The Well Dressed Cop

Today's police uniforms run the gamut from comfortable fleece to all-business pathogen-repelling outerwear fabrics. Where does your department fit in and how does your uniform reflect societal trends?

Melanie Basich 2012 Headshot

You might not think your uniform is that important, but you can't very well walk around in just your dutybelt, now, can you? Being naked might give the crooks a few too many extra things to grab onto. Now that we've established you need to wear a uniform, if it lets you down in the areas of comfort or protection from nasties like blood and disease you just might have a harder time focusing on the job at hand. You need a uniform in order to do your job well, even more than you might realize. So pay attention.


Comfort is at the top of the list for uniform criteria. And why not? You have to wear your uniform all day or all night, so it better be comfortable. A person who is comfortable can simply do his job better.

There are some basics when it comes to creating comfortable police uniforms. The first is essential to all clothing. "You need to put more quality into a garment to get more comfort," explains Tom Dorger of Fechheimer, manufacturer of Flying Cross.

One aspect of quality and comfort is the fabric used to make the uniform. Across the board, wool is the most common uniform material. Says Dorger, "With comfort comes the use of wool and wool blends." Wool is a natural fabric, which means it breathes. Synthetics don't, which is one reason companies aren't using them in uniforms as much as they used to. In addition to its breathability, wool is durable and holds dyes well. For all these reasons wool is the fabric of choice for police uniforms. (Sorry if you're allergic, but you can always get your duds lined.)

The newest addition to uniform fabrics is Lycra, a fabric that can be added to wool and other materials and is prized for its stretchiness.


Stretch is the most important factor involved in making modern-day uniforms comfortable. Although it now seems impossible that anyone could have lived without it, this stretchiness has only surfaced as a widely available component of uniforms in the past decade or so. Now you'll find it in just about every piece of clothing you wear on the job. Lycra isn't just for bicycle shorts anymore.

According to Stephen Blauer of Blauer Manufacturing Company, Inc., "One of the core benefits in our uniform clothing line is stretch. Every shirt and pant is made with either mechanical or inherent stretch in the fabric."

With Lycra, Blauer continues, "You can build the clothing to fit better while still giving the wearer freedom of movement comfort."

Dorger agrees that using Lycra is one of the best ways to achieve comfort because of its natural stretch. He explains, "Because Lycra is a natural fiber with natural strength, not built in or heavily manufactured in, it provides greater comfort."

Elbeco has launched a new line called Duty Stretch devoted to the idea that stretch equals comfort. Its stretch waistband completes the package.

Comfort Means More Than Stretch

While uniforms are meant to look the same - hence the name "uniform" - not everyone is built exactly alike. While stretch is important in combating this problem, it can only go so far.

For this reason, Elbeco, Inc. has recently developed a "comfort cut pattern." Andrew Foss, Elbeco's director of marketing, describes this design as "even roomier in the seat and thigh in trousers. The traditional fit was not designed to fit people outside of a strict regiment of sizes. The comfort cut accounts for larger sizes and comes with a stretch waistband that makes them more comfortable."

The idea of maintaining a microclimate is also an important advancement in uniform comfort.

Blauer says of Blauer's B.Cool and B.Warm, "We're creating a microclimate around the skin of the wearer to keep you cooler in summer and warmer in winter by keeping the skin dry year-round."

Both products for cold and hot weather keep moisture away from the body to maintain a more even and comfortable temperature.

This emphasis on comfort does not mean functionality has been sacrificed. For example, Blauer's new line of outerwear provides comfort while improving functionality. You don't want to be so bundled up that you can't get to your gun when you need to. After receiving complaints to this effect from officers, new outerwear takes all of these concerns into consideration and makes weapon access easy.

After 9-11

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, everything has changed, including uniforms. While uniforms have been evolving quickly in the past decade, the attacks have focused even greater attention on the way we view law enforcement uniforms and the officers who wear them.

There is a new technical focus on the best types of uniforms for duties including anti-terrorism. Resistance to pathogens and chemicals appears even more important now. Although police officers have had to deal with the threat of contact with blood infected with HIV and other diseases, they now must also prepare to contend with biological warfare, such as anthrax spores.

Outerwear resistant to pathogens seems even more important now. One example of the protective wear available for police officers is Blauer's line of outerwear called CrossTech.

According to Stephen Blauer, the new fabric "is designed to protect law enforcement officers from blood and body fluids or any type of pathogen - viral, bacteria - and also from any type of chemical they might come in contact with like battery acid, alcohol, antifreeze."

