Now hear this, sailors: When it rains or snows, you may carry an umbrella but it "will be plain, solid black, without ornamentation" and "will be carried in the left hand to permit saluting."

Moreover, when it really gets cold, the men and women of the Navy now are authorized to put on earmuffs, but only navy blue ones, and only while wearing an overcoat.

Adm. Carlisle A.H. Trost, in one of those seemingly minor decisions that only the military can make controversial, recently approved recommendations from the Navy's Uniform Board aimed at "improving the quality of life for Navy personnel."

Resolving almost two decades of debate, the chief of naval operations decided it was okay for male sailors and officers around the world to carry an umbrella when it rains or snows.

The board announced the decision in a "uniform advisory" distributed Nov. 2, formally approving umbrellas "as an optional {uniform} item."

The issue had been debated within the Navy off and on since 1969, with previous Navy leaders always deciding that a military man in uniform carrying an umbrella was somehow just not, well, manly. Other excuses for the ban included concern it would hamper saluting.

Now, the Navy joins the Air Force in allowing its men to carry an umbrella, although all four services have allowed women to do so while in uniform since 1972.

Two years ago, when the Army's Uniform Board recommended the same step, Army Secretary John O. Marsh Jr. and then-Chief of Staff Gen. John A. Wickham Jr. blocked the idea and vowed that no soldier would ever carry an umbrella during their watch. Wickham has retired, but Marsh remains in his post.

Trost's decision does not affect the Marine Corps, a branch of the Navy.

The Marine Corps, which wants its "few good men" to have some "mettle" and not umbrellas, "is not contemplating any change to its regulations at this time," Capt. Linda Western, a corps spokeswoman, said yesterday.