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

Of the Cloth – My Uniform and Me

I seem to be heading into a series of posts called “of the cloth”. The idea of textiles in spirituality is interesting to me both as a textile student and a member of the Salvation Army. 

I feel I have a love/hate relationship with my church, but one that is certain, I don’t like the uniform. Never have.

I started by looking into the uniform, why we wear it, why we pay so much for it, what the Christian message behind it might be, but then I thought about other churches, then other beliefs. What is the relationship between a belief system and textiles?

I don’t mean wearing a hijab or a what a Mormon wears for underwear. Too much is said on that, but the precious textiles like altar cloths, ceremony robes, cloths to wrap text in, prayer mats. What makes a textile sacred?

I always knew that church windows contained pictures from a time when many people were illiterate, but didn’t know altar cloths and church textiles did the same, and in this multi-cultural world we live in, how valuable that is now to have textiles that tell local stories in a pictorial language we all understand.

Then I interviewed a member of my denomination who doesn’t wear a uniform and found an feeling of inequality I think the church would be embarrassed about. I have plans to interview people with different views, I want to see the whole picture. What turned a church uniform from a makeshift, logo on a shirt, handmade item into an look-a-like profit making scheme. What turned a play on the phrase war with the devil into a military style denomination we have today.

Of course I have always had my own opinion and my experience, that I planned to keep till the end. I wanted to get the rest of the stories written, But I started wondering whether I shouldn’t tell my story first. This is who I am, this is why I believe what I do. Many times through the telling of others stories I input from my experience, and perhaps understanding my own experience will help others understand that my strong feelings are not really just about a piece of cloth.

So here is my story, my relationship with my Salvation Army uniform.

My parents are retired now, but spent most of their lives as Salvation Army officers, managing men’s hostels in Yorkshire and Lancashire. I wore a church uniform from the age of seven and it was uncomfortable, I don’t remember being asked if I wanted to wear it, I don’t remember going to church without wearing it, and I don’t know why I wore it. Wearing it though did one thing… It allowed me to sing in the children’s choir and eventually play in the childrens band. I didn’t want to join the band, but my mother told me since all other children played in the band I wouldn’t make friends unless I did too, so I learned to play the cornet.

Later I started high school and uniform wearing became a full time job, Monday to Friday, school uniform, Sunday, Army uniform. Saturday’s at least I could wear what I wanted, but is one day a week enough to allow a child to develop their own sense of style? Their own tribal instinct of who they are? Our clothing often distinguishes our music and friend tastes and  perhaps my lack of ability to find my own style is why I became a goth.

Oh, how much I hate this photo. You can almost see right up my skirt.

As a young teenager I was told I could wear knee-high socks or tights on Sunday’s, but I wore ankle socks. Tights, to me, seem an unnecessary form of torture for women, similar to high heel shoes, which I never took to. If men spent a week wearing tights and heels they’d soon realise the pain from shoes and the frustration in trying to pull up tights in a tiny toilet cubicle. Maybe even scrap the wearing of skirts for women.

We had short church services in the hostel where we also lived (back then hostel managers lived in the hostel with their family, perhaps to give a family feeling to the residents). I sat there with my little uniform on amongst the homeless men and felt out of place, but worse, when my parents were shaking hands at the end of the service I was often approached by one man, a sexual predator, who told me how sexy I looked in my uniform. 

Yep, sexual abuse happened because I grew up in a Salvation Army men’s hostel. That was bad enough, but to have a church outfit that made me a sexual object at the age of 8 was vile, and it wasn’t just in the hostel. 

At 13 I had a friends dad who would grab my bum in church, I once turned and told him to “Fuck off” but he told me I shouldn’t speak like that because my parents were officers. If I wasn’t a shy abused kid I might have told him he shouldn’t be touching my arse, but I was unintentionally raised to believe the uniform is a sexual object, so I didn’t have a leg to stand on.

