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5 times TV got police fashion right

Costume and wardrobe from the most stylish cops on television


The following is paid content sponsored by Dickies

By Sean Curtis for Police1 BrandFocus Staff 

For police, fashion is all about function.  Whether it’s extra pockets for hauling gear or a stunning sleeve of hash marks to denote years of service, the clothing cops wear is purpose-driven.  This has been reflected in a dizzying array of dramatic police shows over the last several decades. 

The settings often changed as producers looked to spin new angles or perspectives.  In the 60’s and 70’s Adam-12 put you in the unit with officers Malloy and Reed as they fought hard to make Rampart a better place.  In the 80’s, police shows seemed to focus on key characters shot in the greater context of the entire department such as "Hill Street Blues".  Of late, specialized police units seem to be the focus of television drama but all these programs have one thing in common—functional fashion. 

The following list, presented by Dickies, captures the top five most stylish cop shows and fully covers all walks of police life from uniform, suited, specialized, and some of the more colorful characters portraying that fashion.

5. "NYPD Blue"

John Kelly (right) and Andy Sipowicz (second from left) were often sartorial foils. (Photo/ABC)

This edgy program gave viewers a peek into the private lives of the people out in the streets trying to right wrongs in New York’s mythological “15th Precinct” and exposed viewers to a wide variety of police clothing.  This show gave us incredible characters like David Caruso’s John Kelly and Dennis Franz’s snarling Andy Sipowicz. 

The fashion reflected the dichotomy between the two, the debonair and quick-tempered Kelly dressed in muted toned suits but wasn’t afraid to work with some colors.  Sipowicz often reminds cops of the fashion-challenged souls to whom uniforms are a blessing.  Wearing plaids and stripes, often with drab colors, he got it right once in a while.  Both men put bad guys away with an awesome supporting cast.

4. "Hill Street Blues"

Detective Michael Belker (left) was often undercover and relied on his clothing to fit in with the urban population he worked with. (Photo/NBC)

This Emmy nominated program followed the lives of officers working out of the Hill Street Station and had an eye filling wealth of police fashion.  

Uniforms were represented with the classic leather police jackets of a bygone era, and while there were suited detectives and command staff, the show gave us grittier elements such as Bruce Weitz’s, Detective Michael Belker.  Working undercover, Belker was replete with sock hat, fingerless gloves, plaid shirts, and leather vests, the mustachioed detective could spring from a dumpster to arrest a suspect while calling them “hair ball” or the unforgettable “dog breath”.  Detective Belker’s uniform was functional, a reflection of his environment, which allowed him to blend in like urban camouflage.

Hill Street also gave us Howard Hunter, the commander of the Emergency Action Team whose 70’s style jumpsuit, early tactical vest, military web-belt turtleneck, and tactical cap complete with butter bar and scrambled eggs on the bill.  This style accurately represented the budding tactical teams slowly forming in the post-Vietnam War era. 

3. "The Wire"

Once Kima from The Wire moved to a desk job, her style went from hoodies and ball caps to suits. (Photo/HBO).

Considered by many to be among one of the greatest television dramas of all time, "The Wire" was HBO’s foray into police narratives via the Baltimore Police Department.  The fashion represented in this show was accurate and fit the various roles played by the officers.  The huge cast tapped into the department as it addressed many different issues.  This created an immense police fashion palette for David Simon, the show’s creator, to work with, touching all aspects of police service and life. 

Homicide Detective Bunk Moreland, played by Wendell Pierce, wore understated suits but with amazing ties.  Detective Shakima Greggs, played by Sonja Sohn was a study in street chic, sheer performance clothing consisting of hoodies, jackets, and ball caps—until she transitioned to an indoor cat and began wearing suits.  Lance Reddick, playing Cedric Daniels, also firmly represented command staff in his immaculate dress uniform.

One of the intriguing story lines of "The Wire" was the unflinching look at the criminal element.  Even if urban or hip hop fashion is not your thing, the folks in wardrobe achieved legitimacy through their accurate portrayals of urban characters and the clothes they wear. 

Stringer Bell, played by Idris Elba, was a dapper hood who usually wore sharp suits and ties to run his criminal enterprise.  His fashion was functional too; he was a boss.  Michael Williams brought Omar Little to life with a bullet resistant vest, reversed cap, and western duster to conceal his shotgun.  This attention to detail helped viewers recognize these archetypes as real people pursuing their own ends.

2. "Law and Order: SVU"

While Detective Elliot Stabler was fairly consistent with a suit and tie, Detective Olivia Benson's style changed dramatically throughout the series as she went from detective to SVU commander. (Photo/NBC)

"Law and Order" was somewhat unique in its inclusion of the courtroom drama that often unfolds well after the arrests have been made.  SVU was no different and gave us suits and ties aplenty.  Christopher Meloni’s Elliot Stabler displayed versatility:  showing that a shirt and tie might be hiding a bruiser with a Glock underneath.  Without a doubt, the show’s fashion has set heights with the character Detective Olivia Benson.

Played by Mariska Hartigay, Olivia has evolved through more styles than Elton John over the years as she progressed from detective to SVU commander.   Wearing slacks, blouses, and occasional suits, her looks are often soft and professional, with a touch of tough, like a leather jacket.  Detective Benson’s hairstyles have run the gamut too, shoulder-length, wavy, short bobbed, pixie, she has rocked them all while chasing down really bad people who do horrible things.

1. "Criminal Minds"

Each cast member on Criminal Minds has a sense of fashion that reflects their personality and profession. (Photo/CBS)

The FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit starts out uber-stylish because their response vehicle is a jet.  This show is stacked with a gorgeous cast, each with their own unique talents and personality.  Thomas Gibson, playing SSA Aaron “Hotch” Hothner as the head of the BAU.  Wearing tailored and staid suits, Hotch harkens back to an era of the G-Man.  He doggedly pursues criminals in a fashion matching his clothing, detached, professional, efficient. 

SSA Derek Morgan, played by Shemar Moore is highly functional, wearing Henley’s, V-neck t-shirts, and jeans.  Morgan is the operator of the crew, no doubt.  This show also has quirky fashion standouts like Dr. Spencer Reid (Matthew Gubler) and Penelope Garcia (Kirsten Vangsness). 

Reid is a genius and expertly combines suits, dress vests, and Converse All Stars, but his holster is infuriatingly placed in an awkward appendix position that would cause him terrible pain if he ever sat down.  Finally, Garcia, the technical support member, is not often in the public eye so her fashion sense is allowed to flourish.  She sports dresses, glasses, and hair as colorful as her personality, the louder the better.

Conclusion

With so many police shows to choose from, the list of “most fashionable” is difficult to narrow down indeed.  In this list we have covered decades of fashion representing all the walks of police life, uniformed, suited, and specialized.  We have seen evolutions over the years of police clothing and how it has always needed to serve a purpose… whether that be command presence or urban camouflage.  Police fashion has reflected the mission over the years and has been largely driven by function.  Thankfully, some police drama has given us memorable characters to push the fringes of that fashion.

 

About the author

Sean Curtis is a law enforcement professional with 15 years of experience, serving with SWAT, diving, and swift water rescue teams in Colorado. He has also served in wildland fire, search and rescue, EMS, and emergency management.

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