Spotlight on... Police trousers – one leg at a time

Vol. 47, No. 5 | NZPA | Sun June 1st, 2014

There are few subjects closer to a police officer’s heart – well, quite nearby – than pants. They are such an important item of apparel that committees must be formed and screeds of reports written to consider even the tiniest adjustment to a pair of police trousers.

A year-long, nationwide trial is under way as Police ponder the delicate matter of what should clothe a police officer’s nether regions. Ninety-two frontline staff from four districts have been chosen to put the pants through their paces.

That means testing the three styles on offer over four seasons for “functionality, comfort and durability”. The trial began in July last year and the trouser guinea pigs have been providing regular reports to National Headquarters on how the pants are holding up.

The results, of course, are top secret at this stage and will only be revealed in the fullness of time by the Commissioner.

It’s quite shocking, but the fact is that police trousers have not been changed for more than 20 years – at least the fabric they are made from has stayed the same blend of 70 per cent wool and 30 per cent polyester.

Police trousers trialStaff had been asking for some time for a review of the bottom half of their uniform. There was even a call for cargo pants, which many consider the ultimate in comfort and functionality, but that suggestion was apparently rejected by former Commissioner Peter Marshall, possibly because he feared such garments would look too casual – or too Australian. The Aussie cops have got it all over their New Zealander counterparts when it comes to comfort – cargo pants and, in some of the hotter parts of the country, shorts and flip-flops.

Inspector Chris Scahill, acting national manager of operations, said the goal this time around was for “a trouser that offers the best comfort, durability and versatility for our staff across the country who perform a very diverse range of roles every day”.

The three types of trousers in the trial are the same colour as those currently worn (a whole new trial, committee and report would be needed to change that), but are in three different designs and various blends of material.

The careful handling of trouser selection can in part be traced back to the 1970s when the scandalous possibility of women police officers wearing “slacks” hit the headlines.

Among Police Association members, it even eclipsed talk of equal pay and sparked the most letters ever on one subject in the Association’s Newsletter.

This plaintive dispatch from M M Edwards of Lower Hutt says it all: “At present with the skirts we are issued, because of the width of them, it is more than a little difficult at times to climb a fence, chase anyone, etc, with any ease. Trousers would also save on the amount of pantyhose torn, ripped, etc, while engaged on normal police duties.”

She also complained that the skirts had no pockets large enough to carry handcuffs and it was “totally impractical to carry our handbags on the beat”.

“Trousers suits” for women were trialled soon after in the main centres and by the 1980s trousers were a standard option for the women’s uniform.

Nowadays, trousers are the only option for both sexes.

The current trial, dubbed “Operation Trouser”, has been in the planning stages since 2012. One of its main aims is to come up with a “wash-and-wear” set of pants to reduce the department’s annual $4 million drycleaning bill for the existing non-machine washable trousers. It’s likely that the new style pants will also have more pockets.

It’s all a far cry from the first days of policing in New Zealand in the mid-1800s when police officers had to supply their own uniforms and a haversack. The result was a rather rag-tag group of constables “in greatcoats or capes and others without, some with long boots and pantaloons and the remainder in trowsers [sic]”, according to reports from the time.

It was decided that a uniform should be adopted, although still supplied by the officers, and by 1869 the New Zealand Armed Constabulary regulations called for a blue cloth or serge jumper, single-breasted waistcoat and blue cloth or serge trousers with a black lace strip down the side.

Eventually, the uniform was provided with the job and tweed became the favoured fabric for trousers and jackets. A pair of trousers was issued every nine months with the strict proviso that they be pressed regularly and not be tucked into socks. If officers rode bicycles, as many did in the early days, they were advised to use bicycle clips, at their own expense.

The arrival of permanent press technology meant that, by 1961, all trousers issued from the Police Clothing Store came with a crease designed to stay in place “through all weathers for a period of approximately five months”.

In the 1970s, the radical “summer uniform” was introduced – an open-necked shirt and lighter-weight trousers. No more significant changes were made in the trouser department until the early 1990s when the current wool-polyester blend was introduced.

In 1995, as a sort of halfway measure, someone thought it would be good idea for policewomen to wear culottes. Some did for a while, but that trend died a natural death, thankfully, before policewomen had to consider how culottes might co-ordinate with a stab-resistant body armour vest.

– Ellen Brook

Pictured above: Senior Constable Heather McGrath, of Wellington’s Commercial Vehicle Investigation Unit, shows the three styles of trousers being trialled by selected Police staff in three districts. Photo: NZ POLICE


Sources: NZ Police Museum, Ten One, No Right To Strike (David McGill, Silver Owl Press, 1992).

Police women in trousers

Police trousers cartoon

In July 1979, the Police Association Newsletter published this cartoon on what was considered the laughable possibility of policewomen wearing trousers. As an aside, the cartoon attracted a complaint to the Human Rights Commission from Marilyn Waring, a well-known campaigner for women’s rights and at that time New Zealand’s youngest MP. Ms Waring said the cartoon was degrading and sexist, showing men who were “unable to control their urges” and a policewoman “responsible for the carnage surrounding her because of the way she looks”. Although the commission found that the cartoon did not breach the Human Rights Act, it did pass Ms Waring’s letter on to the Association, which published it with a note from the editor, one Robert Moodie, infamous for his own “dress sense”. His dismissive response in a note under the letter was: "Marilyn, don’t be so bloody ridiculous.”

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