When New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia first authorized the Big Apple’s female police officers to carry guns, he reportedly gave them some patronizing advice. “Use your gun as you would your lipstick,” he said. “Use it only when you need it, and use it intelligently. Don’t overdo either one.”
That was 1943. The female officers on the NYPD wore knee-length skirts, heels, and white gloves. And they carried their guns in their purses.
A lot has changed since then. Today’s female police officer must complete the same training as her male counterpart, carries her gun on her hip, and works the street. She is a sworn officer with the same duties and responsibilities as her male colleagues, equal in every respect.
But she is also different in one key aspect. Her body.
And it has become more and more apparent to police uniform manufacturers that they need to create female-specific uniforms that fit better in the areas where men and women differ.
One key reason that manufacturers are going for the female cop market is that they have to. “There are more and more women on wear test committees today,” says Tim Velasco, apparel designer and developer for 5.11 Tactical. “So, just to get the garments on the department in the first place, you have to have some women’s sizes, so that they can test them.”
Another reason is that female cops are just plain tired of wearing uncomfortable uniforms that look bad, which has been one of their major complaints since the 1970s.
“As the women were joining the forces they felt a lot of discrimination because of the fact that they were different,” says Andrew Foss, director of marketing for Elbeco. “One of the places they saw that discrimination was every day when they put on this uniform that didn’t fit, and it caused resentment.”
Wearing the Pants
Although many female officers have various reasons for not being able to find the right fit for their uniforms, the number one topic of dissatisfaction according to uniform makers seems to be the trousers.
“It’s typical in a uniform market because it’s male dominant, for them to dress the females in a male uniform,” says Janet Rives, marketing manager for The Force by Horace Small. “If down to a choice, a woman will wear a man’s shirt, if she has to. But it’s the men’s pants that give female officers the most complaints.”
Since some manufacturers custom fit their customers, while others offer sizes, the problems with female uniform trousers vary from brand to brand. In addition, the way a particular size may fit varies from maker to maker as well, depending on the type of patterns offered.
The one thing that all manufacturers seem to agree on is that the primary difference in men’s and women’s pants is in the hip and thigh area. Bruce Klein, vice president of Red The Uniform Tailor, says that the difference in that area is on average seven inches larger on a woman than a man, with that number varying depending on the size and build of the officer.
Another area of difference is in the rise of the pant, which is the distance between the crotch and the waist of a pair of trousers. According to the manufacturers, the rise measurement front to back needs to be different in women’s pants because as you get to a different size, the crotch depth grows faster than it would on a man’s pant.
“The rise in a man’s pant is longer for their make and style. So when you see a lady with pants that come right up under her chest, that’s a man’s pant,” explains Rives.
Each manufacturer has tried to address this problem in its own unique way. No matter what each manufacturer has done differently, however, they’ve each made changes in the patterns of their female trousers to not only give those officers a more flattering look, but to directly address the fact that men and women are simply not built the same.
“I think that our body proportions are pretty good,” says 5.11’s Velasco. “The biggest complaint that we receive from women lately is not having inseams long enough. There’s such a variety in inseams for women that they are having a problem finding their size.”
Despite the fact that manufacturers have taken steps to make uniforms for women better, female officers are still having a problem finding the right fit, and sometimes, finding a uniform that was made for a woman’s body. The reason is simple. The market for uniforms is still predominantly male.
“The population of female officers is probably around 13 to 17 percent and growing, but we haven’t seen that in uniform purchases as far as the percentage of our total volume,” says Elbeco’s Foss.
According to the manufacturers, although the percentage of female officers in the police force varies from five to 25 percent or higher, only about seven to 10 percent of the uniforms they sell are in female sizes.
Foss and other manufacturers explain that the low sales percentage numbers could be a result of female officers continuing to wear male uniforms because they either have no complaints, or they are unaware of the fact that women’s sizes are available.
Another reason for the low sales percentage numbers is that despite the fact that uniform manufacturers are going to great lengths to accommodate female officers, there are still local vendors who do not want to stock a great number of female sizes.
“I see it happening all the time where a local vendor will try to fit females with guys’ stuff because that’s what he has on the shelf,” says Klein. “It’s a numbers thing. Local vendors don’t want to put the money on the shelf; they would rather put it in their pockets. So they would rather fit female officers with what they have as opposed to giving them what they should really have.”
5.11’s Velasco agrees with Klein. “In uniforms it all comes down to how many SKUs (sizes and colors offered) you have. There’s a big resistance to carry too many female uniform SKUs when you look at it and see that it’s only 12 percent of your sales,” he says.
