Air Force OKs Pants for Women's Mess Dress Uniforms

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Tops in Blue mess dress
Tops in Blue closes out the show with a rendition of the Air Force song while in their mess dress, Oct. 10, 2015, at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C. (U.S. Air Force photo/Aaron J. Jenne)

For the first time, the Air Force is allowing female airmen to wear pants instead of the traditional floor-length A-line skirt with their mess dress uniforms.

The exception-to-policy memorandum, issued Aug. 4, is effective immediately, according to a service news release. The decision, officials said, was the result of "overwhelming feedback" from airmen.

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"It's our responsibility to provide flexible uniform options that are functional and comfortable for all Air and Space Professionals," Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, said in the release. "We have a lot of people working really hard to review our existing policies to make sure there are no unintended barriers or unfair practices that may be impacting specific groups of people on our team."

Air Force mess dress is the most formal dress uniform, reserved for black tie-level events. It consists of a blue dress jacket with silver trim and shiny lapels over a white shirt, with blue pants or a floor-length skirt. Previously, exceptions to allow women to wear trousers with the uniform had been made on a more narrow, case-by-case basis.

Female airmen are now authorized to purchase and alter men's mess dress trousers, which will be provided by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service without cost, according to the release. New mess dress slacks designed specifically for women will be available in approximately 18 to 24 months, it added.

Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth Wright said the brass considered airmen's feedback in making the decision.

"A small thing, but one that I hope can go a long way to helping Airmen realize that we listen, we hear, and we care," he said.

The change will be included in the next update of Air Force Instruction 36-2903, Dress and Personal Appearance of Air Force Personnel, according to the release.

"This is a step in the right direction in creating an inclusive culture, Kelly said, adding that the Air Force will continue making efforts to remove uniform barriers in the Air Force.

The most recent change follows a series of uniform updates aimed at better meeting the needs of female airmen. Under recently retired Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force began an in-depth overhaul of female flight suits and other uniform items. Last year, it authorized two-piece flight suits, making it easier for women to take bathroom breaks on long flights.

In June, the service moved forward with plans to purchase specially made maternity flight suits for the first time.

Last October, Goldfein promised that better-fitting dress blue uniforms for female airmen were also on the way.

"Our uniforms have traditionally not been sized for women, and that's beyond just the uniform itself. It's also the gear that we have. We have women performing in every combat mission, and we owe it to them to have gear that fits," Goldfein told reporters in 2018.

-- Bing Xiao can be reached at bingxiao2020@u.northwestern.edu.

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