I was 20 when I started doing pubs, going from pub to pub selling the Army paper. Going into places that I’d grown up being told was a sin to enter, to get money from people doing something that was considered a sin. I had numerous hands feeling my legs, wondering whether I was wearing suspenders under my skirt. I felt as though I was being prostituted out in order to raise a few drunken donations all because we loved Jesus. Wolfwhistled at? If only it just stayed at a few whistles.

A few years later I was in a different situation, living in London, finding it hard to make friends, one friend offered me an alcoholic drink, I was young, naive, curious, I took a few sips, didn’t like it.

But oh, the shame. Alcohol was a sin. The Bible didn’t say so, but my Army upbringing did. I went to my local Salvation Army that Sunday, the one on Oxford street. During the service I broke down in tears. I talked to the assistant officer, a young minister just out of college. I say talked, but there wasn’t much conversation, no asking for a reason, no discussion. I was told I couldn’t wear my uniform anymore and that was it. Removed of my uniform like Mr Banks, a disgrace, not worthy of wearing the gang colours. 

The following Sunday I was approached by a church woman who asked if she could meet me to talk. She said she was an alcohol and drug counsellor, sent by the young minister to talk to me. One sip and I’m seen in need of counselling.

I never put on the uniform again, for several years.

When life really became tough I was working for the Slavation Army in Notting Hill. I went out one evening and was raped, I was told I wasn’t spiritual enough for the church and asked to leave. I became homeless. I went to Bible college, but the shame of being raped, of having the church tell me it had been my fault, that I wasn’t spiritual enough, that I should leave. Becoming homeless because my home came with my job. I started drinking. 

If only I could have gone to my church for help, but I knew what happened when I took one sip, what would happen when I told them I was sleeping on the streets, working as a prostitute, an alcoholic and drug user? There would be no help for someone like me.

Me, in 1997

Roll on twenty years, I’m back in Leeds. Doing fine, free from addictions for over 10 years and building my life again.

I go to a local Salvation Army in the centre of Leeds, I went here as a kid. I called it home but trouble never seems far from me. I’m called in to speak to the minister, someone (I’m never allowed to know who) reported me as a prostitute. Nope, not me, I haven’t worked like that for years. I work with prostitutes, but I don’t work as one of them. It happens again. No, still not me. Either tell the person to stop gossiping or tell me who it is.

The third time it comes with a throwaway, inside family joke. A printed Facebook page of a post from me, “I have now ‘acquired’ a uniform”. That’s the proof. How can someone on benefits afford a uniform? Surely this is proof that I’m up to no good. How else would I have a uniform.

I leave.

I have my uniform in the cupboard under the stairs. It hangs with other textiles from my life, my reflexology uniforms, my bikers jacket, clothing I might never wear again.

Every so often I get the uniform out and go to try it on, but the tears come. The pain of being forced to wear an outfit that still feels like I’m being made to sexualise myself for God. I’d never wear a skirt, yet in order to sing in the church choir, or take a role in the church leadership, or even play in the band is out of reach unless I return to that feeling of helplessness. That shameful place where men can look, call me sexy and feel my bum with no comeback from me, check for a suspended belt.

I still go to church (yep, a Salvation Army church) the people are lovely, but will I ever be fully accepted unless I lower myself to my dark past? The uniform isn’t something to aspire to for me. 

I have other questions about it too.

Why a church started for the poor now charges so much for the uniform of membership that the poor cannot join?

Why when the Bible speaks of instant forgiveness does the church then punish you further in a Mary Poppins style humiliation? As though saying, “Well, we know you’re sorry, and Jesus forgives you, but we just want to humiliate you for six months”.


In searching for the answers to spirituality and textiles I am also searching perhaps for my own peace, my own freedom from the failure the church did to me. So that now, as a church member who wants to be so much more, can one day put on some kind of outfit that makes me seen as an equal.
 

So! What do you think?

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