Scouting Ireland’s defunct ‘Vision 2020’ document carefully highlighted the ‘uniformed’ nature of the association. Indeed, it was the second descriptor of the movement and interestingly came before the words ‘movement’, ‘young people’, ‘open to all’ and long before the movements founder Robert Baden Powell got a mention in the opening preamble to what was a widely dispersed document in the lead up to National Council 2014.
One gets the impression that elements in the Scouting Ireland establishment are living in constant fear that ‘uniform’ as a concept will be eliminated just as soon as the wretched liberal (youth orientated) thinkers outnumber all the ‘real’ (traditional) scouts. It will be the end of civilization as we know it!
Robert Baden Powell of course had a military background and the concept of a uniform being a great ‘leveler’ in a group is one that continues to resonate today among adults, whilst the idea of ‘belonging’ finds favour with young and old alike – something a uniform expresses in a very defined way.
But whilst the concept of a uniform might still have some relevance, the style of uniform that those of a more traditional leaning in Scouting Ireland are attached to is increasingly at odds with the more modern take on what a uniform is and how it is interpreted to demonstrate both unity and individuality simultaneously.
A CENTURY OF SAMENESS
The Scouting Ireland official uniform has its origins in the 1907 uniforms introduced when Scouting was founded, over a century ago. A photograph of a scout from that time compared with one from 2014 shows little real difference in the essential components that go to make up the typical scout uniform.
A contrast between any other uniformed person from 1907 draws far less (if any) comparison. Soldiers, Priests, Vicars, Doctors, Nurses, Bus Drivers, Naval Officers, Railway personnel, Police officers – all wear uniforms today that are barely if not completely unrecognizable to those worn over a century ago. Times have changed, fashions have evolved and the functionality required has shifted.
Beaver Scouts and Cub Scouts wear different uniforms. Sea Scouts wear different uniforms to Scouts. Yet, if in a group, in a public place together, all these people will be recognised clearly as ‘scouts’. The uniforms differ but uniformity nonetheless is present.
If Scouting were a military entity and every group in the country paraded together at the same time, a compelling argument for an identical uniform for all would still be difficult to justify.
Consider military parades in countries like the US, China, Britain – the uniforms all differ significantly within these armies (depending on the role, rank, occasion), yet there is no mistaking a member of the armed forces. Armed personnel also change their uniforms depending on what they are doing and where. Most scouts do not have the budget to own multiple uniforms.
In any case ‘parading’ is something that, whilst given a great deal of thought by conservatives among Scouting’s national leadership, is in reality a ‘once a year, if ever’ event for 95% of scout groups.
The days of this militaristic practice taking place in a youth organization, in a modern secular democracy like Ireland, are long past. In any event, it has been argued that one scout parade can set back scouting’s image with the fickle (and image conscious) teenage market by a couple of years.
Its one reason why virtually no venture scouts or rover scouts wear the official uniform – most do not even possess one. It’s likely a factor in the low levels of participation in National Venture and to lesser extent Rover events – the uniform police zealously patrol these and the more sartorially casual venture scouts tend to be not welcome as a result.
There are scouters in Scouting Ireland who do get a thrill or sense of pride out of wearing their uniform, displaying their badges, etc. Many insist on their scouts doing likewise – every group has its own traditions. Surely a more formal uniform would suit these members better? For the majority, a uniform that is more fit for purpose would be preferred. Why not seek to make everyone equally proud of his or her uniform?
THE CONCEPT OF CHOICE
For those of us who see a role for uniform, but are not so wedded to it that it takes precedence over everything else, one view is that each section or group (or individual) should be able to choose, from a wide selection of varying styles and functions, the uniform that suits their scouting activities, style preference and sense of individuality best.
When all gathered together for a Phoenix, Rover Moot, or other major event, I suspect nobody will be in any doubt that all are scouts – the hoody, jeans, runners wearing scouts and the shirt, belt, lanyard, shiny shoes, variety blending equally well. (All Different, All Equal – All Happy!)
Those of us who lead that strange double life of being a real scouter much of the time but who tend to turn up at formal events or conferences on occasion can always opt to have both a formal and an informal uniform. Dedicated committee and political types, or staunch traditionalists can just wear formal. This approach feels like a win/win scenario for all involved.
