How Prison Uniforms Have Changed Over The Last 100 Years

Of the many privileges prisoners lose, clothing choice is one of the first to go. Prisoners in the US immediately trade in their street clothes for a uniform, which has changed dramatically over the past 100 years. The stereotypical US prison garb might be a black-and-white-striped suit that looks like a pair of oversized pajamas, but uniforms have evolved.

While stripes are no longer the norm (although they are making a comeback), prison fashion still follows the same practical principles: Inmates need to wear clothing that distinguishes them from the staff and the public should they escape. Their garb also needs to be inexpensive and functional, but not too fussy. Correctional institutions can be scary places, and uniforms, bland as they are, at least level the fashion field for everyone. 

Prison wear varies around the country, with local officials choosing different colors and styles. And although the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black has brought prison clothing into focus, the attention hasn't necessarily been beneficial - fans of the show started wearing orange jumpsuits, leading one prison to change its uniform guidelines. 

  • Prison Uniforms Were Introduced In The 18th And 19th Centuries

    Before the 1700s, it was uncommon for prisoners around the world to wear uniforms. Instead, they could either wear their own clothing or choose from available rags. Only in the 18th and 19th centuries did uniforms become popular.

    The outfits were believed to instill discipline, with the hope that such external control would allow for inner discipline and rehabilitation.

  • Early Uniforms In The US Featured Black And White Stripes

    A black-and-white-striped jumpsuit, which has become the stereotypical uniform, was first used in the United States in the 19th century. While the two-tone look has grown rare, it is still the standard uniform in some places today.

    The design was instituted as a mark of shame used to humiliate offenders - especially when they were out working in chain gangs.

  • A Change In Philosophy Led To A Phase-Out Of Black And White Stripes 

    A Change In Philosophy Led To A Phase-Out Of Black And White Stripes 
    Photo: Detroit Publishing Co./Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Prisons were initially viewed as institutions to punish offenders, but by the start of the 20th century, the consensus was that they should be places to rehabilitate people. This change in attitude meant less emphasis on trying to degrade inmates and more on trying to give them the means to become better citizens.

    This change in philosophy applied to their clothing, as well.

  • Work Clothes Became A Popular Choice During The Early 1900s

    Work Clothes Became A Popular Choice During The Early 1900s
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Attempts to rehabilitate offenders and treat them in a more dignified way meant uniforms became less conspicuous. Solid-colored jumpsuits and denim separatesbecame common uniforms in the early 1900s.

    These garments gave prisoners the chance to work in more comfortable conditions.

  • Denim Jeans With Plain Shirts Were Common During The Mid-1900s

    By the 1950s, offenders commonly wore denim jeans and plain shirts. As with the jumpsuits of the early 1900s, these uniforms were useful for doing jobs while remaining casual enough to be worn at other times.

    A number of prisons continue to issue this type of uniform.

  • Women Offenders Generally Had More Freedoms

    Women Offenders Generally Had More Freedoms
    Photo: Apic/RETIRED/Contributor / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

    In the early 1900s, many institutions did not have strict uniform policies for women. At the California Institution for Women, for example, inmates could choose from a variety of fabrics, colors, and designs.

    People thought female criminals represented a failure of moral standards, so inmates were encouraged to become more feminine.