Elbeco’s Foss adds that aside from the distributors’ reticence to carry too many female uniform SKUs, there are still many officers who don’t know that manufacturers even make female-sized uniforms.
“I’ve taken phone calls from women who are completely unaware of the fact that we stock female sizes,” he says. “The best I can say is that it’s a business decision at the dealer level. I believe that most uniform manufacturers carry the sizes, but at the dealer level they may or may not carry them.”
The uniform industry as a whole is becoming more and more responsive to the needs of its female market. Despite the fact that some dealers don’t carry them, and some females still don’t wear them, many manufacturers have plans in the works to improve the look, cuts, and comfort of female uniforms.
“It’s part of our campaign,” says The Force’s Rives. “It’s the breadth of offering that a manufacturer gives that’s going to provide the opportunity.”
For its part, The Force has conducted focus groups all over the country that are evenly mixed between men and women, so that the company’s designers can learn what their potential customers want in a uniform.
Rives adds that the biggest complaints her company has heard in focus groups are that officers want their uniforms to be comfortable and to last for a long amount of time since they are so expensive. There are also various sizing issues, she says, based on what manufacturer is outfitting the officer’s agency.
Fechheimer has a slightly different approach. The company has launched a line in the last few years that includes pants that are cut to be more flattering and more feminine.
“What we did was take the patterns of our police trousers and we made them more like the ones you would see in a fashion or department store, so the size range has changed a lot,” says Steve Brown, marketing director for Fechheimer. “For instance, in the past a woman who wore a size 10 in trousers would have to wear a size 12 or 14, but now she can definitely get into a 10, and in some cases maybe even into a size eight.”
5.11 Tactical is also expanding its offerings for female officers. The company will soon begin offering its female trousers with a waist and inseam size, much like the way men’s pants are sold, so that female customers can find a better fit.
Elbeco has also created a woman’s pant that will have elastic in different areas along the hips and thighs to allow for weight fluctuation and more comfort when moving.
All the manufacturers interviewed for this article agree that the key to finding the best fit in a female uniform is to shop around and find out what manufacturers offer and what they are able to do to help maintain a proper fitting uniform even after it’s been purchased.
“I think a lot of it is in the education of the officers to make sure that they are aware that women’s sizes exist, and that the uniform manufacturers are out there trying to find what works best for the officers that have to wear them,” says Elbeco’s Foss. “We want to make uniforms that are as comfortable as they want them to be.”
Fitting Female Body Armor
Female police officers not only have problems with the fit of their day-to-day uniforms, they often experience problems finding the right fit for personal body armor.
The common difference in body armor for women as opposed to men is finding the right vest that will fit comfortably in the bust area.
So far, no definitive solution has been found.
“It has been an issue in the body armor industry since it began around the early 1970s. Some manufacturers have chosen to ignore it. Others have chosen to address it, work on it, and continue to refine and hone it,” says John Geshay, marketing director of personal body armor for Armor Holdings.
Some manufacturers have tried developing methods to “mold” bust cups into the material, while others have tried to simply alter the outside dimensions of the chest panel to accommodate various types of builds and body types, male or female. Most, though, cut and stitch the materials to create a bust cup.
This seemingly simple alteration causes the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) to view and test male and female vests as separate models.
In fact, during NIJ testing, a shot is fired on the seam that is created by the folding and stitching of the material. It is in that area, in addition to the area underneath the arms, that women are most vulnerable.
“What we’re trying to focus on now is being able to increase female body coverage in that area, and yet allow the bust area to conform even closer to their shape and size,” says Geshay.
Randy Ziegler, field salesman for First Choice Armor & Equipment, adds that even though some, if not most, vests are custom made, there is still a huge problem creating the right fit.
“Women are just hard to fit. People often assume that anything that is custom made is going to fit, but that’s not necessarily always true,” he says.
Body Armor Resources
American Body Armor
Circle Reader Service No. 316
Circle Reader Service No. 317
Circle Reader Service No. 318
First Choice Armor
Circle Reader Service No. 319
Gator Hawk Armor
Circle Reader Service No. 320
Circle Reader Service No. 321
MSA (Mine Safety Appliances)
Circle Reader Service No. 322
Circle Reader Service No. 323
Circle Reader Service No. 324
RBR Tactical Armor
Circle Reader Service No. 325
SecondChance Body Armor
Circle Reader Service No. 326
Circle Reader Service No. 327
5.11 Tactical Series
Circle Reader Service No. 328
Circle Reader Service No. 329
Circle Reader Service No. 330
Circle Reader Service No. 331
Circle Reader Service No. 332
Red the Uniform Tailor
Circle Reader Service No. 333
(formerly Horace Small)
Circle Reader Service No. 334