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.
 

Of the Cloth – A conversation with an Adherent


My definition:

Adherent – a member of the Salvation Army who doesn’t wear a uniform
Soldier – a member of the Salvation Army who wears a uniform

What the Salvation Army website says:

‘While you do not have to be a member of The Salvation Army to attend worship meetings, or to receive practical help and support, there are two ways of making a commitment through the church.

Becoming a soldier – a member of a Salvation Army church – is a voluntary personal commitment arising from a personal spiritual conviction. 

Adherent members do not wear the uniform but are committed to The Salvation Army as their church and, as such, can identify themselves as members of The Salvation Army. It is the opportunity to explore your faith and how you best express is.

Salvation Army churches are led by officers (ministers). All officers are soldiers who feel they have been called by God into ministry through The Salvation Army. They then begin the process of becoming a Salvation Army officer. This afternoon I had a coffee with Bev, who attends a Salvation Army church as an Adherent. I wanted to find out what made Bev choose to be an adherent instead of a uniformed soldier (Salvationist) and whether the physical uniform played a part in her decision.’
http://www.salvationarmy.org.uk/being-salvationist

This afternoon I had a coffee with Bev, who attends a Salvation Army church as an Adherent. I wanted to find out what made Bev choose to be an adherent instead of a uniformed soldier (Salvationist) and whether the physical uniform played a part in her decision.

Bev started coming To church as a new mother to the mum & tots group over 30 years ago and pretty much stayed. Bev is a qualified child carer and foster parent, so continued to be involved in parent & child groups and Sunday schools.

Although being a part of the church now for over 30 years it was only three years ago that Bev became an ‘official’ member as an adherent. The reason was simply that she was asked.
Bev seems pretty much part of the furniture at the church and I guess people automatically assumed she was a member. It isn’t a big thing for Bev, “I was happy going along and didn’t feel I needed to become a member to believe”

Being an adherent has made no real difference to the role she takes at church, she works hard, perhaps five days a week, helping with lunch clubs, parent & child groups, the two youth clubs, holiday clubs, Sunday school and when she has time she helps with the cleaning. She is a valuable asset to the church, yet doesn’t wear a uniform so is unable to take an official role in the church. Then again, Bev was working hard for the church long before making it official as a member.

In interviewing Bev, there is a sense of frustration, of feeling unappreciated.

It’s understandable that she feels frustrated about not feeling recognised for the week in, week out commitment she makes. She mentions the annoyance at special events.

One occasion in particular when an important church official was visiting and suddenly a uniformed member wanted to help out with food preparation, later they were publicly thanked for their hard work at that particular event. “Some take the praise when others have done the dirty, they don’t thank the ones that do it every week, but then thank each other”. I recognise what she says, how often at big events the caterers are brought in the be thanked for their hard work, yet many of those are one time helpers, being brought in for standing ovations, when the ones who work every week hide at the back.

She mentions that recently a uniformed member moved from another church and took over the job of a non-uniformed member without asking whether that was ok.

Bev speaks of “them and us”, I ask if she means uniform and non-uniform members, but she tells me it’s between the haves and the have-nots. However with the cost of the uniform being so high I wonder whether it amounts to the same thing.

Bev says she simply couldn’t afford the cost of a uniform and even some of the casual items of clothing are out of her price range, wearing a uniform is out of the question. However, when volunteering at the church she wears a Salvation Army polo shirt, paid for by the church as part of her ‘work clothes’.

I asked Bev, if she could afford the uniform, would you wear it?

“I wouldn’t wear it, people wear it and I don’t think they’re true Christians and shouldn’t wear it. I feel sometimes I am a better Christian than the uniform wearers. I think it’s wrong to think that wearing a uniform to give you a sense of being better than someone else is wrong.”

I’ve also seen this attitude to the uniform before, the sense that putting on the uniform somehow makes you a good Christian, makes you feel superior to people in the church who choose not to wear it. It’s not what the uniform was designed to do and certainly not a Christian belief.

You’re either a sinner or a saint, and saints are dead people. Wearing a uniform or not wearing one doesn’t raise your status in anyway.

Not wearing a uniform means Bev can’t take an official role in the church, she can’t become YPSM (in charge of caring for the young people) because she isn’t in uniform, but people don’t see the amount of youth work she does without it becoming official.

Like many people, the uniform is out of price range for Bev. This hasn’t stopped people becoming soldiers though, the corps sometimes will buy the uniform for the person when they can. I asked what would happen if the corps (church) offered to buy her a uniform. A definite No. “Everyone would know I’m a charity through the network (leadership) meetings. I’m not a charity case.”

I know myself, as someone who couldn’t afford a uniform. Society has left people claiming benefits with a sense of shame, TV programmes showing benefit claimants as scroungers, the government checking disabled people with the belief that we’re mostly faking it. People in full time work having to use food banks rather than the government change work laws. There is a sense of shame about having to ask for something, a bigger shame than I’ve ever known about being poor.

The church should be different and I know what Bev means. We should be equal in the church, a lot is said about the New Testament and it’s ‘all is one in Christ’ from Galatians 3, but they mostly are talking about male/female equality, not slave/free (rich/poor). The uniform should be something we can all afford, or nothing at all.

Bev also talks about the style of it. If she wore it (around £250 for the full uniform) and saw a man on the ground in need would she feel able to kneel down and help him? Bev laughs, “not in that tight skirt.” Again I think about the parable of the Good Samaritan. I’ve heard how the uniform gets soldiers into places where they couldn’t if they were not in uniform, but they mean the few times when the Army have spoken out about political decisions. It’s not practical to help when the need arises.

I asked Bev, is there one situation that you remember when you’ve been made to feel less than equal for not having a uniform.

Bev tells me of a time when a uniformed member called her the washer-upper, rather than use her name. I think about this for a moment then close with two questions.

1. Is an adherent a lower form of membership? “Yes”

2. Are you equal to a soldier in the corps? “No”

It’s a shame that two membership types have created a hierarchy, which was never the plan. But I also recognise what she says, and I know, deep down, others do to.

My blog usually comes with images, and I thought what would be a fitting image, perhaps an invisible man to identify with Bevs feeling of not being appreciated, but then I remembered a poster from the Salvation Army in Canada.

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.

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