As I moved to close the car door, I happened to look down. Uh-oh. I was wearing athleisure leggings. I did a quick mental calculation.
Color of the leggings + intended use (regular wear vs. athletic pursuit) + other clothing
This could determine whether I am asked to leave the exchange or whether they let me slide, for today. Luckily, I was wearing a normal shirt, the leggings were black and I had on flats. If I had been wearing a race finisher shirt, the story could be totally different!
Every military base has very clear guidelines about what you can and cannot wear in each building or location. Understanding the expectations at your base could make your time there much easier.
Understanding the Dress Code at Your Military Installation
Where to Find the Dress Code
Every military building has the dress code prominently displayed, usually near the front door. Typically, the dress code is a poster-sized color graphic the includes demonstrations of correct and incorrect attire. Following a dress code, for service members, civilians and dependents, shows a level of respect for the installation. It also promotes good order and discipline.
Each branch of service has slightly different expectations and dress codes.
Things that might pass muster on an Air Force base will not fly at a Marine Corps installation.
Clothing guidelines are often building or activity specific. The outfit that you wore to the gym is likely not going to be acceptable at the commissary, PX, post office, hospital, library, consolidated club or anywhere else on base. Generally, gym clothes or workout gear is limited to the fitness center. While there is more latitude at the gym in terms of attire, most dress codes require that outfits remain modest without revealing undergarments.
Base to Base Differences
Just like each service might have slightly different dress code expectations, each individual duty station interprets the rules too. While the general dress code is the same service-wide, some bases are more strict and others more relaxed.
Military bases that are on the West Coast and in Hawaii are notoriously more relaxed. Flip flops and athleisure wear are more standard there and seem to be allowed without comment at installation buildings. Some overseas locations, like Okinawa, also seem to follow a more relaxed dress code.
However, the closer you get to the service headquarters and to Washington, D.C., the more strictly the dress code is enforced. Things that were allowed in southern California might not be considered acceptable in northern Virginia.
As you are PCSing, connect with a local spouses’ Facebook group and ask about dress code enforcement. You’ll want to know in advance whether your leather flip flops could cause a scene.
Across all services and installations, there are some general rules to follow.
Ripped, torn or otherwise overly distressed clothing is not considered acceptable. Those distressed jeans might be OK, but clothing that has clearly been through the wringer should be left at home.
Hats and ball caps need to be removed inside all buildings. This includes other hat-like head coverings too. The exception would be items worn for religious reasons. However, this rule seems to be relaxing at many locations.
Revealing items, for men and women, are a faux pas at military installations. For women, this includes clothing that shows too much cleavage, skinny tank top straps, midriff-baring tops and short skirts or shorts. Men should avoid overly baggy pants that reveal underwear and must wear a shirt. Most military installations also have language in the dress code, for men, about properly fitting shirts.
Bathing suits and swimwear should be covered when not at the actual beach or pool. This includes using the beach-side stores and restaurants. Remember to bring a cover-up or a change of clothing with you.
Athleisure wear is becoming the norm for many, but it is still considered unacceptable attire on military installations. There may be wiggle room depending on your location or the specific outfit.
Flip flops and sandals could violate the dress code, based on the specific installation’s interpretation of the rules. Generally, shoes with a back strap or closed toe are considered appropriate.
If You’re Asked to Leave
First, don’t make a scene. This will only draw more attention to you and could escalate the situation. Instead, calmly ask to speak privately with the store manager or another person in authority.
Next, when you are in a quiet spot, ask for a brief explanation of why you are being asked to leave. If their explanation makes sense, based on the dress code, it is better to comply. You could let the store manager know that you are new to the base or the military in general. Including an apology along with your explanation could help soften things. They might be willing to let it slide today, with a reminder for future visits.
On your next visit, remember to follow the rules more carefully.