Christ salvation

Salvation Army fashion

In the late 19th century, some women wore unconventional clothing and participated in activities normally closed to their gender. Among them were ‘reporters’, the ‘new woman’, transvestite modernists and… Salvation Army ‘girls’. Historian Jennifer Le Zotte describes how women in the Salvation Army used the organization’s uniforms to go where respectable women usually feared to tread.

Salvation Army women doing calisthenics in Germany, circa 1910. Getty

Founded in 1865 in Britain by Methodist preacher William Booth, the Salvation Army adopted military-style uniforms as a deliberate form of rebellion against the conformity its leaders saw in the Christians around them. Booth advised his “soldiers” not to be afraid of being “strange”. His wife, Catherine Booth, complained of fellow Protestants who thought themselves pure because they “never did anything unconventional and untraditional”. By 1890, writes Le Zotte, officers of the organization were required to wear its bold blue, yellow, and red uniforms whenever in public, and rank and file members were asked to wear them at least fifteen times a year. week. Soon the American branch of the military had its own international millinery business, producing uniforms for its tens of thousands of members.

The uniforms helped to minimize class tensions between working-class men and women, who made up the majority of the organization, and the educated middle-class reformers who also joined. It was also a nod to gender equality, with women’s versions similar to men’s, a skirt replacing pants. Maud Ballington Booth, a leader of the organization who had married into its founding family, claimed that uniformed ‘women warriors’ would become a ‘mighty power’. She also argued that, in a potentially dangerous urban environment, “the distinctive dress throws around a woman a shield that tells everyone, ‘my business is salvation’.”

Indeed, the “girls” of the Salvation Army preached in the saloons, marched in the streets and sold the organization’s newsletter, the American battle cry. Some were arrested for their public activity and were proud to become “prisoners for Jesus”.

A young Salvation Army member shows off her uniform, circa 1920.
A young female member of the Salvation Army shows off her uniform, circa 1920. Getty

“By forgoing haute couture in favor of the plain blue uniform, the girls participated in parts of city life otherwise off limits to ‘respectable’ women,” writes Le Zotte.

Not everyone liked the uniforms. Some did not like to associate religion with war. Others decried “cheerfully dressed ‘daughters of salvation’ swinging tambourines,” as one Protestant minister put it, who preferred more dignified forms of worship. The New York Times opined in 1892 that “anyone who joins the Salvation Army says goodbye to respectability as much as stepping on the stage of a variety show”.

In fact, the organization hasn’t shied away from pop culture, adapting vaudeville, movies, and upbeat music to its mission of saving souls and providing material resources. Le Zotte notes that the first army chiefs to arrive in the United States – Commissioner George Railton and seven “hallelujah girls” – made their first public appearance at a “well-known and less-than-reputable concert hall”.

While the women of the Salvation Army disapproved of the new woman’s frivolous fashion, their willingness to play music and express themselves in such a setting earned them many of the same enemies.

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By: Jennifer Le Zotte

Winterthur portfolio, vol. 47, no. 4 (winter 2013), p. 245 to 266

The University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Inc.