Evolution of the modern police uniform

Since the formation of the PANSW, many changes to police uniform and equipment have been initiated by frontline members through their Association. Here are some key changes over the past 100 years.

Inverell officers Circa 1927
Inverell officers Circa 1927

In 1920, when the Police Association was formed, all NSW officers did not wear the same uniform. A shortage in blue serge wool, which was exported from England, resulted in country police being issued with a mixture of green/khaki and blue uniforms, one pair of leggings, one pair of tan prison-made boots and particularly hideous raincoats, or mackintosh capes. Country motorcyclists wore khaki uniforms. 

The standard tunic was a fully lined serge woollen coat, with two pockets on the front and a tightly fitting collar. It was worn with blue serge trousers and a long sleeved shirt with a dark navy tie.

The tan boots were made by the Technical Boot School and members complained that they fell apart as soon they came in contact with water.

There was no general issue of rainboots. Significantly, police had to buy their own rubber boots when there was a flood in Walgett in 1921.

In January 1921, PANSW Secretary Bert Fortescue wrote to the Inspector General of Police James Mitchell highlighting the poor quality of uniforms. As a result the Commissioner sent four samples of boots and leggings to the Police Association.

In an early example of cooperation, members approved of the boots, but suggested improvements to the buckles on leggings.

However, requests for Peerless handcuffs to all officers, more torches, 2 pairs of boots for mounted police instead of 1, rainboots for police working in flood-prone areas, leather batons instead of wooden ones, were regularly knocked back due to financial constraints. The forerunner of the Uniform Committee was suggested as far back as 1922, as officers sought to be represented on a board that approved uniform items. A delegate to our 1927 conference from Tamworth complained that an officer had been issued with police boots, one size 8 and the other size 10! Another delegate stated that boots lasted only one month on average.

"We're putting the men into blue"

Walter Henry Childs MVO, Commissioner of Police 1930-35. Photo: Justice & Police Museum, Sydney Living Museums
Caption Walter Henry Childs MVO,
Commissioner of Police 1930-35.
Photo: Justice & Police Museum,
Sydney Living Museums.

Attending our 13th annual conference in 1934, Commissioner W H Childs announced that for the first time all police would be issued with

blue serge uniforms and boots with leather soles. He told delegates, “It may be that many of you have the same feeling that I have, that love for the Police blue, and that you never think a man is a Policeman unless he is in the blue uniform. We are putting the whole of the men into blue.”

By the end of 1929, the NSW Police Force numbered 3646, serving a population of 2.5m.

Perhaps hoping to maximise visibility, Commissioner Childs ordered officers to wear police uniform when traveling from home to work. Anyone who wanted to wear plainclothes had to submit a report seeking permission!

Strait jackets

Being compelled by regulations to wear the same uniform in both summer and winter all over NSW caused members’ massive discomfort. The 1937 PANSW conference passed a motion for a lighter police uniform, with 90% of the force backing the change. These efforts didn’t materialise for decades although World War II helped to loosen the strangle-hold of tradition on police uniforms.

An upsurge of crime in the 1940s, led to NSW Police wearing their gun and baton openly where previously weapons had been concealed.

In 1954, Delegates from the bush to the Association Conference claimed they were ridiculed for wearing a woollen uniform in summer. Meanwhile Queensland police, one mile over the border, performed their duties in lighter clothing.

Conference determined that the Association design a model uniform for the Commissioner’s approval.

In 1960, media reported that 20 police from different sections of the force would trial the long-awaited summer uniforms. Police braces were replaced by a smart black leather belt with a chrome buckle.

Following a particularly hot summer when 293 bushfires were reported around the state, 300 officers appeared in summer uniform.

Ex-Senior Sergeant & Commander of the Dog Squad, R I. Northcott belonged to the first class of recruits to be issued the new summer uniform in 1961. He recalled, “It was a very heavy material, the shirts were long-sleeved with epaulets and metal oval ‘NSW Police’ badges, the same as worn the tunic. The holster with flap for the .32 automatic Webley Scott and the handcuff holder were slipped onto an ordinary belt about 1.5 inches wide. The Mickey Mouse style belt and trousers came later.”

