FORT BELVOIR, Virginia — The US Army is testing its first-ever combat uniform expressly designed to fit the female figure, a move seen as an overdue effort to make 160,000 US women soldiers more comfortable.
Don't expect a camouflage haute couture revolution for America's military women; the changes will be visibly slight, although they are important, said the first person to try on the women's army combat uniform, or ACU.
"The unisex uniform was a little bit baggy," Major Sequana Robinson told AFP, undoubtedly summing up the attitudes of thousands of female soldiers who for decades have had to make do with ill-fitting fatigues.
"The goal is not to have female soldiers accentuate their curves, but... it alleviates some of the excess material" that had come to typify the unisex uniform worn by far more men than women.
For years the US Army offered standard-issue unisex ACUs, which sought to neutralize gender differences but were often considered uncomfortable and unwieldy by female troops.
Robinson, assistant product manager for soldier clothing at the Program Executive Office, which is responsible for what US soldiers wear or carry and is preparing the uniform, was modeling the ACU prototype at this military base south of the capital Washington.
Some 600 women soldiers will comprehensively test the garments beginning next January. If approved by the Army Uniform Board, the female battle garments, which have undergone five years of study and design tweaking, could be rolled out as early as 2012.
Design of the new fatigues is the latest step toward gender parity in the US military, where women have broken into most areas of service and command.
Women have served in some way in the US Army since 1775. And the Pentagon has issued female uniform ensembles for decades, albeit for ceremonial events or non-combat positions.
But it does not allow women, who now make up 14 percent of the army, to be assigned to ground combat units, although they are in support units and serve as gunners, truck drivers, military police, and helicopter pilots.
In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where US troops have been fighting insurgencies that use unconventional forces and tactics, US women have increasingly found themselves in the thick of battle, when having well-fitting clothing in extreme environments can suddenly prove critical.
The woman's ACU is "definitely a first for the army," said Mary Harwood, a so-called human factors engineer for the US Army who played a key role in the difficult but key changes to the khaki and digitized camouflage uniforms.
They have made "adjustments to fit the anthropomorphic measurement of the body," she added.
What women troops will find is a garment far more accommodating of the female form.
Among the key changes are the addition of vents in back that provide space for a woman's bust; narrowing of the shoulders; replacement of trouser drawstrings with elastic waistbands; adjustment of waist-to-hip ratios; and alterations to the front and back rise.
Or, as Harwood conceded in language only a fashionista could love: "more material... to accommodate the buttocks."
Other changes include a lengthening of the coat over the hips, and repositioning of rank insignias, sleeve pockets, and elbow and knee patches.
The army said feedback from soldiers complaining that the ACU "does not properly fit most females" prompted the new design, and that preliminary tests showed the uniforms are "less bulky, more comfortable, economical and have improved aesthetics for female soldiers."
The ACU is the successor to the Battle Dress Uniform, or BDU, which the US military had assigned its troops from 1981 until 2005.
Robinson said at first she was concerned that the uniform "was going to be too tight, and unnecessarily cling to a woman's figure."
But the major quickly warmed to the idea of trading in her unisex ACU for more form-fitting fatigues that make her feel like a professional soldier.
"I'm not wearing my brother's pants, I'm wearing something made for me."
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