A good indicator of a uniform that works for young people (and scouters) will be seeing it around the streets and out on the mountains, down on the river bank, etc. with people proud to wear it. Its one of the reasons Scout hoodies/fleeces and t-shirts are such big business – our members are proud to be scouts and proud to show it. Unfortunately for most of us, the existing uniform is not working. It’s far too formal for real scouting activities and its far too informal for parades, ceremonies, etc.
Cries from traditionalists that dispensing with a 1907 inspired uniform yields to fashion and capitulates to young peoples obsession with brands is just a desperate attempt to keep us all in a time-warp. Uniform as a concept is not as rigid as everyone having to look exactly the same. It’s broader and more flexible than that.
WHAT WE DO AND HOW WE LOOK
Scouting Ireland is also a brand in its own right and it’s a brand we all have a stake in. Most members (youth and adult) would be quite happy to wear the Scouting brand in public, but its got to be on the right apparel. Trouble is, ‘the right apparel’ can be anything from a shirt to a kilt, a hoody to a fleece, slacks to shorts – depending on who you are.
I believe its time to recognise the huge opportunity to ratchet up our profile Nationally by taking a new approach to the idea of uniform. Less of the forcing people to comply with a compromise solution that has its origins in 1907 and has been bypassed these days even by school uniforms.
Instead, lets tap into the potential to link what we do with how we look to the thousands of prospective members out there for whom the current uniform is a significant barrier to entry (apart from being deeply unpopular with most youth members too, not to mention most of us adults).
I should probably make it clear that I am a firm proponent of the concept of a uniform for Scouting for reasons of group unity and the leveling argument mentioned above.
But most young people dislike the current uniform. It reminds them of school. Scouting is about fun, pushing boundaries and self-expression – our image should reflect this and our uniform is part of our image. It’s not a Scouting fundamental, despite the best efforts of the ‘Tea Party’ element in the association to make it so, but it is important.
21st CENTURY REALITIES
However, when running a large and successful scout group in a 21st century city (for example), where one’s members are bright, intelligent young people exposed to a myriad of global cultural influences and a desire to belong and yet do so on their own terms, we meet their needs and embrace the realities of working with and protecting the interests of these great individuals or we fade into obsolescence.
In the group I am involved in, the scouts wear full uniform but only once a month. They won’t wear it in public (its embarrassing to associate it with the great experiences they have in the group). They wear branded t-shirts and hoodies with pride all over the community. This tells me there is no shame in proudly proclaiming their scouting involvement (otherwise, why not wear an A&F or Nike hoodie), but the current uniform is past it and out of step with what most of us do.
One of our Rovers threw herself off a bridge in Zimbabwe during the summer (bungi-jumping). Another jumped out of a plane. Both specifically wore their BVG Rovers t-shirts – that’s pride! Both our Venture groups and both our Rover crews wear branded uniforms and neckers and they do so not just at Scouting activities, but everywhere.
THE GRAFTON STREET TEST
To me, our uniform should be something that our members want to wear, want to be seen in. This has potential to raise our profile and shift perceptions. The Grafton Street test needs to apply. If a young person is proud to walk unaccompanied down Grafton Street (or Patrick Street, Shop Street) or walk through the Square, or Dundrum or CastleCourt in their uniform and feel proud to do so, then it’s the right uniform for them.
There are groups who love our existing uniform and wear it all the time, to perfection and with pride. Indeed some of these (very traditional) groups would prefer an even more formal uniform – why can’t they have it? Yes, they are a small minority but good luck to them, doing what they do. Why can’t the rest of us have an official uniform that we too can wear with pride?
All different, all equal. Choose your garments from a wide menu. Nothing is identical but all have a family resemblance. Every member, every group chooses what suits them. Less ‘Dad’s army’ and more modern movement with common identity.
We need a bit of imagination on this. We don’t need to hire expensive PR companies who clearly don’t understand our core market (Here’s a tip – its not middle aged men…).
The real leveler we need on uniform is for all our members to feel comfortable and proud to wear it.