This week the Girl Scouts of the USA unveiled new uniform options for the three youngest program levels. Daisy, Brownie, and Junior Girl Scouts may start the new school and Girl Scout years with casual options and a new, softer color palette.
Traditional components, such as tunics, vests, sashes, and neckerchiefs have been refreshed as well. Headbands and matching hair scrunchies, so popular in the 1990s, have also returned.
The pieces have subtle branding so that they may be used everyday.
A new Girl Scout uniform wardrobe for girls in middle school and high school, debuted in 2020. It used a color palette of lavender, sky blue, charcoal, and green. Responding to girl feedback, the vest was redesigned with pockets.
Why a Uniform?
Early handbooks explained the advantages of wearing a Girl Scout uniform. First, “it gives a certain prestige in the community” because the public will recognize wearers as girls who are courteous and helpful. Second, the “uniform puts every girl on the same footing.” Uniforms made be purchased, sewn at home, or hand-me-downs, but everyone wears the same thing.
The first Girl Scout uniforms were a simple dress or coat dress, with an official tie, hat, belt, and socks. The only choice was which color tie a troop would wear. Older troops had a choice between socks and hose. Once decided, every girl was to dress in the same leg wear.
As membership grew and new age levels were established, each phase of Girl Scouts had its own distinctive uniform: a simple dress with a tie and hat. Hats and white gloves were included as they were the norm at the time.
Blouse-and-skirt options became available in the 1950s and 1960s. The new dark green skirt, shown above, was particularly popular as girls could tuck the “GS” tab into their waistband and nobody would know it was a Girl Scout garment.
“Uniform Separates” A Contradiction?
The 1970s brought the concept of separates to each age level, with many options and combinations possible. Instead of troops using a consistent, uniform, look, the 1973 catalog encouraged girls to express their individuality:
NEW UNIFORM LIBERATES CADETTES
Here’s a new Cadette GS Uniform that lets you be you. Whatever you’re doing, whatever your pursuit, there’s an outfit just for you. Six separates mix and match into over 15 different looks. Choose one or all six to suit your tastes, reflect your lifestyle, keep up with your busy life. Whichever you choose, you’re official. For today’s liberated you, official never looked so good. (1973 Catalog)
New fabrics, colors, and designs came along in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, and all of these collections continued to offer multiple options. At times the options were overwhelming.
The evolution of the Brownie uniform demonstrates these changes.
Evolution of Brownie Uniform, 1927-today
The Minimalist “Un-Uniform”
Uniforms all but disappeared in the 2008 catalog. Official, Girl Scout-produced uniform components were reduced to just a sash or vest, worn with any white top and khaki bottom. “Uniformity” now meant standardized across all age levels.
Girl Scout officials believed most girls would already have white shirts and khaki pants, perhaps as part of a school uniform, and would not need to purchase additional items.
Although any white shirt was acceptable, new Girl Scout uniform white shirts and bandanas were available for purchase.
GSUSA also introduced a new line of “official casual” uniforms in a separate fall 2008 catalog.
Some old-timers believed the movement had finally caved to the demands of the many members, especially teens. Many of these girls believed they would absolutely and totally DIE if their friends knew they were Girl Scouts.
The un-uniform decision had two consequences. First, uniforms were one of the few dedicated revenue streams at the National level. Revenue from merchandise sales, according to annual reports, dropped from $45.7 million in 2006 to $20.7 million in 2011.
Second, many Girl Scouts disappeared from public view. It became difficult to recruit new members for this phantom organization.
The generic uniform design also contradicted the first strategic priority adopted at the 2005 National Council Session.
Transform the Girl Scout image with a compelling brand that resonates with girls of all ages and cultures, that makes girls feel proud and excited to join.
Leader (Winter 2005): 11.
The change to minimal uniforms evidently was not popular with all of the membership. The more traditional Brownie and Daisy uniforms reappeared in the 2010 Girl Scout uniform catalog.
The pendulum swung in the other direction following the 100th birthday celebrations in 2012.
Options expanded with two new uniform shirts: the “shorthand” polo in 2013 and an “activity shirt” in 2017. The activity shirt touted its moisture-wicking fabric, acting as a successor to the long-retired camp uniform. New coordinating neckerchiefs, slides, and hats completed the look.
Volunteers had their own shorthand shirt, neckerchief, and slide.
If the latest designs leave you underwhelmed, you and your troop can always go retro. Girl Scout shops have the shorthand and activity shirts on clearance.
