The Well-Dressed Officer

Back when the West was really wild and settlers traveled over land by wagon train, justice often prevailed in the form of men who wore beat-up old tin stars pinned to their shirts. Uniforms didn’t exist—at least not in this country.

American departments were slow to adopt standard dress. Some sources say U.S. officers deliberately delayed their use out of fear that they’d make the wearer look ridiculous. But in 1854, the NYPD took the plunge. Other departments soon followed suit, often outfitting their officers in surplus they’d scavenged from Civil War leftovers.

As most large metropolitan departments donned uniforms, the majority of rural departments continued to ignore the trend, choosing to remain with civilian dress until well after the dawn of the Twentieth Century. But by the mid-century mark, most agencies in this country had given in to the trend.

The way we were

Up through the 50s, the military look dominated police wear. Officers from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties were the first to enjoy uniforms designed specifically for police. Retired Durham, N.C. Deputy Police Chief Kent Fletcher says that when he initially reported for duty in 1971, his department employed different uniforms for summer and winter.

The summer uniform was gray with an open collar and a button-up shirt, and the trousers were gray with a “darker gray, almost blue stripe down the side.” Bulky leather shoes won the footrace.

“In the wintertime we switched to a long-sleeved gray shirt with dark blue pants, a wool blend, and we had the old eight-point bus driver hat,” he says. A clip-on tie completed the look. He adds that there were no problems outfitting female officers at the time because there were no female officers on the department.

“I had a pistol, handcuffs, bullet holders, a nightstick and that was it. These kids now, they’ve got two sets of handcuffs, a stun gun, a pistol, a nightstick holder, a thing to carry rubber gloves...I don’t know how they get it all on there,” says Fletcher.

He recalls the uniforms were wash-and-wear and fairly comfortable, although the hats served little practical purpose. Still, they helped enhance command presence and, says Fletcher, “I think the hat is the one part of the uniform which can really make it look nice or can detract from its appearance.”

Joseph Walker of the Malden, Mass., Police Dept., a town north of Boston, is a 20-year veteran of police work. Walker says the biggest improvement in police uniforms over the past two decades is, in his opinion, their ability to accommodate body armor under the uniform shirt.

Back in the early days of body armor, vests not only weighed what felt like a ton, they were also uncomfortable, if not impossible to wear while on patrol. And, since few patrol officers took the time to strap on their vests while out on routine calls, officers usually wore them only when they had to. That led to needless deaths and calls for lighter, cooler and more flexible body armor. Walker says that’s what police clothing manufacturers have been developing for the past decade.

“You were almost confined, with very, very little movement. Now, (manufacturers) have come leaps and bounds with the outside carrier. That is like winning the lottery,” says Walker, who admitted that when he first started working midnights a decade ago, he stopped wearing his vest. But once he found a more comfortable, lightweight and modern solution, he got with the program and now doesn’t hit the streets without it.

Progress and change

Richard J. Lerman, president and CEO of the North-American Association of Uniform Manufacturers and Distributors (NAUMD) agrees with Walker that today’s body armor is constructed of more efficient materials, making it infinitely more wearable. “The newest trend in body armor is to make the vest almost invisible by matching it to the police shirt the department is wearing in both style and color,” says Lerman.

Today’s uniforms also reflect differences in weight and breathability. Lerman says preferences differ by region and temperature. “For Florida…a lighter (fabric) enhanced with anti-wetness would be more appropriate, while a heavier garment would be worn in Buffalo, except, of course, in summer,” he says.

Steve Robinson, CEO of Liberty Uniform Mfg. Co., Inc., agrees with Lerman and adds that, while today’s uniforms are more reflective of the officer’s needs, the mission for manufacturers has never changed. “The critical factors remain the same: Does the uniform perform for the climate and the job function? Does it appear professional?”

Robinson notes that to be fully functional, uniforms must also imbue the public with confidence in their local law enforcement agency. Command presence—a factor inherent to the officer’s ability to do his job—builds on how the officer looks as well as the way officers conduct themselves.

