Church Life · Of The Cloth · Social Action · Textile Stories

Cloth and Memory – The Salvation Army Uniform

We have been looking at cloth and memories people may associate with a fabric or clothing. Again, I’m slightly changing the way we were asked to write about this. I was asked to write memories from four people as well as my own as separate statements.

I instead chose one cloth – the Salvation Army uniform – and wrote one summary on everyone’s memories.

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Image from http://www.sps-shop.com/ladies-classic-wool-rich-jacket-long-5016-p.asp

Almost everyone I spoke to said pretty much the same thing. They like to see the Army uniform, they think people respond to the uniform and believe it gets them places they wouldn’t be accepted without it. These comments came mostly from friends who wear the uniform and responded to a call for memories on facebook.

On the other hand I had friends come to me with other thoughts, but not wanting to speak them on social media.

John went to the Salvation Army college with my parents.

 ”I still wear uniform in retirement – full uniform – perhaps because of joining SA at 10 and being in uniform from then! Also strict school uniform and military cadet uniform for 4 years – it seemed natural discipline. But also, it made everyone aware of what I was as I worked in hostels and around the local community. In the Irish Republic the SA was specially respected and I was welcomed and used by the police at accidents, fires and bombings, also by government officers and the Roman Catholic churches and convents, and by local people facing serious problems. Back in the UK, it was much the same – in Scotland up to 2000 we would still wear old style uniforms with high collars as the bands and songsters did! Again, particularly welcome in Catholic areas. People would come to us in the street with needs and problems – and with gratefulness and assistance. Contrarily, when younger colleagues did not wear uniform or at least, in centres SA badged red or blue overalls, they were ignored or turned away by individuals or by police in emergencies and had to put uniform on to access situations. In our last years, we returned to my wife’s home village in the Fens because of needing to care for her parents and my mother, all very elderly and unwell 90+. The corps had lost its quarters and had shared officers from 20-30 miles away having to drive in to do meetings. We were doing regional work at first but I took on the corps and was able to visit all but one family on foot. Seen most days around in uniform – gave up my other post – and people stopped me and said they thought the Army had closed, pleased to see it was open again! A clear, obvious quite traditional uniform is to me still important worn on the streets and in the community.”

The Army uniform has changed little in 100 years, this image is from my family album

No, it’s not a happy funeral, it’s my grandparents wedding. The white cord across my Nana’s chest is the only sign that she’s a bride.

Well at least she didn’t have to spend thousands on a wedding dress!

My friend Fran said,

“As a Catholic (admittedly not a good one…would be in confession more than owt else!) Myself and others have great respect which the uniform denotes . I can imagine it may be uncomfortable to wear and outdated etc but to outsiders it’s identifiable and respected. Many many years ago as a teenage runaway I spent time in a Salvation Hostel and I have nothing but praise for the people in uniform who supported me not just by providing bed and board but emotionally and installing self confidence. I think the uniform is a visible reminder and helps people to distinguish between others in situations.”

The uniform is respected (mostly) but in my opinion she’s right about one thing, it’s uncomfortable and outdated.

I was at church on Sunday watching a Salvationist trying to walk in high heels. She said something on the lines of, I hate wearing heels, I can’t even walk in them.

“Why do you wear them then?”

“Because they look better than flat shoes.”

Actually, I didn’t think so. I’m a believer in sensible shoes, and not damaging your spine for fashion. I was about to give her a talk on how Dolly Parton has damaged her feet by wearing high heels, but thought better of it.

To most people the Army uniform indicated a Christian who goes out of their way to help, which is great… except.

The uniform, I feel, is such a cumbersome outfit that it does little to help in times of need.

We all have seen images of the Salvation Army helping the homeless like this…

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That dry-clean only uniform, healed shoes and 10 denier tights are hardly “I’m here to help” attire. She may seem ready to help in this possibly posed picture but in reality I wonder how happy she’d be if the guy puked up on her jacket.

It’s not something you can boil wash.

Some years ago I worked for the Army in one of their hostels. It was a time when people were trying to change the hostels and some had gone to the extent of making hostel staff wear uniforms, albeit a less outdated one.

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Sure, receptionists and office staff might feel a sense of pride wearing it, but a lot of my job was taking long term rough sleepers to appointments. When there was talk about me possibly having to wear a uniform at work I was very against it. In my opinion there was nothing more demoralising for a man than sitting next to me on a bus and not feeling my equal. To have people look at the two of us sitting and chatting and catching sight of my Army logo, feel shame, anger, regret, sympathy for the probable homeless person I was talking to; That was not how I wanted to treat another human being.

A uniforms purpose can be to create a sense of superiority or power. It has no place in an equal relationship and It has no sense when helping to build confidence in someone not in that uniform.

Wow, strong views. (you can always respond to this blog) but they are my views.

