Fashion trends change every day, but uniforms tend to stay the same – or do they? To find out more about how uniforms have evolved over time in the UK, we’ve teamed up with Newcastle College, who provide their very own Police Course at their Newcastle College campus, to investigate how the uniform has adapted across different professions to become more practical in the modern day, and how it’s ensured better delivery from workers.
The modern British Army dates back to 1707, although there was an English Army before the Acts of Union between England and Scotland that was created in 1660. Soldiers in the army have faced a range of challenges since the force began, and the changes in their uniform has reflected this.
When the first army was raised, red was the shade of choice for the uniform, and this colour is still worn by the Foot Guards, Life Guards and by some regimental bands or drummers during ceremonies. The reason behind the choice of red was that, at one point, every European army wore their national colour, with the French in blue and the English in scarlet red. It’s also been suggested that it was down to the cheapness of the red dye in comparison to other colours.
Although you may think that red isn’t a great colour if you’re trying to hide from the opponent, the guns used at during the 18th century were so inaccurate that being camouflaged was not a priority. At this time battles were fought in the open and often the battlefield got filled with smoke — colourful uniforms aided the soldiers to differentiate between their own troops or those who they were fighting. Moreover, the vegetable dyes used to create the red coloured jackets were prone to fading over time to a pink or brownish hue. Therefore, when soldiers wore these colours in a hot climate over a long period, the uniforms became less prominent than the scarlet red. Unfortunately, by the late 19th century, the troops had no choice but to leave their red uniforms behind as it did make them too visible during the colonial wards in India and the Sudan.
Aside from the changing colours, how has the style of uniform changed over time? During the Seven Years War (1756-1763) the British army’s uniform involved red coat and red breeches. Grenadiers, soldiers armed with grenades, wore a pointed hat called the Grenadier’s Mitre as throwing a grenade caused a brimmed hat to fall off. When the war of 1812 came, the uniform has physically changed quite a lot — British soldiers wore grey trousers, a white cross-over belt and a hat made from velvet and leather.
When the Crimean War began, the British Army’s uniform moved away from how it looked and more towards practicality. The soldiers were now dressed in loose-fitting tunics. And, for the second Boer War (1899-1902) the troops were the khaki that we recognise them in today. Another transformation went underway ahead of the First World War — soldiers wore loose-fitting garments with turned down collar, rifle patches on their shoulders and patches on the breast.
By the time of the Second World War, soldiers wore woolen service dress and were given metal helmets, also known as the ‘Brodie’ helmet or the ‘shrapnel’ helmet to protect them from debris. The colour of the uniform then came into focus again for the First and Second Gulf War. Disruptive Pattern Material (DPM) was introduced which helped the troops blend into the desert terrain and prepare them for combat. This design was replaced in 2010 as DPM proved ineffective in the varied landscape of the Helmand Province, when troops headed to Afghanistan.
Soldiers were given new Multi-Terrain (MTP) uniform to equip them for their new surroundings. In 2010 they were also given new body armour as the old Enhanced Combat Body Armour (ECBA) proved ineffective, which had ceramic plates on the front and back to protect the heart, against gunshot wounds. Troops were also given new helmets, which are 1kg lighter than what they used to be and have been designed with a gap above the eyes to improve vision.
Although the first official police uniform was created for the Metropolitan Police in 1829, they were not the first law officers to wear one. The Bow Street Horse Patrol, which was created by Sir John Fielding in the early 1800s, employed around 50 officers who all wore blue coats and trousers, accompanied with a black top hat and a scarlet waistcoat.
Surprisingly, as we move forward in time; police constables were not provided a uniform at first. However, they did obtain a decorated truncheon, which acted as a warrant card to carry out their policing duties – constables were usually assisted by other officials who wore uniforms.
Sir Robert Peel, who was once Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, made a more distinctive change when it came to the police uniform. He had an aim to remove the militant element it had and to reassure the public's trust in the local authorities. This is when the ‘Peelers’ and ‘Bobbies’ were introduced to the streets of Britain – first appearing in London. Their uniform included a traditional top hat and blue tailcoat, but trousers were changed depending on the time of day. White trousers were used during the day, while blue trousers were used on an evening (as well as winter patrols). However, the uniform was a little bit more advanced than previously, as the top hat worn was covered with varnished leather for weatherproofing!
To differentiate these police officers from military personnel, truncheons and handcuffs were hidden in their pockets in comparison to soldiers who were visibly armed to the public. On top of this, in order to identify individual officers; collar numbers were introduced, which were a piece of metal embroidery.