Another option is to go vintage. It is perfectly acceptable to wear a uniform from the past, although you should pick one style, not mix-and-match decades. Check thrift shops, family attics, and your local Girl Scout historians.
I’ve written about the Girl Scout tie-ins to the PBS mini-series Atlantic Crossing. But wait …. that’s not the only current TV series with a Girl Scout connection.
Netflix has released a series about fashion designer Halston. Ewan McGregor plays the titular character.
The PR folks at Netflix have done a splendid job of drumming up interest in a man who died in 1990.
The New York Times, Washington Post,Esquire, The New Yorker, Variety, and other news outlets took the hint and have recently published features about Halston’s career. Much is made of his glamorous friends and wild nights at Studio 54. Liza, Liza, Liza.
As far as I can tell, one major project has been overlooked in the accompanying Halston media campaign–and I highly doubt it will be mentioned in the TV series.
Believe it or not, Halston designed uniforms for adult Girl Scouts. Girl Scout executives approached him about the project, and he agreed to do so on a pro bono basis. Normally, his fee would have been between $50,000 and $100,000.
He was enthusiastic about the Girl Scout project.
The Girl Scouts are a terrific organization and anyone who could help them should.
Bernadine Morris, “No Sequins This Time,” New York Times (May 17, 1978): C9.
Why did the Girl Scouts seek a high-end fashion brand, such as a Halston design?
This was not the first time. Earlier adult uniforms were designed by Mainbocher (left) and Stella Sloat (center). In the 1980s, Bill Blass created a wardrobe for leaders (right).
GSUSA gave its own answer in Leader Magazine:
The results debuted in May 1978.
The collection was made of sage green polyester gabardine fabric with mix and match pieces. An ivory blouse and scarf completed the look.
The design was quite similar to the brown Braniff flight attendant uniform that Halston designed one year before the Girl Scout ensemble.
Some of the headwear, however, seems out of place. The woman on the right in the Girl Scout photo is wearing a pillbox hat. That makes sense as Halston’s big break came in designing the pillbox hat Jacqueline Kennedy wore at the 1961 Presidential Inauguration.
But what IS that headgear on the left? It appears to be a visor, and indeed it is a visor. There is no good explanation for the visor. Visors are worn on tennis courts and golf greens, not in board rooms or committee meetings. The whole visor idea must have been conceived during one of Halston’s cocaine-booze-rent boy binges. Or, perhaps it came during a hangover, as it certainly is nausea-inducing.
It must not have been popular, either. When the Nassau County (NY) Museum of Art held a Halston retrospective in 2017, finding a visor for the Girl Scout exhibit took all of the king’s horses and all of the king’s men to locate.
Given the, um, colorful life of Halston depicted in the Netflix series, perhaps it is just as well that there isn’t a scene with the Girl Scouts.
What issue topped the agenda of the 1969 National Council session?
Pants. The membership spoke, and they wanted uniforms with pants.
Responding to waves of requests from girls, GSUSA announced that it would remain a uniformed movement and update girl uniforms. The most requested item? Pants. Active girls—not to mention their mothers—did not want to sacrifice movement for modesty.
Designing uniforms is a multifaceted process. The overall design needs to be visually unifying and reflect contemporary fashion without falling for passing fads that will shorten their appeal. The cut must flatter a wide range of body types, the fabric needs to be suitable for multiple climates, and the color palette needs to enhance skin tones ranging from very fair to very dark. Decorations and trims are kept to a minimum, both to keep costs down as well as to not compete with official insignia.
First up was the smallest age group—Senior Girl Scouts. These high schoolers were still wearing the two-piece skirt suit introduced in 1960. Made out of a deep green sharkskin cotton fabric, the brightly colored uniform trim indicated the wearer’s area of concentration. Troops focused on International Friendship, for example, wore yellow ties and hat cords, Wing troops orange, and Homemaker troops turquoise. This iconic uniform, topped with an Overseas-style hat, was beloved by fans of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, but fell out of favor with the bell-bottom and suede fringe-wearing girls of the late 1960s. Girls had quickly nicknamed the suit the “Stewardess uniform,” but by now it was no longer a compliment. Besides, even the flight attendants had moved on to trendier styles. Seniors themselves had their own ideas about a uniform; they wanted pants—and mini-skirts, too.
