Imagine: or, A Woman's Uniform Rant
by Danielle Strickland
Things difficult or next to impossible to do in a women’s
Salvation Army formal uniform: worship freely,
kneel without looking foolish. Walk any long
distances. Play with kids (Velcro is the sworn enemy of
nylons). Sit down (especially on the floor or a low seat). Get
in or out of a vehicle with dignity. Doing crafts or making
food. Preaching freely (at least the kind that involves any
movement). And sometimes (depending on the scale situation)
Things that I need to do to accomplish the mission - all the
above. So basically, everything that the uniform inhibits is
my mission. So why do we insist on wearing an outfit that
makes our mission more difficult and cumbersome? Good
I’ve been staying out of this argument
for a long time. But I felt compelled to weigh in. Let’s have
the talk. I think it’s gone beyond semantics and differences
of opinion. I think the tradition, formal uniform of the
Salvation Army and our organizations insistence on it boils
down to idolatry. There I’ve said it. Let me explain. I guess
the best way to start is to take all the rhetoric as to why we
still wear it: Keep in mind that I’m just going to ignore the
misogynistic reality of forcing women to wear nylons, skirts
and high heels in 2017. It may be against the law for any
other business to do this anymore in America
but I’m getting sidetracked here by my own personal pain.
Let’s get to those traditional arguments.
#1. It identifies us
as ‘different’ and that helps us witness. What would you
say most people think we are when we are in uniform? I’d say
flight attendant ranks in the top 3. Military. Police.
Government agent of some kind. Meter maid. Those are all
things people have guessed I am in uniform. Now, to be sure,
we look different. We stand out. We look official. But there
are two fundamentally flawed positions about this argument.
To the people in the most need, we look like ‘them’. The
official, government, police etc. We look exactly like they
do. Why would we want to identify with ‘them’ when we are
supposed to be with the people we serve. You would have
thought Booth Tucker nailed this problem with his prophetic
Jesus styled approach to the invasion of India. Gone were the
military tunics with colonial hints of power and rank and
importance. Off came the shoes, ensuring solidarity with the
untouchable classes and on went the traditional Indian garb
adapted to the salvationist messages, ensuring a gospel that
was rooted in a cultural norm rather than any human power.
Even down to the ‘dot’ on the forehead. If we took a page out
of our own history of adaptation I wonder what a uniform in
the urban inner city would look like - Converse and tattoos?
What would a uniform in a rural small town consist of - Cowboy
In the best cases the uniform still works
as a way to stand out as different than others. But in what
way? In my experience the uniform often works as an
intimidating barrier for the most part (with some exceptions
usually among those who already know what the Salvation Army
is). The deeply troubling part of this particular argument is
that the difference is on the outside. In other words, it’s
what we wear that sets us apart – rather than HOW WE LIVE that
makes us different. This is a KEY area that needs addressing.
And it might be an easy thing to simply ask who is getting the
most people saved these days? What churches, denominations,
movements, para-church groups are gaining the most ground?
Campus Crusade (the Cru) has distributed 2.5 Billion copies of
the Four Spiritual Laws; 6 Billion viewings of The Jesus Film.
They’ve had 3.5 million conversations just from their
I Found It
Campaign according to Wikipedia. The top three churches in the
US by net increase (at least 5000 people in a year) were
non-denominational and two were Southern Baptist. None of them
wear uniforms. Here is a list of the top 100 fastest growing
churches in America (notice how
none of them
require their members to wear a uniform).
How arrogant is it of us to suggest that the uniform is the
best method of evangelism when in many parts of the world our
corps and converts are shrinking?
It unites us. Truly the mission and identity of
Salvationists unites us around the globe. There is no question
this is one of the most exciting things about being in The
Salvation Army – the global community. I’ve been to a few
countries and I’ve got to tell you that the Indian Sari
uniform did not make me feel disconnected from the SA when I
was there. I thought officers wearing Bermuda shorts was
awesome and the Hawaiian shirt uniform made me want to move
there - immediately. We’ve already make some small cultural
tweaks to our uniform but what stops us from adapting our
uniform to meet the contemporary standards of our current
culture? Dis-unity? Really? We feel like people would feel
alienated from each other if we adapted the uniform to suit
the cultural specifics of a geographical place? I beg to
differ. I think the adaptations would be evidence of our
deeper unity in mission. Again, it would get us past the
surface of things and straight to the heart of things. The
things that really unite Salvationists is our common mission.