An old friend, Wendy, says this…

” I use to wear Salvation Army uniform, I felt so proud, it is great knowing most members of the public recognise the uniform and that the Salvation Army have helped and cared for so many people for so many years „ even now when I see someone in the Salvation Army uniform , I smile knowing that no matter how much I have struggled , they have always been there for me”

The uniform lets people know you are a Christian, but is this always a good thing?

They say a uniform gets them places where they would be accepted without. Is it right though, to take advantage?

I knew a man who worked for the Army and wore his uniform as part of his job. One day, driving through town he saw a homeless person who he knew. The person was in obvious distress so he stopped the car and got out to help.

The homeless person had moments before injected drugs and seeing a man coming towards him in uniform grabbed his needle and stabbed the Salvation Army man with the syringe. He mistook the uniform as a police uniform and didn’t want to be arrested.

I think there are times when a uniform, as it is, is more of a hindrance.

The Army has changed the uniform in some way, I remember stand up stiff collars and the awful bonnet.

Wendy mentioned the new uniform,

” I have seen some of the new uniform , I was shocked how much it has all changed „I must be still stuck in the past”

But it remains outdated, unfashionable, and not fit for the job of helping others in need.

In the army you usually start wearing a uniform from age 7, then when you reach 16 you can choose whether to stop wearing it or change to the adult style uniform and a lifetime commitment to the church.

I don’t remember being asked whether I wanted to wear a uniform, I do remember the pressure when I wanted to stop wearing it. The thoughts that you’d have no friends, since all your friends wore a uniform, even being told I’d have no one to sit with in church because all my friends wore a uniform and sat with the choir.

I remember being a teenager and having a member of the church (a friends father) put his hand on my bottom most Sundays as I left the church, because he liked how I looked in uniform.

I remember in my 20’s doing ‘pubs’, going around the pubs asking for donations and selling the war cry, and the number of men who touched my legs and tried to grab me to see if I had suspenders.

Yep, it’s clear to say my memories of the cloth that is the Salvation Army uniform are not positive. I’d like to see a more acceptable uniform, one you can throw in the wash when you’ve spilt soup on it at the food kitchen. One I can run in when a person falls and needs help getting up. One I can change a tyre in without worry. One I can wear putting my arm around a homeless man without him wondering what type of lingerie I have on under that skirt and in those heels.

I want a uniform that fits purpose, gets the job done, not one that sends a “help yourself” message to every randy old man.

But my biggest problem is the cost.

The church, set up in the slums of the East End, known for it’s work amongst the poor, admired by social groups worldwide, does not welcome the poor into membership.

The uniform is purchased by the wearer, that means, you have to find the money to buy the uniform yourself.

There is another church, similar to the Salvation Army, who wear a style of uniform.

The Jesus Army have a jacket that is given to each person on becoming a church member.

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When I became a member of the Jesus Army I was given a jacket with someone’s name crossed out inside, that jacket was property of the church and when I left the church, the uniform stayed.

And why not? I had no use for it.

I hear of ex-salvationists with uniforms in cupboards gathering dust, hidden in the attic, buried with the wearer (I think my Nana really believed she’d be wearing her uniform in heaven) even one guy who left the Army and used his uniform to line his dog basket.

The full uniform, to buy new, costs around £400. That buys you a skirt, blouse, jacket, hat and coat. Trimmings, shoes and ongoing hosiery purchases not included.

How many people on benefits can afford that?

Someone mentioned this week that the Salvation Army is a church for the middle classes, it’s a shame, but maybe they’re right.

When I decided to wear a uniform I was offered no financial support, no one showed me a scheme where I could buy a second hand uniform. The Army has a yearly holiday at Butlins and a competition that the Army shop ran every year where the first person in the door on sale day could buy a uniform for £10, My sister-in-law offered to sleep outside the shop to be the first one that day and buy me a uniform.

I refused to let her. I’ve slept on streets enough and I’ll not have a member of my family do it, even for a cheap deal.

But plenty of people have done.

The Army uniform became the pot of gold that made poor people feel they needed to act destitute to buy one.

Being on benefits, with no way of buying a uniform I did something that was wrong, but I have no regrets.

I stole it.

My need to belong, to be accepted in the church as an equal, made me a thief.

But there are alternatives.

In Australia they sell more relaxed styles of uniform, Salvationists who can afford it, travel there and bring back styles even I might consider.

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http://commerce.salvationarmy.org.au/default.asp

In America the Army has inspired artists and designers to make t-shirts that are acceptable and hopefully make others ask the wearer what it’s all about.

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http://thesalvationarmy.merchline.com/

One day, the UK salvation Army will, I hope, move forward. Maybe even realise the cost and style is off-putting.

Perhaps, one day, a second hand uniform service might be more than a dream.

Chris, my fourth friend is a Salvation Army leader. I’ve spoken to her several times about the uniform. She tells me how important it is that no one feels the uniform is only for the elite.

The church she ran found the funds to buy a new uniform for every new member. That way everyone was treated as an equal. Those unable to pay weren’t made to feel less than anyone else by accepting charity because everyone received the same no matter of their financial status.

That is an Army I would be proud of.

So! What do you think?

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