Next October, New York police officers will look different—more the way they used to look in old black-and-white movies. The new uniforms ordered by Police Commissioner William Bratton will give officers the dark, crisp look they had in crime pictures where the cops were the generic good guys, uniformed restorers of urban peace after bloody wars among chalk-striped crooks, rumpled grifters, and fur-clad vamps.
Commissioner Bratton aims at improving the city by improving the image of the police. It’s true that the right uniforms can have a galvanizing effect. Their look of authority and solidarity strikes the eye, inspiring awed excitement. It also strikes each wearer’s inward eye and lends him personal force, an enhanced self-respect that promotes bravery and dedication.
In the Middle Ages, the deep inward and outward power of uniform clothing was well understood by religious orders and the household guards of great families. Urban police and standing armies were latecomers to the idea. Military troops didn’t dress all alike until Oliver Cromwell discovered that his citizen’s army fought better if the soldiers all wore the same outfit, instead of just the usual badges.
But it was Frederick the Great of Prussia who created the enduring tradition of military chic, making the uniform a tight-fitting fetish of spit and polish and rigidity, with a mighty variety of buttons, boots, braid, colored facings, and stiff neckbands. He had discovered the potent idea that uniforms should suggest discipline, not just service.
Napoleonic uniforms began to adopt exotic ferocity, using fur trimming and plumes, sashes and sabers, capes and frog-closings in hopes of inspiring fear. The only risk was inspiring laughter instead.
By the twentieth century, glittering display had been left to the uniforms for marching bands and hotel doormen. Fighting men went on to a visual ideal of restraint, readiness, and perfect order, with minimal ostentation.
The earliest Metropolitan Police, the London "peelers" in their stovepipe hats and tailcoats, had been deliberately kept from looking military at all. The British public of 1829, fed up with Napoleonic nonsense, was not willing to be kept in order by anything resembling a soldiery. In this century, that’s just what we want, but the effect has to vary to suit the moment.
How to dress the police? Their uniforms must render them forceful but never ridiculous; they must generate respect—not terror, not giggles.
Somewhere in the early 1970s, when cops still were commonly called pigs, police uniforms, while still following the military formula, were rendered friendly and human, even individual. The severe dark blue of cops’ shirts gave way to the welcome light blue of autumn skies and rural ponds, a genial color associated with helpful repairmen, mailmen, or airline personnel. The gun belt hung nonchalantly below the regular belt; each officer disposed his handcuffs, nightstick, gun, and so on around it in a manner most comfortable to him, in cases of his own choosing. The effect was personal and collectively unthreatening.
These days the harmless look has lost its virtue. The urban climate urges the hasty return of discipline, even of threat, in police appearance—if only to stand up to the menacing civilian fashions flaunted on the street. The new navy blue police shirts will be re-militarized, with bright stripes on the sleeves indicating rank and length of service. The new gun belt will attach to the ordinary belt, to make a single trim line around the waist. All equipment will be tightly affixed to it in regulation cases.
In the era of love beads, casual pale blue police looked serious enough. In these days of shaved heads and grim boots, some answering aura of rigor—undisguisedly military and somewhat forbidding—is clearly needed for constabulary fashion.