The U.S. Navy is getting a 21st century makeover, with a new dress code that makes skirts optional for its more than 54,000 female sailors for the first time since women officially entered the service in 1908.
Women can still choose to wear skirts, which come in colors that vary according to rank and sometimes the season. But until the new rules went into effect this month, they had to maintain skirts in their sea bags and could be ordered to wear them for special events such as change-of-command and retirement ceremonies.
The revamped skirt policy is one of several new changes to the dress code recommended after a survey of more than 40,000 sailors. As a result, all sailors in working uniform can now wear cell phones and carry garment bags over their shoulders. Women can also ditch their military purses -- boxy and widely unpopular "granny bags" -- and purchase more stylish replacements from department stores.
"They are really commonsense, practical changes that are in line with the Navy of the 21st century," said Lisa Mikoliczyk, a spokeswoman for Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Terry Scott.
When the results of the survey came in earlier this year, Navy officials discovered that, along with answering the 33 questions, the respondents had written more than 5,500 pages of comments on topics that weren't necessarily covered, said Master Chief Robert Carroll, director of the uniform task force.
Among women's leading complaints: That it made little sense to pack skirts in their sea bags and maintain them aboard ships because it wasn't practical to wear them.
They also noted that the skirts didn't compliment many women's shapes. "There was sensitivity regarding the abdomen area," Carroll said. "They gave an individual a pouch even if you didn't have one."
Furthermore, one of the skirts -- a dress-blue one with a narrow cut -- had no kick pleat. "You definitely couldn't break out into a full run," he said.
The Navy plans to add a kick pleat to that skirt and to redesign others to make them more flattering, Carroll said.
Other changes may be on the way for both men and women. The Navy is considering getting rid of its summer white and winter blue uniforms and going to a year-round service uniform for ranks E-6 and below. For all ranks, the Navy is experimenting with a multicolored battle dress uniform that would replace six or seven working uniforms.
The decision to make skirts optional has won raves.
"Just being able to say 'This is what I want to wear today.' ... That's a good thing," said Chief Petty Officer Tracey Jackson, a Navy career counselor in Norfolk.
Skirts won't vanish from the Navy, or from the other military branches. The Marine Corps and Air Force still require skirts for certain formal occasions. The Army said they're optional, but women must still maintain their military-issued skirts.
The Navy's new dress code also allows sailors to wear cell phones, personal digital assistants and pagers if they are on official business. But the devices can't be visible from the front and must be worn on a belt.
And Navy men and women in working uniform no longer have to hold gym bags, suitcases, backpacks and garment bags in their hands. Now, they can place the straps over their shoulders.
Women said they are especially pleased that they can use their own purses, as long as they fit the Navy's dimension and color requirements -- and no visible brand logo is allowed.
The military purses -- in brown, black and white -- are so bulky and unattractive that some sailors wouldn't be caught dead with them after work. But switching belongings between a personal handbag and a military purse caused headaches.
"I'd always forget something," Jackson said. "Usually, my checkbook."