Burning issue

Police News issue highlighting the burning shirt
Police News issue highlighting the
burning shirt

Police uniforms sensationally hit the headlines in 1969, when the Police News journal, published a photo of a burning shirt on its cover with the heading, “Are police shirts dangerous to wear near fires?”

The caption implied the Association had notified the Commissioner that the synthetic fabric was highly flammable, however no response had been received.

On getting his copy of the Police News journal, Commissioner Allan was incensed. He ordered Association President Merv Taylor to report to Headquarters on 6 March 1969 and explain these actions. The Commissioner protested that the caption was grossly unfair and misleading.

Whether this incident influenced the police hierarchy remains moot. The next major change to police uniform took place in 1972 when the Sillitoe tartan first appeared on police caps, along with short-sleeved shirts featuring the police insignia on the shoulder flash.

The dark blue serge was replaced by navy gabardine and wool and a new cap badge was introduced.

Women's uniform

Special Constable Vira Dew nee Jenkins (left) and another officer in the navy blue uniform, with buttons, belt, hat and stockings. Circa 1940s. Photo: supplied
Special Constable Vira Dew nee Jenkins (left) and
another officer in the navy blue uniform, with buttons,
belt, hat and stockings. Circa 1940s. Photo supplied.

The first female officers were not given a uniform. In 1948, when two women were sent to Traffic Branch, Amy Millgate and Gladys Johnson

designed their own military-style uniform with a male police cap. A light blue female uniform comprising a skirt and short sleeved jacket type top briefly appeared in 1969 but this changed in 1972 when uniforms were updated across the force. The blue shirt, skirts/culottes and stockings became standard issue to policewomen from Class 188 onwards.

Slacks were allowed in the early 1990s, paving the way for general take up of cargo pants in 2004.



Modern era

Members wearing the Integrated Light Armoured Vest over the current two-tones uniform. Photo courtesy of NSW Police Force.
Members wearing the Integrated Light Armoured
Vest over the current two-tones uniform.
Photo courtesy of NSW Police Force.

Over the years, the Association’s Uniform Committee has been one of the busiest dealing with numerous issues raised by members and advocating for modernisation and change with the Commissioner.

In modern times, the Association has sought changes to the uniform based on work health and safety issues. Gains include soft body armour, bushfire safety gear, breathing apparatus to prevent inhaling toxic fumes, changes to the equipment belt, thigh holster and loadbearing vest.

In 1998, we secured the universal issue of rainsuits and sunglasses. In April 2004 after a sustained campaign from the PANSW, the NSWPF introduced the cargo pants, baseball caps and GP style boots better suited to the active nature of police duties.

And then in 2005, after protracted efforts, the much-maligned ties were abandoned for operational non-commissioned officers when wearing cargo pants, shirt and baseball caps.

As we look to the future the PANSW continues to advocate for improvements to uniform across the board for its members, in addition to newly designed cargo pants, rain suits and baseball caps, NSWPF is pondering a fit-for-purpose police shirt to rectify the mismatch of a business style shirt with operation cargo pants. Two main prototypes under consideration are a dark coloured shirt with a polo collar and a light blue one with a mandarin collar. Although still in the trial phase, members’ overwhelmingly favour the dark-coloured design as it conveys authority and aids tactical concealment, particularly at night.

A Police Association survey conducted in 2018, which garnered over 6,100 responses revealed that over 93% of respondents rated the dark shirt prototype as their preferred choice. Members said they preferred a shirt fabric that is comfortable and breathable, dark in colour and has a polo collar.

The Commissioner of Police has agreed to continue to modernise the current operational uniform so that it is fit for purpose. Procurement are now in the process of sourcing a fit for purpose dark blue operational shirt for trial.