After considering suggestions, designs, and even samples sent by girls, the National Equipment Service (NES) settled on two versions of a sleek step-in style A-line dress that buttoned up the front. For feedback, they took the uniform to the girls.
Manufacturers created samples in sizes 6 through 20 and shipped them to Rockwood National Camp and the Juliette Gordon Low Birthplace in Savannah. Visiting Seniors of all shapes and sizes tried on the samples and completed feedback cards. They had a definite preference for one version and one shade of green, but indicated that they wanted heavier fabric, a belt, and pants. Designers made more revisions and presented the result to the National Executive Committee for final approval. NES was still not convinced of the need for pants, but they conceded defeat on the matter.
Ultimately, the girls were rewarded with pants in the same green cotton poplin fabric, but the semi-flared legs hardly qualified as bell-bottoms. The ensemble included a soft beret made of the same fabric, a tab tie, and a formidable green leather belt that was 1.5” wide with adjustment holes running the entire length.
But the most notable feature was the dress’s hemline—or, rather, the lack of one. After endless debates among focus groups and survey responses, GSUSA gave up trying to settle on the appropriate length. The dress was sold unhemmed, with a hang-tag reading: “The Official GS Uniform with the Unofficial Hemline.” If girls wanted mini-skirted uniforms, Headquarters seemed to say, let parents deal with the matter. Many Senior Girl Scouts were accustomed to sewing their own clothes and turned the new dress into a short tunic to be worn over the new pants. Just how many ditched the pants once out their front door is unknown.
And to really be mod, GSUSA created a line of hippy, crunchy-granola inspired casual pieces at the same time. Can’t you just imagine Marcia Brady or Laurie Partridge in these funky frocks?
Nope, me either. And if you look closely at the 1973 image showing the new uniforms, that spiffy green cape is marked “SALE,” although it doesn’t come through well in the picture. Guess these duds were a dud.
The other age levels received new uniforms in 1973. Instead of a single dress, Brownies, Juniors, and Cadettes each had their choice of five or six mix-and-match pieces, that included jumpers, pants, shorts, cotton blouses, and hideous polyester double-knit turtleneck bodysuits that were hot, itchy, had a stiff plastic zipper that grabbed your hair, and featured a snap crotch that perpetually pinched your privates.
Catalog descriptions of the new clothing reflected the lingo of the time, emphasizing choice, individuality, and liberation:
New space-age materials meant less wrinkling and less ironing.
The new styles included several pieces for each age level, creating another point of consistency.
Each level had a tie that snapped together. No more arguments about how to tie a neckerchief or which way the ends should point. The polyester, turtleneck bodysuit was high fashion at the time, not to mention indestructible and UNCOMFORTABLE. Can clothing cause PTSD? Because if so, these bodysuits would have.
The new Cadette uniform included the very first vest, instead of a badge sash. They were made from dark green felt, and some people mistakenly think they were homemade.
This week a new collection of uniform pieces debuted. So far, they are targeted toward the older age levels.
Hopefully GSUSA will never repeat the snap-zip-bodysuit debacle of the 1970s.
No, it’s not a girl band from the 1960s. It’s a girl group from the 1910s!
My last post profiled Martha Bowers Taft, who began a Girl Scout troop at the Noel Settlement House in Washington, DC, in 1914.
Near the end of 1914, Martha married Robert Taft, son of President William Howard Taft, at St. John’s Church in Lafayette Square (and scene of protests this week).
My favorite part of Martha’s story is that her troop attended the wedding. The girls were mentioned by name in the plentiful news coverage of this enormous social event. Can’t you just imagine these little disadvantaged girls mingling with Washington’s elite?
I thought some of the names seems familiar. The connection was something way, way back in my mind.
I was right. After a deep dive into our council’s archives produced two tintypes.
After a little cleanup with PhotoShop, I’m thrilled to present:
The Stailey Sisters!
I don’t know why Margaret, the fourth Stailey girl mentioned in the newspaper, was not included in the photo session. Alas.
But look at those proud girls in the Girl Scout uniforms! And they even brought their semaphore flags!!
The ongoing coronavirus crap means that thousands of spring Girl Scout camping trips have been cancelled.
Maybe this vintage postcard from a 1920 leaders’ camp will help anyone experiencing camp deprivation:
These leaders are starting their day with a round of “setting up” exercises, just like the campers in the Golden Eaglet, a 1918 promotional film from the Girl Scouts.
This postcard was never mailed. Instead, the owner used it as a souvenir of her time at camp.
