Memory Lane: My Old Uniform

This month’s theme, and a story I wrote for this issue, started me reminiscing about when I first entered law enforcement and uniforms for women were nonexistent.

I’m not old enough to come from the generation of female officers who wore skirts and heels; but, because there were no uniforms made for women, our department outfitted female officers with men’s uniforms tailored to fit our bodies. The result wasn’t very attractive, but we made it work—we had no choice.

Women’s shirts typically have darts, which helps to better contour them to our curves. Men’s shirts did not, so in order for them to stay buttoned, the powers-that-be chose larger sizes, then whittled down the sleeves. That meant that the placket at the top of the sleeve was disproportionately short and often oddly-shaped. And our collars didn’t quite fit up against our throats like the men’s shirts did. Worst of all, the shirt tails hung down to our knees. It was a lot like tucking a bed sheet into your pants, but on the up side, out shirts did stay tucked.

The pants, not designed for curvy bodies, ended up with the pockets off-kilter. Instead of going straight across, the back pockets formed a V shape across our rears, courtesy of our smaller waists. My own waistline at the time was a miniscule 22 inches. And I had to carry my service weapon, nightstick, mace or pepper spray, a handheld the size of a brick, handcuffs (two sets) and speed-loaders. After all that, there wasn’t an extra inch of room on my utility belt.

Our uniforms were made of a polyester that didn’t breathe and, since I live in a humid climate, they could be miserably hot, yet offered no protection against the winter cold. Our stiff and oversized coats were lined with faux fur collars and weren’t very warm, but they were better than nothing. When it was really cold, many of us supplemented our uniforms with thermal underwear. The coats were cumbersome and difficult to put on in a hurry, so we left them in the car and counted on our long undies to help us stay warm.

Our feet, though, were chilled all the time. We were issued patent leather shoes with porous soles that wicked moisture into the wearer’s socks, so our socks stayed damp. Even walking across dew-covered grass would render our feet soaking wet. And on our heads we wore what is sometimes referred to as a “bus driver’s hat.” Think milkman. Think “falls off when in a foot chase.” But it was dressy.

And here’s the punch line: One of the happiest days of my life was when the issuing officer handed me this pile of poorly-fitting, water-wicking, uncomfortable clothing and told me to put it on and report for duty. For years, we tried to talk our chief into investing in the same kinds of uniforms that most departments now wear today: athletic-type shoes that keep your feet dry and give you better traction for running; ball caps that stay on your head, even in a chase, and protect your eyes; dark pants and matching shirts that wash and wear and don’t need to be starched and pressed, yet have weatherproof qualities; warm coats that fit well.

And there’s even better stuff up the road; this issue is a testament to that. Can I turn back that clock?