The Scout Uniform

I mentioned above that many Scouters believe that the Scout uniform is not functional, particularly for outdoor activities. The claim is interesting. Mountain Equipment Co-op is Canada's leading supplier of outdoor equipment. Their recent catalogue has an extensive section of outdoor clothing (MEC 2001:102-109). If one removes specialised clothing designed for specific activities, one is left with a third of a page devoted to organic cotton tee-shirts, and six pages devoted to shirts, pants, and shorts which are very similar to the Scouts Canada uniform. There is a variety of button-front shirts with collars and front pockets, just like on the Scout shirt. Pants feature large side pockets and are made of durable similar to the Scout pants. It seems that Scout uniform-like clothing is preferred by serious outdoors people. Parks Canada apparently can't think of any better clothes for the outdoors either, since their rangers wear a shirt identical to the Scouts Canada uniform. Baden-Powell wrote that the uniform was designed after that of the South African Constabulary (which BP had established and designed the uniform for) and was designed to be ``comfortable, serviceable, and good protection against the weather'' (BP nd:35). The current Scouts Canada uniform is very similar to the original one. Given all this, it seems to me that there is broad agreement among non-Scouts that the Scout uniform (or clothing just like it) is functional outdoor clothing. So we are left with the question of why so many people say that the uniform is not functional.

BP said, in what is probably his most-quoted writing about the uniform (e.g. Elsworth 2001b), ``I don't care a fig whether a Scout wears the uniform or not so long as his heart is in his work and he carries out the Scout Law'' (BP 1945:24). However, this quote is out of context. BP goes on to say, ``But the fact is that there is hardly a Scout who does not wear the uniform if he can afford to buy it. The spirit prompts him to it.'' This raises the question, Why does the spirit often fail to prompt Scouts to wear the uniform?

The opposition to the uniform which is expressed by the Scouts can, I think, be traced to the symbolic meaning it holds for them. Consider how the uniform is used. In most troops in the sample, the uniform was worn during only a few activities. At meetings it was usually worn during inspection, opening and closing. At camps, it was usually worn while travelling to and from camp, and during ceremonies. This ads up to only a small amount of time. More important, it seems to me, is the nature of this time.

During inspection, Scouts are asked to stand still and quiet while their uniforms are critiqued by the Scouters. Opening consists of saluting the Canadian flag and, more often than not, a long series of announcements through which one has to stand. After this, the uniform is removed and a fun game is played.

Likewise at camps, Scouts wear their uniform while sitting in a car waiting to get to camp. They also wear it through the long and often boring opening and closing ceremonies of camps. They probably wear the uniform during Scouts' Own (a spiritual gathering) which often, in my opinion, is designed to resemble church, rather than to meet the Scouts' spiritual needs. Because of this, it too is boring for the Scouts. The uniform is usually removed when the Scouts put up tents, cook, hike, explore, try out an obstacle course, and generally have fun and learn.

In short, the uniform is worn for the boring activities and removed before the fun begins. Thus, the uniform symbolically represents to the Scouts the boring parts of the Scout experience. They want to remove it so they can get to the fun stuff. Contrast this with a soccer uniform which is worn during games, that is, during the fun part.

Scouts Canada's Angus Reid survey found that kids who leave Scouting are more likely to dislike the uniform than those who stay in Scouting (Elsworth 2001a). Their interpretation of this is that the uniform is causing kids to leave. They dislike the uniform; they don't want to wear it; the only way to stop wearing it is to quit Scouts. They are taking a correlation for causation here. There is another explanation.

Consider a person who is a fan of a winning hockey team. To show their loyalty, they buy a team jersey. Some time passes and the team falls on a years-long losing streak. They haven't won the Stanley Cup in forty years. Some fans would be unfazed. This fan, however, is tired of ``losing'' and so becomes the fan of another team. Would this person still wear their beloved jersey from the old team? No, suddenly the old jersey is only worn by losers.

In the Scouting context, the Scout uniform represents the Scout program (and, as we saw above, certain parts of it more than others). Some Scouts become dissatisfied with Scouting and decide to quit. They will likely also become dissatisfied with the uniform that represents the program. A stark example of this is the case of some Scouts who later quit and became Army Cadets. While Scouts, they disliked the uniform and wore it as little as possible. Once in Army Cadets, they proudly strutted their new Cadet uniforms, which are very similar to Scout uniforms.

Since uniform usage was, with very few exceptions, very similar across the entire sample, nothing can be concluded statistically about the impact of different uniform usage on membership retention. However, there are theoretical reasons which support the hypothesis that uniforms can be used that they contribute to membership retention.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Catholic religious orders were undergoing reforms as a result of Vatican II. One of the changes was that the number of nuns entering orders became much less than the number leaving orders. Previously, it had been the other way around. The result was a large decline in the number of nuns. Interestingly enough, this decline happened to a much greater extent in liberal orders. These orders had accommodated themselves to dominant culture by allowing greater choice in dress and lifestyle. On the other hand, conservative orders, which continued to stress the importance of wearing the traditional habit and the adherence to traditional practices were twice as likely as liberal orders to recruit members (Chimino and Lattin 1998:106). The strict demands on members created a much greater sense of identity among the nuns.

It seems to me that as the habit confers identity to the nun, a Scout uniform should be able to confer identity on the Scout (see also Smith 1995:82). Young people crave identity and often find it by wearing, for example, certain brands of shoes which are heavily advertised. The uniform should help lead to a strong self-identity as a Scout and as a member of a one's troop. I don't believe this would happen, however, if the Scouts feel that they are forced to wear the uniform against their will. If forced, the uniform could become a symbol of being forced to do something, rather than a symbol of Scout identity. My experience suggests that the uniform is a successful agent of identity when new members of a troop see that it is valued by the senior members. They wear it first out of conformity. Later, as their experiences in Scouting builds their commitment to it, the uniform becomes part of their expression of their Scout identity.

It seems to me that the uniform is also more effective in conferring identity when the Scouts have seen that it creates recognition for them. For example, last spring, I took my troop on a bike hike on the Welland Canal. As always on Scout activities, we wore our uniforms. Part of the trip ran through a busy beach area. As we slowly biked through the crowd, I heard dozens of different people comment to their companions, ``Oh, look. Scouts on a bike trip!'' or words to that effect. The Scouts would have heard these and known that they were recognised. As well, from that standpoint of publicity for Scouting, a thousand or so people at the beach that day found out first hand that Scouts go on bike hikes. This is valuable advertising. If we had not been wearing uniforms, as is advocated by Elsworth (2001a), no one would have known that there were Scouts in the park that day.

There is some empirical support for the hypothesis that stricter use of uniforms contributes to membership retention. The Association des Éclaireurs Baden-Powell (AEBP) is a Québec-based independent Scout Association, member of the FSE, founded in 1973 as a ``traditional'' Scout association. The AEBP puts more emphasis on the uniform than Scouts Canada and it is growing. Of course, there are other variables at work here, but this does show that an association can thrive while giving importance to the uniform.

Liam Morland