For you non-cursive folks, it reads:
“The mess hall is to the left and the lake down to the right. I am the 7th one in the 2d row from the left and Rose is the 4th one in the 3d row. The 3d on in the 4th row was our bugler. We called her Tommy. She was fine at the taps trade.
Our tent isn’t shown here.”
Don’t you just love the camp uniform of middies and bloomers?
The new scarf looks lovely. But what really caught my attention was the statement that I underlined:
“In 1968, our first adult uniform…”
Oh my. No adult uniforms for the first 56 years? Really?
That gives a whole new dimension to exploring the great out-doors.
Perhaps what was meant in this release was that 1968 was the first time a well-known designer created an adult uniform?
In 1948 the American designer Mainbocher created new uniforms for Intermediates, Seniors, and ADULTS.
GSUSA eagerly announced the new garments in its own publications:
… and press releases.
Before the Girl Scout uniforms, Mainbocher was best known for outfitting the WAVES (women serving in the US Navy) during World War II.
A retrospective exhibition of Mainbocher’s work was held in Chicago in 2016. Vogue magazine described the man as “The Most Important American Designer You’ve Never Heard Of.” (And it’s pronounced Main-Bocker)
Tsk. Tsk. Next time, run it by a Girl Scout historian. Better yet, an editor/Girl Scout historian.
Troop Crests are some of the oldest official insignia. Originally, each patrol (sub-group) within a troop had a different crest. The first troop in Savannah, for example, had White Rose, Carnation, Red Rose, and Poppy patrols. Over time, crests began to encompass the entire troop.
Early troops were identified by their crest, not troop number, as in this Washington Post article from 1914.
Similarly, members of this troop were the “Surrey Poppies.”
In May 1913, Juliette Gordon Low brought a selection of English Girl Guide crests for the earliest American troops to use. The English crests were circles of black felt, embroidered with bright colors and a red border.
The Girl Scouts adopted many of the English crests in 1920. They soon realized that the Blackbird crest was almost invisible when embroidered on black felt. The girls decided to use blue thread instead and renamed it “Bluebird” in 1922.
Traditionally, once girls chose a crest, it was used for the lifetime of the troop.
But there are exceptions to every rule. Estelle Kelso, owner of this uniform, was either in a troop that picked a new crest each year or perhaps she changed troops.
Contrary to popular belief, meanings have only been ascribed to crests in recent years. The early crests were all flowers, trees, waterfalls, stars and other non-floral designs came later. Between 1923 and 1930, troops were encouraged to
choose the names of famous women, either from real life or literature, and “build up troop traditions around them. … select women “who have done conspicuous service or pioneer work in professional and scientific fields, or who were associated with our early American life, either in the colonies or in the Westward moving border lands.”
–Blue Book of Rules
From 1918 to 2011, troops could also design their own crests. They chose images that reflect their interests or perhaps a local landmark or significant culture. The meanings of many, however, are known only to the girls.
Whatever the design, fabric, or official status, crests can always be identified by shape. Crests are oval, all badges are (or were) round. That’s a difference that is easily overlooked by even the best historians. The rare fuchsia crest at right was mis-identified online by the Georgia Historical Society.
Designs have come and gone over the years. In 2011 the oval shape was replaced by a shield shape. Yet some designs have remained nearly unchained for over 100 years.
When we changed the history display at the council headquarters recently, I realized that I hadn’t shared our summer exhibit online.
The theme came from a non-Girl Scout source: a regular feature in Us Magazine. Each week, the magazine has a celebrity dump out her bag; usually a purse, but sometimes a diaper bag, backpack, or shopping bag.
Singer Meghan Trainor’s bag, Us Magazine (August 25, 2018)
Magazine editors tag various items, usually providing a handful of product names and purchase information. I think a little pruning happens before the actual photo shoot, as you never see dirty tissues, used gum, and other unmentionables that you’d find in my purse, at least.
I didn’t fully photograph this exhibit due to lighting issues. Instead, I tried to recreate parts in my tabletop photo studio.
We created paired “now-and-then” vignettes for girls, leaders, and campers.
How many items do you recognize?
I’m not going to label these pictures today. I will update with labels on October 1.
Of course, the first Girl Scouts didn’t need a purse. They carried all of their essentials on their utility belt or in their pockets.
Here’s a quick look at the entire display. You can bet I took plenty of photos as we installed our fall exhibit!