Sure, I’m asking a controversial question. And I’ve probably shocked you by even asking it. But I think it’s justified nevertheless.
Since the first “Girl Scout” uniform option was proposed in the 1908 edition of “Scouting for Boys” there have been arguments about Guiding uniform. Style, fabric, cut, quality, practicality, colour, durability, laundering, the lot. Yes, every possible cause for objection was and is given by Leaders with unfailing regularity about every version of the uniform from the first version to the current. Nevertheless, until recent years all members accepted that, whether we cared for the uniform of the day or not, part of the deal we accepted in joining the organisation was that we would wear the organisation’s uniform. At all weekly meetings, on all outings, and during arrival, departure, and any offsite activities when at camp/holiday. The only time uniform would not be worn whilst at Guiding events, would be when carrying out those outdoor activities which made it impractical to do so, in the case of recruits who were given a few weeks’ grace whilst they were deciding whether or not to become full members and saving up towards getting their uniform, and during the onsite time at camp - where clothes in Guiding colours sufficed.
Why did we have a uniform at all? The aim was to camouflage social difference, and make all of the girls equal in appearance regardless of background or social standing. In the twenties and thirties, for some girls in poorer areas, their Guide uniform was the smartest outfit they owned, hence the number of studio photos from that era which feature girls wearing their Guide uniforms. For those who hadn’t the money to buy their uniform from the Guide shop, there was the option of buying a dressmaking pattern and a length of fabric – many more girls then were taught practical dressmaking than nowadays.
From the 1970s onwards, there grew a custom in some areas, of participants getting matching sweatshirts or t-shirts made for wearing when on a trip abroad with a Guiding group. The idea was that it would be impractical for them to wear their uniforms every day, as the logistics for laundry would forbid – but they still felt that they should appear as a unified group, in matching clothing. It was always made clear that during the trip, on any given day, all participants would wear the same garb whether uniform or group fun-top – and that post-event, the fun top would be a leisure or camp-wear garment only, not to be worn at unit meetings, or at any other occasion where Guiding uniform would normally be worn.
Since then, in some units at least, things have changed significantly. Some blame it on mix-and-match uniform. Some claim there is a more relaxed attitude to uniform-wearing in society (although most evidence seems entirely to the contrary – nowadays more schools and clubs are enforcing uniform rules, or creating rules where none existed, than have done for many years). Yet for whatever reason, in Guiding we now see adults turning up at unit meetings wearing non-uniform garments, and making no apology for doing so – and naturally, the girls copy their example. We see some units claiming that an unofficial unit fun-top counts as uniform despite the manual making clear that that is 100% untrue. And as a result we see parents in some units being pressured to buy not only the uniform the girl will need, but to also go to the expense of buying an unofficial unit garment as well! It’s unnecessary duplication, not to mention the environmental and moral questions which are raised by all these extra garments being made which can only be worn a few times a year at most – and with no guarantee they are sourced from the most ethical or safe of factories. And of course, they will be outgrown within a couple of years anyway.
Given the increasing proliferation of unofficial garments, and the lax attitude to the wearing of Guiding uniform at unit meetings on the part of some Leaders, I think that we in the UK are rapidly approaching a crossroads, and now need to decide which path we are going to take. There are a lot of assumptions being made – for instance, that because we always have been a uniformed organisation, we thus will always continue to be. But – that’s an assumption, and it need not necessarily be so. Like any tradition, it’s only worth retaining if it can be justified in both current and all foreseeable circumstances.
And I don’t see any sign of us going down the US route of semi-uniform, such as the wearing of a uniform sash or waistcoat over mufti. After all, the sashes we’ve got haven’t proved terribly popular (the Guide one was dropped many years ago, the Brownie one still attracts as many complaints as fans despite the tweaks that have been made to it over the years. And there has never been a tradition here of wearing buttonless waistcoats. No, I think the decision we face is a straightforward either/or choice.
If we want to continue being a uniformed organisation, then each one of us needs to proactively sign up to that, in our Districts and in especially in our units. To start with ourselves and our personal example, which after all is more influential with the girls than we might expect. Deeds are more powerful than words. Leader uniform is a legitimate unit expense. And it isn’t difficult to keep a top in one’s bag or at the hall, and to quickly change into it on arrival. And once all the unit Leaders are setting the example every week, we then have to ensure every girl in our units also has the opportunity to own and wear proper uniform. So we should make sure they all know where it can be bought, whether that’s a Guide shop, depot, local shop or mail order. We should offer help and advice on sourcing second-hand for those who would find that useful. We might have a stock of spare tops for those who ‘forget’ theirs. We should have an awareness of the hardship funds which are available locally for those who might find cost a barrier. We should be ready to contact Trading to enquire about placing a ‘special order’ for any girl who would not find the usual sizes a good fit. Oh yes, I’ve heard all the complaints about the garments themselves, heard them every year since I joined the Brownies myself all those years ago, through each of the umpteen versions of uniform we’ve had in that time. After all, there were complaints about the quality of Promise badges back in 1912! Nevertheless, as a movement we have a clear choice - either we have a uniform and we all wear it – properly, whether we do so enthusiastically or we do so reluctantly.
Or - we ditch having uniform altogether, and have no rules or expectations about what garments any of the unit members will wear on any given occasion, leaving it entirely up to the individual’s personal taste/judgement and common sense to decide what is and isn’t appropriate, bar occasional suggestions in regard to safety for the activities scheduled on a particular day. Fudging the uniform issue, or turning a blind eye to units which attend events in non-uniform garments - solves nothing. Regardless of what garments they may happen to be wearing, regardless of whether some of these garments happen to be matching or not, and regardless of whatever opinion anyone holds about the comparative smartness or scruffiness of their attire. The facts are simple - you’re either in Guiding uniform, or you are in mufti, there is no in-between, nothing counts as uniform bar what is on the official list, nothing else is or can be equivalent.
So – decision time. Should we have a uniform which is worn by all members at all meetings and all other events where we are representing Guiding - or should we drop having a uniform entirely?