Dressed For Success: Camouflage & Cufflinks


Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man. The biography of the man himself cannot be written. - Mark Twain 

This week, the Minneapolis Police Department announced their SWAT team is changing the color of their uniforms, from green and camouflage to more traditional navy blue. The decision was based on a Department desire to reduce the perception of an over-militarized force. 

Last night, I posted the news story to a few social media platforms to confirm my hypothesis: Police officers would dig in their heels against the move away from green or camouflage. 

And I was right. Cops are defending the green and camo color scheme. But I hadn't suspected how passionately cops would defend the uniform color...and how aggressively they'd go on a counter-offensive against anyone who supported returning to navy blue. 

The whole debate caused me to sit back and consider, in a broader scale, how one's dress effects the emotions and encounter between the wearer and others.  

When I was twelve years old, I started ironing my own dress shirts. As a Catholic prep school student, getting dressed up was just a part of a daily routine. It was what everyone else did too. Teenagers conform. 

But when I became a police officer, dress clothes took a backseat to a polyester navy blue uniform, nickel-plated buttons...and a clip-on tie. When I got into the training unit, the "dress code" was fairly predictable: tactical polo shirt with chest embroidery (AKA: "logo polo"), tactical riggers belt, tactical canvas pants (5.11 brand, if you really want to know), tactical boots. Tactical everything. When I was selected to the SWAT team, my t-shirt drawer became filled with shirts silkscreened with SWAT or POLICE on the back. My uniforms changed to more durable, practical BDU-styles...first black, then camouflage, then green...

And all is fine. Until one day you wear a dress shirt and slacks when everyone else is in tactical garb. It wasn't just the looks I got. But the quizzical questioning, borderline interrogation. "Why?" It was as if I betrayed the unwritten code of police fashion. Or as if I was trying to be someone I was not. The truth is, I hadn't really given it much thought...until then.

I began wearing dressier clothes more and more often. To training classes. To meetings. To conferences. To workshops. Not to push buttons; I like getting dressed up. It's comfortable to me. It was who I became in my teenaged years. Besides while on-duty (when it's required), I reserved the tactical wear for times I needed durability or practicality. 

But others were treating me differently.

Now, I realize that what I pick from my closet can be the most difficult choice I make in a given day. 

  • Am I headed to the firearms range? 
  • A classroom?  
  • Meeting a potential client? 
  • Doing an interview with the press? 
  • Am I speaking to chiefs...
  • or tactical officers...
  • or police academy recruits...
  • or attorneys? 

After all, we are first judged by our appearance...and our clothes play a significant part in that! Who is judging me? And what does my choice of clothing say about who I am? 
There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us, and not we, them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking. - Virginia Woolf 
How we dress may set the tone for the future...and determine how others perceive us, how we identify ourselves, and what abilities we possess. It changes the way we act, talk, and behave. In fact, our clothes change the way others act, talk, and behave with us! 

One's dress plays a part in personal branding. Conformity in clothes and iconography can bring one into a group and develop trust, rapport, and a quick sense of belonging. Conversely, breaking dress code "norms" can put one on the outside (even if the reality is that there are shared thoughts, values, or mindset). Personally speaking, breaking fashion expectations alienates me at times. It makes me stand out. I understand that. Sometimes that's good; sometimes that works against you.

When I have a choice on what to wear, I decide intentionally and purposely.  I know that sometimes, a small group may be put off at my selection. And at other times, I go "chameleon" to blend in. It all depends. But there is, more times than not, a method to my madness. Few decisions made while staring into my closet are made without reflection.

Sometimes I dress to impress. Sometimes it's about practical. Sometimes it's pure tactical. Sometimes, it's just really cold outside and I couldn't care less. From time to time, I'll even grab a pocket square. 

It sounds as though the command staff at the Minneapolis Police Department have figured this all out too. What we wear matters. More so than many of us are willing to acknowledge.

And with that, I remember something my grandma told me as a young man: If you don't know what to wear, it's always better to go more formal than too casual. I think she'd be pretty impressed with my cufflink collection. At least the pair she bought for my grandpa.

***

What's in your closet? Do you care what others think about how you dress? Do you notice a change in how others treat you, based on clothing selection? How do you decide on what to wear? Do you mirror your audience? Do you stand out? Dress up? Dress down? Give us your best advice.

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Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr

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