Designing uniforms

I’ve always thought that uniform design would be very challenging. I recently found a blog entry that talks about EMS uniforms that explains why. Frankly, it didn’t occur to me that styling would be an issue for EMS -maybe it is for airline attendants and fast food workers- but it is. The writer (Dan) explains that their uniforms are styled like police uniforms and this reduces their task efficacy and moreover, is dangerous!

They are really just police uniforms, evolutions of military designs, sometimes with only a change in fabric color from what local law enforcement officers wear… I think we place our EMS staff at high risk by wearing these style garments. The drug crazed patient does not care you wear light blue while the police in your community wear dark blue. He reacts to the visual styling cues and will often mistake you for a cop in the first few seconds. In most parts of the world this is no big deal, but in any modern American big city it can get you killed.

My first thought centered on functionality (range of motion), durability and fiber (comfort) so it doesn’t surprise me this is another problem with uniform design. Think about it; EMS workers have to do their jobs in dirty, dangerous environments. They need apparel that won’t restrict their movements, won’t tear readily, washes easily without staining, protects them from the elements but not be too hot either. While Dan was less graphic, another site described how often patients bleed and regurgitate on them.


Even the color of uniforms is a safety issue (aside from being mistaken for a police officer).

We still frequently wear dark colors that cannot be easily seen at night. You might have noticed that in recent years, many in the construction and roadway work industries are now wearing high-visibility tee shirts on the job site. We have the new Federally Mandated ANSI compliance deadline driving the purchase of safety vests and coats. But the big unanswered question is, will EMS staff wear the new safety vests? Most are cheap and fit poorly, and truthfully make you look like a whacker. I think the only answer is good looking high visibility uniforms, like what has been the norm in much of Europe for years. If we had great looking hi-viz shirts and coats, no matter the season or circumstance we would be safer. If the uniform itself is visible, we don’t have to worry about putting a separate garment on over it. The challenge will be to create professional, functional, and great looking hi-viz uniforms for EMS providers.

Dan mentioned how uniform design could or has changed. New generation polyester fibers are rated positively. Oddly, poly polos are rated positively. If I were designing uniforms, I would have thought that those wouldn’t be functional enough lacking pockets. The specific design cited has full length underarm gussets. Those are also easier to sew than those diamond shaped ones. These particular shirts also have “Stabilized Wing Epaulets” (patent pending too) which just look kind of goofy to me. But what do I know? Another polo was mentioned, rating positively for high visibility.

On the discussion of pants, it’s a good thing they didn’t hire me to design those either. The first image that came to mind was akin to what the military or members of a SWAT team would wear. Based on what Dan’s already said, that’s definitely out.

Several manufacturers have introduced new EMS trousers… They share some specific features growing in popularity with the growing American waistline. One is an expanding elasticized waistband. Some others are a generous thigh cut, reinforced crotch and double hook clasps to help make them more comfortable and stay secure. What is new in EMS pants is that they are being made for much bigger Medics.

None of the styles I reviewed had crotch gussets which surprised me. I’d think those an obvious choice considering the needed range of motion.

If you’re considering a career in uniform design or manufacturing, you might want to check out Uniforms Magazine which has features like Apparel Workshop and the Performance Fabric Report. With respect to EMS uniforms and products specifically, go to EMS1 (some humor there too, a hiker was saved by her bra). As luck would have it, the focus of the June issue is product reviews of EMS uniforms. As potential consumers of emergency services, you might find some of these videos educational. Lastly, if you are interested in military performance apparel and products, you should visit our friend Mike over at DIY Tactical.

Off topic: I’ve noticed something odd. People who manufacture uniforms tend to do the highest quality work; they make the best contractors. The best firm I worked for was previously a uniform company. Valerie says the primary business of the best sewing contractor in the United States is uniforms. I’m wondering if it’s related to the ingrained necessity of compliance to specifications (leading to established procedures) as well as the gamut of skills required. If you make sport coats, you can make just about anything. It takes a lot of pieces and processes, nearly all of it involves single needle (no automation) and hand pressing. This would mean operators become more highly skilled and variable to task.

