Threads of Dignity

Through years of fashion updates, civilian uniforms have been a source of pride and sometimes prejudice.

A shirt, it seems, is not always just a shirt.

When the Transportation Security Administration was looking for new uniforms for its 40,000 officers in 2003, it wanted to avoid dark colors, which research shows are intimidating because they remind people of the military. The agency wanted to show patriotism through its color selection, but it also wanted to be fashionable, and bright red was a turnoff from a style perspective. VF Imagewear, a uniform company based in Nashville, Tenn., helped the agency select a maroon vest with navy pants and white shirts. The muted colors of the flag satisfied the patriotism goal, and studies show that white shirts suggest approachability.

"People look and see a whole range of values because of the uniform," says Neal Waters, vice president of government and public safety uniforms at VF Imagewear.

As symbols of social values, uniforms inspire debates over gender roles, worker rights, fashion and outsourcing. Last year, Customs and Border Protection employees complained about the "Made in Mexico" tags in their shirts. Some U.S. Postal Service employees buy their uniforms only from pro-union workplaces.

Despite the controversies, government uniforms rarely change. "There's not a lot of room for ingenuity or creativity," says Richard Lerman, executive director of the New York City-based trade association National Association of Uniform Manufacturers and Distributors.

The first uniforms for National Park Service workers were worn by soldiers charged with protecting parks from poachers and hunters in the 1880s. In the early 20th century, after the agency hired civilian rangers, the agency developed its own uniforms, which are similar to the ones worn today. The trademark light-gray shirts paired with forest-green trousers are "timeless," says Ramie Lynch, national uniform coordinator for the National Park Service. "It looks good no matter if it's 1940 or 2006," he says.

The same cannot be said for the women's Park Service uniforms. The ensembles were similar to those of the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps in the 1940s. In the 1960s, they were redesigned to match flight attendant uniforms. In the 1970s, when women worked primarily indoors in administrative jobs, the agency adopted the era's go-go boots and miniskirts. Women at the agency were none too pleased. In the late 1970s, a group filed a class action suit that contributed to an official decision to allow them to wear the same uniform as men.

Other agencies have added maternity clothing and styles that fit better as more women have entered the workforce. "They didn't fit into men's clothing, and they still don't. The uniform industry had to come to terms with that," says Andrew Foss, marketing director for Reading, Pa.-based uniform maker Elbeco Inc. The Coast Guard enlisted Oscar-winning designer Edith Head to design a uniform for women in the 1970s. Before her death in 1981, Head called the assignment one of the highlights of her career.

Postal Service employees, who have delivered and sorted mail in blue-gray uniforms for more than 100 years, now enjoy the recent additions of polo shirts and letter carrier trousers enhanced with nanotechnology that helps water evaporate quickly. In May, El-beco began making "tagless" polo shirts that feature silk-screened information on the inside instead of itchy paper or cloth tags. Besides those small changes, Laurie Hayden, manager of labor relations systems, says: "We have a classic look that has not changed in many years."

Waters of VF Imagewear-whose parent company, VF Corp., also owns the Nautica, Lee and North Face brands-says subtle fashion trends have made their way into the government uniform market. For example, people wear their clothes looser than they did 30 years ago. Relaxed-fit pants now are offered. "We tweak our patterns so the pants they're wearing to work fit like the pants they wear to the mall," he says.

Fashion aside, uniforms usually are designed with the intent of uniting employees, in their own circles and in the eyes of outsiders. "When you first put the uniform on, there's an enormous sense of pride. You feel like you're official," says Lynch of the National Park Service. He wore his uniform daily when he served as a ranger on the National Mall at the Lincoln Memorial. There also was a downside. "You're automatically a question magnet," even when you're off-duty, he says. Once, on his way to work, he was waiting at a stoplight when somebody got out of a car to knock on Lynch's window and ask for directions.

Some 7,000 Fish and Wildlife Services employees (out of a total of 8,500) who frequently interact with the public wear a brown-toned uniform. "It's to brand an identity," says Kevin Kilcullen, chief of visitor services at FWS' National Wildlife Refuge System in Arlington, Va. "It's an important communication tool, so they know who we are and what we stand for."

The Coast Guard even created its own color-Coast Guard blue, says Carol Brewton, uniform program manager for the service. (It bears a striking resemblance to navy blue.)

Creating a sense of unity through clothing poses unique procurement challenges. Agencies often want more than manufacturing services from their uniform contractors; they want expertise on how people respond to certain colors and styles, the newest technologies and, of course, fashion tips. When TSA was trying to develop its new uniform in 2003, it sought out a business partner, not just a manufacturer or distributor. During last year's hurricane season, the Army Corps of Engineers unexpectedly needed thousands more red-and-white polo shirts, the standard issue for employees working in emergency relief efforts. The agency had to order more from their four vendors and spent about $1 million in fiscal 2005 on the shirts, which cost about $15 each.

The Postal Service gives employees annual allowances of about $300 to buy clothing from the approved list of 600 vendors. In 2005, it spent $86.5 million on uniforms, which included administrative costs.

The Park Service has contracted with VF Imagewear since 1978 to clothe its 17,000 uniformed employees. "Each time it's gone out, they've come out on top as the winner," says Lynch. The current contract, awarded earlier this year, will last for six years if performance meets expectations. It has a potential value of $42 million, or about $8 million per year. Through interagency agreements, Fish and Wildlife Service and Army Corps of Engineers purchase parts of their uniforms off the contract. Buying in bulk reduces prices, and some uniform items-such as shirts, pants and ranger hats-are identical. Like the Postal Service, Park Service employees receive an allowance toward their uniforms. Lynch says it might cost more than the allowance initially, but over time employees save money because they don't have t purchase their own work clothes.

Customs and Border Protection set up a Web-based ordering system for its 41,000 officers. "That's what separates us from any of the other agencies I know that have uniform programs," says Dale Anglin, director of CBP's enterprise acquisition division. The agency spends about $32 million a year on uniforms through its contracts with VF Imagewear, which subcontracts with more than 100 companies.

The government uniform market grew after Sept. 11 led to an increase in uniformed federal officers, but now it's relatively stable. "But it's still a huge market and will continue to be so forever," says Lerman of the uniform manufacturers association.

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