September 20, 2011 marked the end of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the policy that barred gays and lesbians from serving openly in the armed services. After an exhaustive Senate battle, a thorough report from the Department of Defense's Comprehensive Review Working Group, a filibuster, and a few (defunct) predictions that our brave men and women would desert their posts knowing a homosexual was fighting on the line next to them, gays and lesbians could be out and proud in uniform without the worry of retaliation.
A few months before that, the New York State Legislature and Governor Cuomo passed the Marriage Equality Act allowing same-sex couples to marry in New York state. Maryland and Washington soon followed.
While the move toward nationwide equality is grand, it left many gays in military relationships in a possible matrimonial conundrum: What to wear to the wedding?
Engaged gay couples in which one of the two is a serviceman have no set standard to build upon, leaving them to make up tradition and guidelines for dress as they go along. Regardless of the misconception that all gay men posses a genetic sense for fashion and instinctively know how to tie a double Windsor, many may not feel so comfortable in the haute seat.
Military weddings are nothing new. The serviceman, in lieu of a tux or fine suit, wears his well-pressed service dress uniform with shoes and medals brightly shined and collar starched sharp enough to carve an Easter ham. The bride, be she straight or gay, usually wears a white or other traditional dress (though if a suit is more your style, read on).
I myself faced this problem recently. My partner, a sergeant in the Army Reserves, proposed back in October; after a romantic night in with a homemade dinner, he got down on one knee and presented me with a tungsten ring with an iridescent band of abalone shell.
I said yes and, well, here we are: two gays with zero sense of style trying to cobble together an August wedding. Yet, while he's ready to go on wearing his service dress, I'm in Nordstrom learning the difference between a regular and French cuff shirt. (Who knew?)
I asked my wedding planner, Kate Miller of Kate Miller Events, for help stitching the whole thing together as thoughts of boutonnieres and tie patterns put me into a stupefied haze. Compared to my fiancé's broad jacketed shoulders and chest covered in regulation bling, how was I supposed to dress and be complementary, if even seen? A search online showed zero discussion on the topic.
"Same-sex couples are more playful with tradition," explains Bernadette Coveney Smith, founder of 14 Stories, a wedding planning company that focuses on gay weddings that formed after Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage in 2004. "Since there's no real precedent, these couples often mix up traditions and make them more interesting."
Coveney Smith argues that, with this lack of tradition, the civilian of the couple may feel out of place while the soldier is wholly at home in his service dress. In fact, the serviceman is worry free -- at most, some service stripes may have to be sewn on the sleeves.
"The main thing is that the non-army partner has to be comfy in his own skin. He needs to wear something that'll be comfortable to wear for six to eight hours and still reflect his own identity," says Coveney Smith.
Part of being comfortable is simply dressing properly for the wedding. "Shined shoes and a professional shave -- perhaps even a manicure and pedicure -- can help the groom feel more at home," says Coveney Smith. Think of this overly involved grooming process as a civilian cleanliness regimen akin to that of any Navy airmen (though your hair needn't be regulation length, a benefit if you prefer a shaggy do).
Miller recommends taking weather into consideration for a suit. Most service dress is patched together with heavy, hot materials. Great if you're planning a winter wedding, but in the dead heat of August, it's rather sweltering. A civilian suit offers the chance for flexibility.
"Match the weight of the suit to the season. Linen and cotton blends in summer, but for winter wear flannel, corduroy, tweeds, and wool blends because they're warmer and the textures are more cold-weather appropriate," says Miller. "It's something a lot of grooms fail to think about and then they suffer through the ceremony and reception."
"Keep the accessories minimal," suggests Julie Sabatino, a New York-based personal shopper and stylist who specializes in weddings. "There's a lot of focus and a lot going on with a military suit. A groom should think of how to look good next to it and not be super busy."
With ribbons, medals, epaulets, and all other sorts of flare going on, the civilian groom should keep things simple. "Trying to compete is fruitless, a simple tie-pin or set of cufflinks are just fine," says Coveney Smith in regards to the matching military flare. She also suggests that grooms distinguish themselves with a smart boutonnière.
For the suit itself, it's also about color coordination. Military service suits usually range from the dark navy blue to black range (Army green service dress will soon be fazed out for a black and navy blue service dress, and Navy men wear white service dress).
"Imagine the two of you in a picture -- what works and what doesn't? If your partner is wearing Army green dress, then a charcoal or khaki color suit is fine. If they're in Navy, white service dress there are plenty of options such as a navy colored suit. I think that the Marine service dress with its sash and sword lend itself well to black tie, while the Air Force seems more casual," explains Sabatino.
Miller suggests that, really, the final word sits with the couple and what they want themselves and their guests to get out of it. "Have fun. With luck, it's your only wedding. Dress the way YOU want to."
Some Helpful Points of Dress
- The civilian groom's tie and pocket square are easy to match to service groom's jacket in order to establish coordination between the two.
- "Have the circumference of your neck and the length of your arms measured for your shirt and jacket," says Miller. "It really makes all the difference."
- Pick a suit that you can wear more than once and that has flexibility for anything from a job interview to happy hour at a jaunty downtown bar.
- Consider your budget and shop around to compare prices.
- A tuxedo is always a simple and elegant way to go for a more formal wedding. "Still," says Coveney Smith, "it has to work together and not compete."
- Shoes should always match the belt.
Other suggestions for those couples walking down the aisle? Feel free to leave your ideas in the comments.