazine carried an ad naming women in uniform the “Best Dressed Women in the World Today.” The government asked Elizabeth Arden to concoct a lipstick to match the red piping on women’s Marine Corps uniforms. Women marines were issued this Montezuma Red lipstick and matching nail polish in their official military kits. (It remained mandatory for thirty more years.) A Tangee cosmetics ad from the era reasoned, “No lipstick—ours or anyone else’s—will win the war. But it symbolizes one of the reasons we are fighting . . . the precious right of women to be feminine and lovely, under any circumstances.”
It seemed to symbolize something else, too. During the war, rumors circulated that women in the military were either lesbians or hussies. In 1943, a syndicated newspaper column, “Capitol Stuff,” claimed that Wacs were given free condoms. (They weren’t, but men were.) To counter the rumors, the Army needed to get out the message that women in the armed forces were both feminine and wholesome. The Wac director, Colonel Oveta Culp Hobby, ordered her recruits “to avoid rough or masculine appearance which would cause unfavorable public comment.”
Roth explained that, although the military used patriotism as a lure to recruit women during the war, after it was over, they had “to sell it by making the women look good.” In 1950, the Women’s Army Corps hired the fashion designer Hattie Carnegie to create six new uniforms for servicewomen. When they were débuted, in a fashion show on Governors Island, the Times noted the apparel’s “feminine charm in cut and silhouette,” the “pleasing taupe tone,” the “trim round collars [that] take the place of masculine revers,” and the “high belt” that lends the slacks “a well-defined and snug waistline.” And the hats! “What a difference! With her light touch, Miss Carnegie provided them with a downward tilt to the right side of the brim and had the insignia placed at the right instead of squarely in the front.”
The advent of the A.T.B. isn’t the first time the Army and a bra have been seen together in headlines. In 1957, when Lieutenant Jeane Wolcott first inspected her unit of Wacs, in Yokohama, Japan, she felt that ninety-five of her ninety-six recruits lacked a feminine je ne sais quoi. Her fix? Falsies, along with girdles and shoulder pads, and, in a few cases, mandatory visits to a diet doctor. One editorial cartoonist called the incident the “Battle of the Bulge.”
According to Roth, it wasn’t until the nineties, during Operation Desert Storm, that the way a woman’s uniform functions became more important than the way it looks. More than forty thousand women took part in that war. In 2016, all occupations and positions in the military were finally open to women. Most significant, women were no longer restricted from any jobs that dealt specifically with battle.
Today, more than seventeen per cent of the country’s armed forces is female. I talked to a handful of them over Zoom to find out how excited they might be about the imminent arrival of the tactical bra. None had heard of it. From the U.S. Army garrison in Grafenwöhr, Germany, a first lieutenant and artillery adviser to an infantry unit said, “If I could wear pink to work and look like a girl, that would be my preference, but I understand it’s the Army and that’s not an option.” I asked her what advice she would give the A.T.B. designers. “I’m in an airborne unit, so I jump out of planes,” she said. “The last thing I would want is a bra that’s too restrictive.” One recently minted officer from Kansas told me, “I don’t think it is a super-great idea, because everyone has different wants and needs when it comes to a bra.” She added, “I’d rather get a stipend to buy my own.”
After several rounds of negotiations that might have led to a ceasefire in another era, LaFleur and Cushon finally agreed to let me try on The Bra. Before deciding which of the four bra Concepts I should sample, Cushon took my measurements, just as the bra fitters at the Town Shop do. She did some arithmetic and consulted a chart with lots of squares showing “sister bra sizes,” which was a new one for me but did make me feel part of a bigger bra family. She told me that she had recently fit about six hundred and fifty female soldiers with the A.T.B. prototypes. She suggested that I try either the Concept C or the D.
“I could try them both,” I said. Wrong answer.
“I want to be conscious of the time,” Cushon said. I had two whole days, but I decided not to push my luck. Concept D it was. In a glass-walled cubicle, I pulled up the zipper with ease and immediately felt cozily swaddled. The synthetic support was robust and made me think I might enjoy being a mummy. For a moment, my thoughts turned to Barbie, who, in many ways, has one-upped the military for years. Barbie joined the Army in 1989, the year before Desert Storm. Her togs, including a battle-dress uniform and a midnight-blue gown with gold braid trim for nights out as a captain, were approved by the Pentagon. She, like human soldiers, does not yet have a combat-ready bra, but, on the other hand, she does not appear to have problems with jiggling. ♦