The 20th century saw the departure of top hats and the introduction of three styles of hard-helmets, which were deemed the ‘County’, ‘Comb’ and ‘Bobble/Ball Top’. The county helmet is crafted in a dome shape and was adopted by the Metropolitan Police, as well as other constabularies around the country. The comb helmet has a ridge along the top and was commonly worn by the City of London police, while the Bobble helmet was made up of fine metallic details with a sphere placed on top of a stalk – it’s now extinct across the forces.
Today, police uniforms are relatively the same across the country — in a bid to unify all forces and to send the same message to the British public; that protection is key. The police uniform of today usually consists of a white shirt (accompanied with a black tie for male officers and a black and white checked tie for female offices). Overlapping the loose white shirt is a black padded vest with multiple pockets, to store items such as notepads. The vest usually details the rank and police number of the officer; including the intricate tailoring of the authority they’re working under. Not only that, the padded vest also includes a clip for police radios (walkie talkies) and a position for any bodycams.
Black or blue pants are worn too (with similar sized pockets to the vest) and are held upright by a multifunctional belt which has the ability to store handcuffs and expandable batons for easy reach. The uniform is complete by tough rounded black boots.
You might be under the impression that firefighter workwear has not changed dramatically over time; with workers coming into close contact with harmful hazardous substances on a daily basis — but you’d be wrong. Of course, standards and health regulations have changed over time, which has led to the introduction of more appropriate uniforms for the profession.
Believe it or not, the 18th-century firefighter was incredibly impractical and saw men wear suit-like uniforms. As a male-dominated profession, firefighters were believed to have worn black top hats, which would have offered no flexibility to do the actual job effectively. Accompanying the useless top hat was a bright red, buttoned up crossover blazer with a wide collar area; which showed the ruffled white shirt with an overwhelming yellow ribbon-like tie. Matching the red blazer, firefighters wore red kneecap length pants; which were slightly loose and allowed a bit more flexibility. From the kneecap down, the men wore white tights and black shoes. To overcomplicate the uniform even more, a blue jacket was worn that was tight at the top and was left flowing from the waist down — the jacket included what appears to be yellow embroidery to add even more sophistication to the uniform.
The 1890s saw the uniform change completely and was designed to carry out duties more efficiently. The top hat was reduced to a black hat that was a similar style to a beret and was positioned tightly on the head. The white shirt remained, but was not visible as it was covered by a black coat with symmetrical metallic buttons. Attached to the coat was a large circular button which stated the individual’s unique firefighter number, an essential element to ensure that anyone could be identified in a worst-case scenario. Slightly further up from where we wear belts now, a thick-strapped buckle belt was positioned across the stomach and allowed firefighters to safely store essentials like axes. Keeping the all black theme, these firefighters also wore black pants and boots.
A decade on in the early 1900s, the firefighter uniform experienced another change — but it wasn’t too excessive like the last one. Workwear essentially stayed the same, however, headwear become slightly more protective as the soft beret-styled hat was pushed aside and the introduction of a brass helmet came into play, which included intricate design details.
Around the same time, firefighting became a more popular route of public service for women and, although the men’s uniform was becoming more hands-on, the women’s uniform had its problems initially too. Women were required to wear a white blouse (and often a tire) with a waist-to-ankle styled skirt. Women did wear belts, but there didn’t appear to be room for equipment like axes.
The firefighting uniform didn’t change too much from then until 1925 and as the years went on, firefighting solutions became more advanced and protective gear was introduced. Rubber alternatives were introduced as bottom wear — which helped firefighters from feeling too drenched when dealing with water. Not only that, multi-purpose vests were introduced which allowed firefighters to carry masks, torches and fire extinguishers when they were about to carry out a job.
The following year, there were a few alterations made to the uniform. The doubled-up symmetrical buttons were reduced to a singular strip and the pants were removed to introduce skin-tight tights. The coat was tailored to the upper-body but was released to look like a skirt from the waist down — for men, too.
However, this style didn’t last long and was soon back to looking like the former. The firefighter uniform that you recognise now was properly introduced in the late 1980s, but still incorporated elements of the original piece. The black coat with double symmetrical buttons remained, but the pants changed completely. Now, the rubber pants were bright yellow and matched the new plastic helmet. Black boots continued to be worn and brown leather gloves were introduced. The buckle belt stayed the same and straps were introduced on the upper-body to help support essential equipment.
The 2000s introduced a more modern firefighting uniform and everyone was dressed identical. Helmets changed in style but were still yellow. Jackets turned beige and had illuminous yellow and silver stripes, as well as red and silver checks to make firefighters more visible during darker nights. Pants were switched from rubber to Nomex materials to help combat fire situations and the black boots remained as an essential part of the uniform. Firefighters weren’t required to carry as much equipment either; as fire engines became more advanced and storing items became easier on board.
"Today, police uniforms are relatively the same across the country in a bid to unify all forces and to send the same message to the British public that protection is key. "
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