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6 comments

  1. Mike says:

    Kathleen,

    Thanks for the plug. I can only speak for military uniforms, but over the last few years there have been huge changes in design with a large move towards more functional features and less focus on “looking pretty”. This is all for obvious reasons when you consider the operational tempo of the military today.

    The military cycles from functional to “pretty” as we transition from wartime to peacetime. If you look at the post Korea, early Vietnam era uniforms as they evolved into the jungle fatigues. That uniform eventually transitioned to the BDU during the 80’s and through the 90’s. There were modifications to the BDU that made the lower pockets on the blouse unusable and merely for show. Now we are transitioning to the more functional uniforms of today.

    A lot of the changes that have been incorporated are based on common modifications soldiers used to make themselves (albeit against regulations). Things such as pockets on the sleeves, angling the chest pockets so that they are easier to get into.

    There is currently a big push towards fire retardant materials. Infrared reflectance is also an issue. Uniforms are not to be washed with detergents that use optical brighteners.

    Right now every branch has its own uniform and camouflage pattern. Even the Navy has adopted a camouflage pattern. However the intent is not for them to hide from the enemy but to hide grease and oil stains.

    With that said the new uniforms aren’t without their problems. A lot of soldiers complain about crotch durability issues, which has always been a problem even back in my day. Not sure why they never went with a gusset type crotch, my guess is production difficulty? . Also there are complaints of too much Velcro. which is noisy, wears out, and is not as secure as buttons in some applications.

    Anyway a good friend of mine has a blog where he writes often about uniform development http://soldiersystems.net/blog1/category/acu/

  2. kay says:

    I’ve been at the local hospital’s ER a few too many times over the last few years — they’re one of the local ERs that allow EMT students to observe, and so I’ve seen a number of the students trying to deal with new uniforms, most of which were not designed to fit a woman’s body. Nothing quite like losing your pants while you’re trying to lift a patient off the gurney — and taking the waistline in by amateur methods would lose most of the pockets. Then there was the pregnant EMT student had just plain given up on the jumpsuit she had been issued… she was wearing a uniform shirt unbuttoned over a maternity top, and a gored, divided skirt hiked up over the bump.

    The guys fit the uniforms a little better, but they had the same problems a lot of police officers do with utility belts and gravity.

    One of the EMTs coming in from another site had on a uniform that seemed to have come from REI — looked like tan cargo pants and a fishing vest over a polo, with appropriate markings. Looked like the outfit worked pretty well.

  3. /anne... says:

    DD is a final-year Paramedic student here in Australia. Her student uniform is a dark green jumpsuit with reflective strips and reflective embroidery (she’s doing a degree at Uni, but they have placements with the Victorian ambulance service, so have to wear a uniform for safety). The uniform is, as Kathleen said, very well made – but as she’s 5’3″ and curvy, it makes her look like a hobbit. I’ve promised to tweak her uniform when she gets a job.

    One thing that the uniforms have to cope with that hadn’t occurred to me until she told me was that they spend a lot of time crouching over or kneeling next to the patient – so padded knees and a comfortable crotch are important.

    Oh, and one of her lecturers said that the best way to improve the health of paramedics is to make ambulances too high to go through the McDonalds drive-through ;-)

  4. Penny says:

    Ditto on shops that sew uniforms being high quality contractors. They always have good functioning equiptment, highly skilled workforce, and function within “legal” requirements, meaning they have all their licences up to date and operate as legitimate businesses instead of back alley sweat shops.

    There are a lot of thriving businesses geared towards supplying uniforms. Someone has to supply all the prisons and jail inmates with clothing not to mention the off shoot products of this industry as well:
    http://www.preventsuicide.com/index.htm

  5. Natasha says:

    OMG I just love the above links models with the hair.

    Just got issued my school scrubs yesterday and OMG can you spell boxy. Why do they think its ok to issue us unisex ones. I have boobs in the front but not in the back.

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