The London Metropolitan Police force was the model for the American city forces. This illustration shows a 19th-century “bobby” in a wool frock coat. Similar uniforms were worn by New York cops of the period.
Like many other aspects of American society, much of police uniform tradition in the United States comes from across the pond. The first modern police force was established in London in 1829, and it set the standards for all Western law enforcement agencies to come, including uniform standards.
The organizers of the British Metropolitan Police made a conscious decision about uniform color when they decided how to dress the agency's officers. One of the biggest public problems in England at the time was civil unrest. The job for quelling these riots fell to the King's Army, and the troops were none too gentle about upholding His Majesty's will. As such the Army's red coats and its "lobsterback" troops were reviled by much of England's common folk. This is why the British Police Force was dressed in blue uniforms, to distance itself from the hated army.
Some 15 years later, the first modern American police force, the New York City Police Department, took to the streets in blue uniforms. Those first NYPD unis were modeled on the British, but ironically they didn't distance the officers from the U.S. military, which also wore indigo blue.
1844 Patrol Suit
Other than the badge and other symbols of authority, today's cop would barely recognize the garments of the 1844 NYPD as a police uniform. Historian and film costume consultant Peter Dervis explains that the first NYPD unis were bulky and uncomfortable compared with today's patrol clothes. The Class B uniform of the era consisted of a wool frock coat with big brass buttons, wool trousers, and a peaked cap. The frock coat was cinched with a black waist belt with a large brass buckle. Most American metropolitan forces followed this model.
Oddly enough in an era of such formal attire, footwear was not uniform. "It wasn't until the late 19th century that footwear was as regulated as we like to think," Dervis explains. "You have to remember that boots were not made for right and left feet prior to the mid-1800s. So probably all the guidelines said was, 'black boots.'"
The earliest uniforms of the NYPD had much in common with the uniforms of Federal troops in the Civil War. They were blue, they were wool, and they featured overcoats. Another similarity between NYPD and other American police personnel and both Federal and Confederate soldiers was that they tended to wear homemade shirts.
"We really don't know what they wore under their uniform coats," says Dervis. "The records will often say, 'of authorized pattern,' but they don't say specifically what that pattern was."
While the mid-1800s uniform of the NYPD sounds like an instrument of torture for modern cops, it really wasn't that bad for the men who wore it. Dervis says some attention was paid to officer comfort. For example, there was a lighter weight summer version of the patrol suit. Further, Dervis argues that the police wardrobe was no warmer and no more constricting than that of the average New Yorker of the time.
Home from France
Police helmets from the Henderson Ames Catalog circa 1890.
Throughout the remainder of the 1800s, most of the changes to the basic uniform of the NYPD patrol officer were subtle. Frock coats alternated between single- and double-breasted styles and collars changed in ways that only costume designers can explain.
One uniform addition that wasn't so subtle was the hat. Inspired by the high-crowned hat of the London "bobby," the NYPD adopted what has come to be known as the "Keystone Cops" hat around the turn of the century. That hat was immortalized in silent films, but fortunately for every U.S. cop alive today, it didn't have much staying power as a police fashion statement.
The biggest movement in police garments in the first few decades of the 20th century wasn't silly hats; it was actually more practical uniforms for both the military and the police. Society became much less formal in the 1920s and even the U.S. Army ditched its World War I "choker collar" uniforms in favor of an overcoat and a shirt and tie. However, the NYPD retained its overcoat with choker collar for its dress uniform.
The Atomic Age
Suburban U.S. police officer circa 1940s. The coatless uniform reflects the styling of U.S. military uniforms in World War II.
Without a doubt the greatest changes in American police uniforms were seen in the years immediately following World War II. Many American servicemen returning from the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific became cops, and they wanted uniforms as functional and comfortable as the ones they had worn in combat.
"If you look at all the uniforms of World War II, the American uniform stands out," says Dervis. "The Germans and the other forces had very traditional uniforms, but the American battle fatigues were a workman's uniform."
The shirt sleeve and no coat look of American World War II combat uniforms were adopted by the NYPD and many other American police agencies in the years following the war. But even though the trend in police uniforms for the post-war years was to make them less formal, Dervis says great care was taken not to make the officers look too relaxed.
"The police officer because of his stature in the community did not become too casual," he explains. "Police agencies were very reluctant to let go of many of the uniform elements that made the police officer an authority to be respected."