Diversity in uniforms

When female officers first pinned on their badges, they weren’t assigned to patrol or investigations. Many were little more than glorified secretaries or social workers. Those allowed more traditional law enforcement roles were confined to work as crossing guards or juvenile officers. Early uniforms usually included skirts and, in the 50s and 60s, low heels.

But the women’s movement pushed for equality in the ranks and the 70s and 80s saw more women enter policing. They became criminal investigators, vice, and patrol officers. And they needed to dress in job-appropriate clothing.

At first, most departments cut down men’s uniforms to accommodate female officers. As a result, shirts tailored to fit women often gaped at the neck and the pants were oddly proportioned. Manufacturers saw the market there and began making uniforms designed expressly for the female body, right down to their toes.

Rachel Heffington, merchandising manager at VF, which manufactures a number of brands including Horace Small, says today women continue to enter law enforcement occupations in even greater numbers, and that uniform companies now produce entire lines to meet their needs. Horace Small introduced a female function fit a few years back to address the poor fit in the female uniform. “A lot of research and fit trials were make sure those uniforms met a woman’s differing needs.,” says Heffington. But women are only one segment of the law enforcement community that drives today’s uniform material and design choices.

“The industry is getting younger, and with this shift in demographics comes an expectation of comfort and performance. These men and women are used to wearing garments that house tools, cellphones, documents, etc. The challenge is adding the features while maintaining a professional appearance,” she says.

More and more function

Stephen Blauer, whose namesake company, Blauer, says another way uniforms are becoming more utility-oriented while maintaining their command presence is with the emphasis now placed on layering. “Soft body armor is another part of that layering system,” he says. “I think the combination of the outdoor industry changing to become (more oriented to) layering, coupled with the fact that cops are wearing armor just created some completely new needs.”

Change, says Blauer, isn’t always that evident when it applies to police uniforms. It often comes in the form of technology. “When you look at a police uniform 20 years ago and today, they are pretty similar, but aren’t anywhere the same.”

What really separates the two are the materials and functionality, as VF’s Heffington noted. Blauer agrees and adds that police pants typically used to contain four pockets, but now those same uniform pants have six to 10 pockets designed to hold all of the different items for which police are now responsible.

Even though the style of a basic police uniform hasn’t changed all that much over time, uniforms rapidly evolve in other ways. From armor skin products that allow officers to wear their vests on the outside of their uniforms, but still maintain an undetectable presence, to the ultra lightweight materials, the future is already here.

As for that future, Blauer sees police uniforms striking a balance between comfort and appearance, while still keeping up with the times. Al Otero, marketing manager for Elbeco, agrees, saying that in addition to producing durable and water repellent fabrics, officers now benefit from uniforms that are situationally dependent.

Aside from tactical and special units, most Southern departments shy away from boots or high top shoes, while Northern agencies, which frequently encounter snow and ice, frequently issue boots so officers can tuck their pants into the top to help keep their feet and pants’ legs dry. Most departments have gone to a more casual shoe that’s easier to run in, reserving less pliable and water resistant dress shoes for use with dress uniforms. Performance and waterproofing are the big considerations when it comes to foot gear, and many departments allow officers to buy whatever foot gear they want within certain guidelines.

Otero says he believes that uniforms are going to evolve in the direction of officer safety. “Ballistic protection, protection against stab wounds and bullets—I think that technology will become more and more integrated into the uniform. I do think in the future there will be shirts that will be bulletproof. The thickness will be 10, 20 millimeters.”

Another possible future development, say the experts, could be a thin material covering to protect the head and face. In fact, officers in the future can look forward to increased protection in lightweight, highly comfortable, easy to maintain fabrics that will be far cries from the earliest police uniforms. And we’re betting that the NYPD’s first uniformed officers—all decked out in swallowtail coats with confining high collars—would applaud those changes.


A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations, and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She is the author of The Last Place You’d Look: True Stories of Missing Persons and the People Who Search for Them (Rowman & Littlefield, Spring 2011) Carole can be contacted through the or Amazon author page. She welcomes comments at