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Basic Principles for High-Quality Uniform Appearance

A professional uniform appearance is something most agree is of great importance in American policing. The uniform and how it is presented is the first and strongest icon representing the agency. Whether this public perception is positive or negative is entirely up to the officer and how he looks.

Most citizens have limited opportunities to interact personally with officers during their daily lives. For most, the average is five to seven times of which the bulk of these exchanges are traffic stops, a minor traffic accident or calls for service. Are we projecting the image we want as the first and lasting impression?

Just last evening I observed an agency administrator address the people of this country on national television concerning a very high profile case wearing a golf shirt and Levis. Now I have been around long enough to realize that things come up and one has to be able to adjust to rapid interruption and change. But stop and think about the missed opportunity to make a powerful statement about the individual, the department and our profession.

The uniformed officer in our country is under constant scrutiny by the public and whether it is fair or not, often judged in his ability to perform his duties by the way he looks. To give you a historical perspective of the importance of uniform appearance, Sir Robert Peel (Father of Modern Policing) said it best clear back in the 1800s while engaged in reforming the London Metropolitan Police Department. His statement was “good appearance commands respect” and this is even more accurate today than ever. I can assure you that the criminal element is sizing us up every day. Do we portray professionalism, confidence and command presence?

Now don’t take me wrong, we have a lot of officers who are representing this profession in an exemplary manner and sending that strong positive message through stellar appearance. As the title of this article indicates it really isn’t that hard. We have looked at some of the symptoms to this issue, but what are some of the solutions? I have had the opportunity to work with agencies all over the United States, Canada and Australia, and have seen the very best and worst when it comes to uniform appearance.

The common thread everywhere is that agencies want their officers to look great but fail to train them on how to accomplish this. A simple four-hour course on the basic principles of uniform appearance delivered to the officers will do wonders. The best impact obviously will come from cadets or recruits but this is good information for all. The thing that I find exciting is that most officers appreciate becoming aware of a few basic tricks that will take their appearance up a notch or two.

While deciding how to compile and present this information I was reminded of a book that I read several years ago. The book is titled Everything I needed to know I learned in the United States Marine Corps by United States Senator Zell Miller. When it comes to my approach to uniform appearance this is an absolute fact! I did learn everything about preparing, maintaining and wearing a uniform from my beloved drill instructors back in 1973 during boot camp at MCRD San Diego.

The lessons learned while trying to survive boot camp have had such a positive impact on how I look and present the uniform. The best part is that by design it is very basic and simple. Every person who wears a police uniform should have the opportunity to see and learn these principles. I guarantee the awareness will pay off not only for the officer but the entire department.

First Principle: Purchase quality uniforms

All agencies have financial and budgetary restraints so they may be restricted on what they can supply or purchase. You may not be able to get 100% gabardine wool, but do the best you can with what you have available. There are affordable wool blends, Dacron and rayon that look and wear great. Regardless of the material, drycleaning produces a much better look when compared to the wash and wear. Machine washing also rapidly fades the true color and decreases the wearable life of the uniform.

What is the deal with the current onslaught to wear golf shirts with embroidery for a badge, cargo pants and a baseball cap as a working uniform? Sure there is a cost savings, but let me assure you it is reflected. There is a time and a place for a tactical or training uniform but I cannot see it for the officer who is dealing with the public. To the public, the uniform distinguishes the officer from all others as a beacon of hope and trust; we must fulfill that role.

Second Principle: Purchase uniforms that fit

We need to train our officers how to be fitted for a uniform. Nothing is worse than a uniform that is too big and looks like a rumpled gunnysack or too small and the buttons are under 40 lbs. of pressure. Don’t accept uniforms until they fit properly.

Here are some suggestions for fitting the uniform shirt. Put the shirt on over your vest and allow one inch on each side seam through the body area, no more. The shoulder seam should reach the down slope of your shoulder giving it a clean break. The long sleeve shirt with your arm straight down should allow the cuff to come between the first and second joint of your thumb. The collar when buttoned should allow the officer to place one finger between the neck and collar with a tie cinched up.

Trousers should fit comfortably around the waist, not too tight and not too loose as to cause bunching. The inseam should touch the arch of the boot or shoe with a half-inch of break. The back of the trouser should come to the top of the heel; we all know flood pants went out with the Beatles. I also sew the front pockets of the trousers shut for two reasons: one to keep my hands out of them (officer safety) and second, they will not gape open while sitting.

There are differences of opinion as to where the end of the tie should fall. I personally like it to touch the top of the buckle.

Now when it comes to uniforms for female officers, uniforms that are designed for men do not fit women. The uniform manufacturers are doing a better job recently of providing female uniforms but they still have a ways to go. Agencies need to ensure that their female officers have access to uniforms that are designed for them.

Third Principle: Blouse your uniform shirt

Used as a military term, blouse means the extra material around your waist is gathered and tucked in behind the outside military creases on the back of the shirt. This smoothes out the front and keeps the shirt tight and fresh looking. (see photograph) You should leave an inch of material on both sides of the body of the shirt for blousing purposes. Some officers have the shirt tailored tight where there is no blousing needed. This is a personal choice; I think the blousing looks better.

Fourth Principle: Military Alignment

Military alignment or the good ole “gig Line.” This is the most basic of all but also the most often overlooked. The gig line is simply lining up the edges of your uniform items. Take the right edge of the fly on your trousers/pants, the right edge of your belt buckle and the right edge of your shirt button flap and line them up on the center of your body.

This really centers the body making it symmetrical and uniform. I know all of you have seen the officer when viewed from the front, his buckle of the duty belt is off to the left three inches from his fly and his shirt button flap is off to the right two inches. Now there’s a picture of unbridled chaos.

Fifth Principle: Uniform preparation and maintenance

There are some simple tricks to preparing and maintaining a uniform that makes looking great very easy and almost effortless. I will go into this in great detail in the next issue, part three, but for now here are some pointers.

When preparing a fresh uniform for the next shift look it over closely. Make sure that the uniform is serviceable. Meaning there aren’t missing buttons, not worn or damaged, free of spots and discoloration, and no Irish pennants (threads) hanging like Rapunzel’s mane.

Take the time and interest to keep your duty belt, boots or shoes in good condition. The boots or shoes should be polished daily and the duty belt cleaned and/or polished weekly. Brass or silver accessories need a daily touch-up.

Sixth Principle: Fitness level and posture

OK, let’s face it— most of us are no longer collegiate level athletes nor will we ever be. Your fitness level will have an impact on how you look in the uniform and I encourage everyone to get involved in some kind of fitness program, eat healthy and enjoy the benefits while watching the waistline shrink.

Posture can play as an important role in your appearance. Try while standing, or for that matter, sitting, with your back straight, tighten your abs and hold your shoulders back square. This will make a difference and also strengthen your back and abdominal area giving you a more confident and fit look.

There you have it— the “Basic Principles of High Quality Uniform Appearance” and yes, it is easy. I would like to challenge you to give these principles a try and see if they don’t make a difference. This really comes down to applying the basics and attention to detail, the small details. The old adage of “look sharp, feel sharp, feel sharp you will be sharp” is so very true.

“The apparel oft proclaims the man.” William Shakespeare

Captain Ken Betterton has been with the Utah Department of Public Safety for 23 years and currently reports directly to Commissioner Robert Flowers. Betterton teaches courses nationwide on police uniforms. He may be reached via e-mail at

Published in Law and Order, Sep 2003

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