But Ernie Jackson, director of communications for the National Association of Uniform Manufacturers and Dealers (NAUMD), thinks the call for more 'anti-terrorist wear' in response to 9-11 is an exaggeration.

"That stuff has always been there. Police officers suit up in HazMat suits for chemical spills and things along those lines. They'll send in the people who are already trained to go into those situations and to wear that gear. That's not going to change that much."

According to Bruce Klein of Red the Uniform Tailor, more agencies are asking for BDUs just like the New Jersey State police are wearing during the cleanup of the World Trade Center. Not only are they comfortable, they make it easier for cops to do the jobs that require a lot of movement because they are so roomy.

"We designed a pair of BDUs for the New Jersey State Police about two years ago. They have their gold stripe on the side and it goes down the pocket of the leg. We've got a lot of local municipalities wanting that type of pant. New Jersey State Police is a very visible agency in our area. Other municipalities and agencies see them and think, 'Can we get them for us?'"

It seems that although BDUs are functional, this new interest in them might also stem from other agencies' respect for - and emulation of - the officers they have seen on television clearing away the rubble from the World Trade Center attack.

Respect for the Uniform

Most would agree that uniforms should be functional and practical while still commanding authority. The views on what type of uniform accomplishes these tasks differ.

Peter Dervis, a uniform historian based in New York City, has an interesting take on the aesthetic differences in police uniforms that have occurred over the past decade.

The fact that SWAT teams and state police - such as the New Jersey State Police who are influencing the country's agencies - now tend to wear miltary-style uniforms such as BDUs bothers Dervis. He feels wearing uniforms too similar to fatigues can engender fear rather than respect in the people police officers serve.

"Immediately, the military look conveys an impression of authority. I understand that. What bothers me is when police officers are dressed in something that is virtually indistinguishable from what the army wears."

Municipal agencies' relatively recent trend toward casual attire irks Dervis as well. He feels uniforms that look too much like the clothing of the rest of the population undermine police officers' authority.

He believes that "when you deformalize society, people become more comfortable with a deformalized thing such as a uniform, and I'm not sure it commands the same respect."

However, Dervis does not think there must be a battle of function versus tradition and authority. He supports a middle ground.

"It is as important to convey a sense of practicality as it is to convey a sense of pride in the uniform," he says.

"Nobody would want the police officer to look 'Keystone coppish,' but the blue uniform is something that we immediately identify with. On the New York City municipal police department, what has been maintained is a continuity of a look. They have updated, casualized it, but the continuity of the look is still there."

According to Fechheimer's Tom Dorger, the events of Sept. 11 may have precipitated a trend back toward more traditional uniforms.

"It's hard to say just 60 days since then, but several agencies we've talked to are talking more about being sure they stay with the more professional look versus a more relaxed look, like a golf shirt or T-shirt."

But up until Sept. 11, the trend had been toward more casual uniforms.

Steve Brown of Fechheimer sees the casual attire many police officers now incorporate into their uniforms as a way of simply keeping up with the times; the new casual style caters to a new, younger generation.

Brown also sees these changes as important functional improvements. Light sweaters, while casual, are more importantly easier to wear. They don't weigh an officer down, as heavy wool coats can.

Red the Uniform Tailor has seen the same trend. Says Klein, "Traditional police jackets or duty jackets are worn, but there has been a real movement toward a more casual look."

The company has changed its products to meet the new need for casual wear. "Our Summit Pullover, which is a fleece alternative for outerwear, was designed more functionally and a little more fashionably."

Adds Jackson of the NAUMD, "It's about comfort and functionality, but they also have to make sure that their looks are not dated. If you look at a California Highway Patrolman, they really don't look like C.H.iP.s. anymore. It's similar, but the cuts are different."

And updating uniforms isn't limited to the effects of style or terrorism. Technology requires that uniforms change continually. With the advent of wireless technology, for example, the changes have happened even faster.

"There's a lot more communications equipment being attached to the uniforms, so those things have been included. They didn't make shirts before that had a two-way attached next to the lapel. That wasn't prevalent before. Now it is. The helmets are made differently because now they have earpieces with microphones. The big thing is wireless communications and how they've adapted the uniforms to handle all that comes with it."

As in everything with technology, it does get better, it does get faster and it does get smaller," concludes Jackson.

And uniforms will keep on changing every step of the way.

Whatever your current opinion on the ideal uniform, uniforms will continue to evolve and adapt to new technology. Chances are police officers will, too.

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Red the Uniform Tailor

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Melanie Basich 2012 Headshot
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