And anything that helps us do that better and more effectively
is the way of unity. True unity is not a false external
standard of ‘sameness’ but a celebration of diversity for the
sake of the lost.
#3. It gives people a
sense of dignity. I’m just going to be as kind as I can
here. I understand the uniform is a sacred thing. So, let me
just describe to you the way the last four corps I led did
their uniform shopping. We found a traditional corps and asked
if we could have access to their ‘basement’ or ‘closet’
supplies of old uniforms that didn’t fit their people anymore
(or more accurately fit people who weren’t there anymore) so
we could find a few things that might fit our people. You see,
none of the people I’ve enrolled as soldiers in the last
decade could afford a uniform themselves. Dignity might not be
the word I would use as I led people to rummage around the
middle-class corps closets to see if they might find something
that would ‘do’ for them.
Travel with me as I went to a music concert at a famous
Salvation Army Corps years ago where an amazing singing
company sang a goose bumps rendition of ‘your grace still
amazes me’. I had recently made friends with a seven-year old
girl who was belting it out from the front row. At lunch,
afterwards I told her she was amazing. And she lowered her
head and started to cry. I asked her what was wrong and she
showed me her nails. She had forgotten to take off her
nail-polish and had been scolded for not wearing the uniform
with dignity. The irony of the song she sang and the scolding
she received was not lost on me. If that’s dignity, then
dignity be damned.
Now, travel with me to Zimbabwe and many other African
countries. They love their uniforms. I travelled to remote
villages and the elders would call the salvationists to come
and they would come in their full uniforms with even their
hats. Beautiful white hats standing out against the backdrop
of the red African earth. It was endearing. Well, that was
until I went to the trade and found out how much those hats
cost. They were 45 American dollars each. That was more than
those villagers made in a month (if they were working). I
asked the local officer why they wasted their money on a hat,
when they could have fed their children, and she said,
‘because the Bible commands we cover our heads.’ Great. Now we
have miss-communicated the gospel message, badly translated
scripture, perpetuated patriarchy and robbed widows and
children of much needed resources for their own survival.
And what of the dignity of those who
picked the cotton and stitched the fabric of our formal
attire? What’s that? You don’t know who made them? Or where
the material came from? Yes. That’s correct. The supposed
symbol of our mission and calling is dripping with the same
blood as the corporate world it really represents. Buying and
selling products with no regard to the people who make them.
How can I wear a symbol of missional calling to the poor while
refusing to challenge the systems that impoverish them?
Oh, Salvation Army, wake up to the incredibly calling that is
Imagine with me:
Skinny jeans with shields on the pocket.
Converse with OTHERS stitched into the fairly-traded fabric.
Sombreros with Salvation Banners on heads that bob to the
rhythm of God’s kingdom come.
African robes with colors a plenty and in the wild west cowboy
boots with shiny shields painted on the leather hide.
Women and children working to stitch our diverse uniform
clothing in factories that pay them a fair wage and provide
dignity while they work. Stitching justice and salvation into
the fabric before we even consider putting them on.
Oh, I’m sure in many boardrooms,
courtrooms and rotary clubs across Western Nations the
business attire of the formal salvation army uniform is
appropriate. And when it is – please wear it with holy pride
(once it’s ethically made).
Instead of relying on an external rule-based requirement why
don’t we let the truth of God’s calling be seen with our
lives. Why don’t we freely mobilize to get to the business of
salvation for every tribe and color and language and culture!!
Let down the hair, release the afros, grow the beards, take
off the shoes, and bring on EVERY color! Let the expression of
salvation be seen in every possible culture in every possible
way. Let the mission OUT of the box. Let the Army mobilize in
every imaginable way to get the job done. Let freedom be our
uniform, justice be our tunic, and grace be our song.
Now, that’s a march of witness the world is waiting to see.
The 3 Trade’s I’ve spoken with about fair-trade and
the Biblical imperative to challenge the clothing
industry are unable or unwilling to ask the companies
they contract to ensure a fair-trade policy. Their
concerns are rooted in the high costs potentially
associated with the changes. Others suggest that many
of our products are made in the USA, but still refuse
to ensure the cotton they are made from to be
fair-trade certified. The global fashion industry
remains one of the major offenders of human
trafficking and human rights violations.