In 1996, Lieutenant Commander Claire V. Bloom became the first woman to serve as executive officer of USS Constitution. She also became the first woman to don an officer’s 1812-style uniform in the modern U.S. Navy. While sailors at other U.S. Navy stations wear their “dress whites” or “dress blues” for formal occasions, USS Constitution’s sailors wear their “1812s.” These custom-made uniforms commemorate the War of 1812, the time period for which Constitution is most famous, and are unique to Constitution’s crew.
Bloom’s 1812-replica uniform includes a cocked hat, coat with buttons and epaulet, waistcoat, shirt, jabot, breeches, stockings, and a pair of shoes. Bloom was asked if she wanted a skirt, but she declined, pointing out that any female sailors aboard ships in the Age of Sailor would have been disguised as men anyway. Her standard-issue 1990s-era U.S. Navy purse also became a semi-official part of her uniform. In a 1998 interview with The Boston Globe, Bloom said, “I am a woman. I carry a purse and carry all my stuff in my purse, even when I’m walking around in an 1812 uniform.” Bloom’s uniform, along with her purse, are on display at the USS Constitution Museum.
“There is no question the uniform was spectacularly awesome, but no question after a turnaround cruise in the summer I couldn’t wait to get it off,” remarked Bloom in a 2020 interview. “It was so hot! Also, the epaulet on the one shoulder was really heavy and used to pull that side of the jacket down. My original uniform (short jacket) was made in the style of 1812 by a private seamstress, and was actually much more comfortable. The long coat uniform was made in the style of 1813 by the Navy Uniform folks in Newport, and was much heavier.” Bloom’s second, longform uniform is the one on display at the Museum.
Bloom joined the Navy at age 34 after working in commercial real estate and social services. During her 17-year Navy career, she held 11 shore-based jobs. Her last assignment before arriving at Constitution was assistant director of the Women’s Policy Office, where she researched female “firsts” in the Navy and helped establish policies that opened the door for women to serve on surface combatant ships. “[Women] can do any job,” she said. “It is up to us to make sure that we are doing a great job, and that we are heard and stand up for ourselves when subjected to unfair treatment.”
She never thought she would become a navy “first” herself, however. There had been enlisted women serving on Constitution since 1986, but none at the rank of officer. “Frankly, an XO is an XO ” she reflected in a 2020 interview. “I am one of those who sees a job that needs doing, and I just do it. I don’t want glory, recognition, or awards, I just get satisfaction from doing a good job to help out.”
As Constitution‘s executive officer from 1996 to 1998, Bloom had the opportunity to participate in “Old Ironsides'” historic sail on July 21, 1997. On that day that day, the ship sailed for the first time in 116 years, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of its launch in 1797.
“Serving on Constitution was the highlight of my career,” she said. “I learned that people are capable of so very much if you give them the opportunity, and so my expectations of others were high and still are, and I am rarely disappointed!”
After retiring from the Navy, Bloom became the founder and volunteer Executive Director of End 68 Hours of Hunger (E86), which is a public not-for-profit effort to confront the approximately 68 hours of hunger that some school children experience between the free lunch they receive at school on Friday afternoon and the free breakfast they receive at school on Monday morning. “There is no question that all I learned from the Navy got me the skills I needed to start E68,” Bloom said. “Administrative, and also management and leadership!” Bloom went on to several books, including End 68 Hours of Hunger: Ending Childhood Hunger in America, One School at a Time, and Getting Better: My Journey Through Transverse Myelitis and Lessons for Health Care Providers, Patients and Families. She is the recipient of a Navy Commendation Medal, the Champion of Human and Civil Rights award from the National Educators Association of New Hampshire, and the Purpose Prize Fellowship.
Visitor Experience Representative, USS Constitution Museum
Hilarie Samei was a Visitor Experience Representative at the USS Constitution Museum.