As the U.S. military prepares over the next few years to open all jobs to women, including combat roles, the Army recently debuted a newly designed, female-friendly uniform. Originally conceived as a women’s uniform, it’s now being referred to as a unisex option. The new style is designed to better fit a woman’s body, featuring narrower shoulders, a fitted waist, adjusted sleeve length and a rank insignia that sits above ‒ rather than right on – the breast.
What’s most striking about the new uniform is how similar it looks to the current masculine-geared version. The new design incorporates small tweaks for fit rather than any great re-imagining of style. It seems like a conscious effort to ensure that female soldiers won’t stand out from their male counterparts.
But not that long ago, the U.S. Army was advising a far different look, style and attitude for women serving in the military, as is evident in these official training films from the late 1960s and early ’70s, which recently were made available on the National Archives’ YouTube channel.
“Military Etiquette and Grooming” is a series of three films produced by the Department of Defense, aimed at teaching members of the Women’s Army Corps the proper way to dress, style their hair and makeup, and behave in a proper military (read: feminine) manner.
The shorts, along with a fourth bonus video, are an amazing time capsule, and, from our 21st-century perspective, unintentionally hilarious.
Remember, of course, the context: These films were made in the era of the Vietnam War, the ’60s counterculture, the early stirrings of the Watergate scandal and the rise of the modern women’s movement. The world was turning upside down, and institutions were scrambling to resist the changes or to adjust, often in embarrassingly awkward ways.
Like the TV series “Mad Men,” which now is edging fitfully into that same late ’60s/early ’70s era, these Army training films serve as a reminder of how far women have come. But they also reveal a deep current of sexism in the military that continues in today’s armed forces.
“Look Like a Winner” starts off with the narrator congratulating women on the vast array of options newly available to them in the early ’70s. “Well, ladies you’ve come a long way, no question about it,” he intones. “You have more to say these days about your education, your appearance, your occupation and your role in life than any young women have ever had in history. Yes, you have a voice in your own destiny.”
The “you’ve come a long way, baby” speech is accompanied by a frenetic video of a young woman in a miniskirt writhing to disco music at a dance club. But hey, girls just wanna have fun, right?
The film advises military women on some simple rules of “good grooming,” recognizing that “with all the demands a girl has on her time, it’s pretty hard.”
Some tips seem surprisingly self-evident, such as the emphasis on the importance of regular bathing. (“For many girls, the daily shower is a new experience and one they don’t welcome too readily.”) The narrator also warns: “You can’t get by with a deodorant alone. If you want to smell clean, you have to be clean.” Good advice, then and now, though it makes you wonder what sort of women the Army thought it was attracting.
Other tips include the importance of going to a professional hairstylist, as “no one can be attractive with unkempt and poorly styled hair.” After one woman complains that her hair is a mess, the narrator steps in to offer, “Well, I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a mess, but she’s right to be concerned.”
The film also stresses the importance of makeup and dieting in order to “look better in your uniform” and “move with confidence and grace.”
Ultimately, the film seems to argue that a woman’s destiny – and military prowess – is pretty much predicated on her appearance. As the narrator explains, “Grooming pays off in social acceptance, career advancement and in personal popularity.”
“Mind Your Military Manners” follows a Women’s Army Corps commander as she decides whom to select among three candidates for a choice assignment overseas. (“I would give anything to have that groovy job in Belgium,” one hopeful says.)
We meet the three “fine girls” the commander is evaluating. Marilyn is “one of the prettiest girls” in the company, though she unfortunately “doesn’t make the most” of her looks, wearing jewelry and extreme hairstyles and hiking up her uniform skirt. Big red flag.
Carol is smart, efficient, kind to others and probably would get the job if her boss “decided on her work alone.” However, Carol has a “real problem,” according to her commanding officer, because she “confuses military manner and behavior with male mannerisms.”
At one point, a male officer enters the scene to complain about Carol, saying he’d “like our young ladies around here” to “walk and talk, stand and sit like young ladies.”
