Inside the design studio creating uniforms for pregnant Marines

Fashion designers are problem solvers, but often their challenges lie in creating comfortable jeans or supportive bras. The stakes are higher for Emily Madden: she is responsible for preparing pregnant women for combat.

Madden is a clothing designer in the military, whose department is responsible for creating clothing for all branches of the armed forces. For the past four years, she has supported the Marine Corps by designing clothing for female Marines. Many women’s military uniforms haven’t been updated in half a century, but as women take on greater responsibilities in the military, sometimes while pregnant or breastfeeding, this design team creates the clothes they need to do their job well.

Emily Madden [Photo: Tonya Smith/MCSC/USMC]

Designing military apparel comes with unique challenges, beyond equipping soldiers to enter dangerous areas. Uniforms must fit many body types correctly, they must be made entirely in the United States, and they must be cost-effective because they are produced at taxpayer expense. But Madden believes designing comfortable and effective clothing for pregnant women is an important step toward gender equity in the military.

Pregnant soldiers speak up

Prior to joining the military, Madden was a mainstream fashion designer. After earning a degree in clothing design from the University of Wisconsin, she worked for Kohl’s and other major brands. But when she saw a job offer for this design role with the U.S. Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command’s Soldier Center, Madden thought she could use her skills to serve her country. . “My background was understanding how fabrics work and drape based on how you move,” she says. “He lends himself very well to a position like this.

She came at an interesting time in the history of the military. Women have served in the armed forces since 1948, but in the early years they were largely relegated to administrative roles. In the 1970s, women were allowed to enter military service academies and to fight, but it was not until the 1990s that they were allowed to perform combat missions or serve on ships. of fight. At each of those turns, the Army made uniforms for women, but most haven’t been significantly updated in decades, according to Madden.

But things are starting to change, partly because women are calling for it. There are still many issues that hold women in the military back, including sexual harassment and assaultbut you will also find more women than ever in combat roles and to be promoted to leadership positions. This change empowers women to talk about their needs, which leads to change.

The army, for example, is currently developing a tactical bra so military women don’t need to buy ready-made sports bras. Madden is not part of this project, but designers from all branches of the armed forces share ideas; she may possibly borrow part of the design from a Marine Corp bra.

Meanwhile, in the Marines, military women demand clothing specifically designed for pregnancy. Three years ago, Major Desiree Sanchez was aide-de-camp to the deputy commander of the Marines when she found out she was pregnant. As her pregnancy progressed, her comrades wore blue uniforms that Marines use for special ceremonies, but hers no longer fit her. She was stuck wearing the everyday khaki uniform called a “pickle” uniform, the belt of which happened to fit her growing belly.

[Photo: NEX/MCX]

Sanchez took the issue to his superiors, sparking an internal discussion that went all the way to Congress. In 2019, the Army agreed to start producing maternity uniforms. “Women’s roles are changing and they are speaking out,” she says. “We hear conversations about things like maternity leave happening at the Congressional level, but when it comes to uniforms, it’s really up to our little design office to come up with solutions.”

The expanding sailor uniform

The Madden team is currently working to adapt 11 different uniforms within the Navy portfolio to make them suitable for pregnancy and nursing. While pregnant women represent a small proportion of the armed forces, they have more and more responsibilities. Women in the air force, for example, were recently cleared to fly in combat in their third trimester. And Madden points out that having ill-fitting clothes can make it difficult for pregnant women to move comfortably or think upright.

Rather than creating clothes for every stage of pregnancy, the team’s goal is to create a collection of uniforms that expands and contracts from pregnancy through the postpartum period, when women’s bodies restores. This tactic aligns with trends in the maternity clothing industry, as many women don’t want to buy more clothes than they need. And from the military’s point of view, this approach makes financial sense. “Part of our mandate is to make the best use of taxpayers’ money,” Madden says.

To create these new pieces, the designers researched the current maternity fashion market, exploring brands like Motherhood Maternity. These days, maternity brands are incorporating stretchy compression fabrics originally designed for activewear into many garments, including jeans and leggings. The Madden team uses a similar fabric to update sailor uniforms to create 360 ​​belly panels in the skirts and pants of blue uniforms and khaki uniforms.

[Photo: NEX/MCX]
[Photo: NEX/MCX]

Designers have also used plenty of button plackets to make these garments easy to expand. They included them in pleated skirts, so women could loosen them as their bellies grew. As for the tops, they created long, loose blouses with plackets at the back that they can adjust so the shirt keeps its shape as it grows.

Each piece has been wear tested on female Marines who are in various stages of pregnancy, including the third trimester. “We want the pieces to be non-restrictive, so they can grow with you,” Madden says. “But we also heard from these women that they wanted the outfits to be crisp and flattering. They must be proud of their uniforms.

The team also thinks about postpartum needs. Madden says many women find it difficult to breastfeed or pump milk in their current uniforms, and some buy ready-made nursing t-shirts and tank tops to use for the task. Her team launched a breastfeeding t-shirt that resembles those worn by their peers. On the top there are two slits on the right and left which allow easy access for nursing or pumping, but when buttoned up they look like a t-shirt. “It has a very simple design, which keeps costs down,” says Madden. “We looked for a very cottony polyester blend that still offered the look of a regular t-shirt.”

Madden’s team transformed these prototypes in a matter of months. But making them was another challenge. All military uniforms must be made domestically, but many local manufacturers have had supply chain issues during the pandemic. While the first uniforms were released in April this year, more are still being made.

“We want to be there for them from the time they find out they’re pregnant until 39 weeks,” she says. “We want to make sure that no pregnant military woman feels uncomfortable when she goes to work to serve her country.”

Joseph E. Golightly