The commanding officer sighs to the camera. “See what I mean? A real problem.” She sternly shakes her head at the masculine-mannered Carol. “If she would only learn to walk properly!” she says.
The final candidate, Susan, is not as efficient as Carol, nor as pretty as Marilyn, but the commanding officer tells us that “she is completely feminine at all times. And let me assure you, that adds to her military effectiveness.” Susan has mastered the art of proper phone answering and knows “how to walk, stand and sit in a graceful, feminine manner.”
So who gets the job? The film never definitively answers this question. The narrator merely says, “Girls, it’s up to you!” But it seems clear that less-than-ladylike Carol shouldn’t pack her bags for the groovy Belgium job anytime soon.
“I keep forgetting, he’s not an officer, so I let him open the door, right?”
To help answer such perennial social stumpers as when to open the door, which utensil to use and when it’s OK to order your own dinner on a date (spoiler: never), the Army served up this guide to “good manners, social grace and courtesy.” Prepare yourself for full immersion into what, even in those days, was some seriously retro, 1950s social advice.
Poor Sandy’s evening is wrecked because she fails to follow the simple rules of dating etiquette and dares to order food for herself. “Always tell your escort what you’d like to have – and then let him place the order for you,” the narrator reminds us. But Sandy can’t help herself: She dares to talk to the waiter and, as it is apparently impossible for two people to order food without constantly interrupting each other, the date is a disaster.
Sandy’s intermittent pleading looks to the camera for advice on the various socially sticky situations she gets herself into is worth the price of admission in and of itself.
Meanwhile, that frisky Marilyn learns a valuable lesson about when it is acceptable to wear a miniskirt and patterned pantsuit (hint: off-duty and in cinematic dream sequences). She comes to learn that a feared female commander actually is “an absolutely groovy person” and “really a swinger,” because the older woman is also a fan of bell bottoms ‒ as long as they’re worn in appropriate situations.
Sue, on the other hand, gets confused about when to stand up to greet officers once she’s off-duty. But through the Army’s careful guidance, she comes to appreciate the fact that “after 1700 hours, this little pumpkin becomes a lady, and they stand for me.”
Sue sums up the video’s hard–won lessons with a giggle: “It’s worthwhile; I really enjoy just being a girl!”
In case you’re wondering about the social training given to male soldiers on the cusp of the ’70s disco era, watch this Navy training video for men. “How to Succeed with Brunettes” schools male military personnel on proper dating etiquette, including the importance of picking up your date on time, refraining from mussing her hair and remembering to open all those pesky doors. (When one ungentlemanly guy lets his date open a door, the narrator sarcastically comments: “Sure, treat her as an equal. Women like that.”)
The film also offers tidbits like: “Check the menu with your date. And if you have any knowledge about the specialties of the house or know particularly good dishes, let her in on it.”
The film is even more strikingly out of it when you consider that it was produced in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War – when most soldiers had far greater concerns on their mind than thorny questions of dating etiquette.
The film (and its sequel, “Blondes Prefer Gentlemen”) later were enshrined in filmmaking lore when the then-upstart “60 Minutes” awarded them a mock Oscar as the most unnecessary and fiscally wasteful films on record. The short film cost taxpayers $64,000 – about $446,000 in today’s dollars – according to a preservation specialist familiar with the film.
But that was before the advent of YouTube, and now yesteryear’s frivolous, irresponsible and costly film has the chance to become this year’s viral sensation. Let the training (and historical education) of a new generation of soldiers begin.
Amanda Pike is the producer for The I Files, a project of The Center for Investigative Reporting. The I Files selects and showcases the best investigative videos from around the Web and across the world. Major contributors include The New York Times, BBC, ABC, Al-Jazeera, NPR, Vice TV and the Investigative News Network. You can subscribe to The I Files here. You can follow Amanda on Twitter: @AmandaHPike.