As an 18-year veteran of girl-centric education, I’m partial to the Girl Scouts’ efforts to build courage, confidence and character in girls. I love the idea of World Thinking Day, the day each February when Girl Scouts participate in activities and projects with global projects that honor their sister Scouts in other countries. And I’m inspired by the story of Juliette Gordon Low and her search for a greater purpose in life.
I became intrigued by the Girl Scouts when I processed the Ohio Historical Society’s Kathleen M. Meeker Girl Scout Collection (MSS 1384 AV) in August 2003. A lifetime member of Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. and a member of the Association of Girl Scouts Executive Staff, Meeker served as field director of the Black Diamond Girl Scout Council from 1981 to 1998. As I organized her collection of organizational information, newsletters, programs, newspaper clippings, photographs, scrapbooks, sound recordings, printed material, and objects related to the Girl Scouts and that council’s activities, I learned how the Girl Scouts help girls develop their potential, values, and leadership skills, foster friendships and contribute to society. I was most fascinated by the historical details of Girl Scout uniforms provided by Kathryn McMurtry Hunt’s paper doll books: On My Honor: A Paper Doll History of the Girl Scout Uniform, Volume One (Texas Tech University Press, 1994); Whene’er You Make a Promise: A Paper Doll History of the Girl Scout Uniform, Volume Two (Texas Tech University Press, 1996) and Helping Hands: A Paper Doll History of the Girl Scout Uniform, Volume Three (Texas Tech University Press, 2004).
The Girl Scouts became even more appealing after I read an article that Christian Carr, director of the Sweet Briar Museum and assistant professor of arts management at Sweet Briar College, wrote for the Fall 2005 issue of the Sweet Briar College Alumnae Magazine about how Girl Scout troops were a new target audience for the museum. In September 2004, the museum began offering collection-based programs that were developed specifically for Girl Scout troops. “Daisy’s Day” was inspired by daily activities recorded in diaries kept by Daisy Williams (1867-1884), in whose memory Sweet Briar was established. Student workers at the museum give troops a botany lesson, teach them to make a silhouette, trim a bonnet, and make lemonade and meringues from scratch. “African-American Heritage at Sweet Briar Plantation” provides information about those who were in servitude on the Williams family plantation, and includes a visit to the slave cabin and the burial ground on the former plantation that’s now Sweet Briar’s home. “Japanese Culture” utilizes the Japanese decorative arts collected by Daisy’s family. After a short lesson in Japanese phrases, troops learn about the importance of nature in Japanese life, make fans depicting birds and flowers, construct an origami box, and participate in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony while wearing a kimono and silk slippers. In Fall 2005, the museum added three new programs: “Ghost Tours,” “Art Appreciation,” and “May Day at Sweet Briar College.” I was sorry not to be able to participate in Christian’s great idea, so to support her efforts, I purchased some of the badges from my friends in the development office the next time I was on campus for an alumnae board meeting.
Now, my interest in the Girl Scouts is at an all-time high. My CSG friend Beth and her daughter, Sally, — both Girl Scouts — invited me to join them to see an exhibition of Girl Scout uniforms and memorabilia at The Ohio State University Historic Costume and Textile Museum last Saturday.
Organized by the Girl Scouts of Ohio’s Heartland Council, which serves girls and adult volunteers in 30 Ohio counties, the exhibition commemorates the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Girl Scouts. Historic uniforms, pins, patches, badges, handbooks, dolls, and other keepsakes from the council’s archive committee collection are on display.
Uniforms are an important way to make people feel like they belong to an organization and to demonstrate their pride in being a part of it. Throughout its history, the Girl Scouts have taken this endeavor very seriously. You might not think that you can make a fashion statement with a uniform, but this exhibit shows just that. The Girl Scouts partnered with fashion industry leaders to design and create their uniforms, the Historic Costume and Textile Museum’s Gayle Strege and Marlise Schoeny wrote in the exhibition’s text panels.
Mainbocher was first. In 1948, he redesigned the Girl Scouts’ Intermediate, Senior and Adult uniforms not only to reflect the organization’s philosophy, but also to unify its members. Creating something appropriate that both girls and leaders alike would be proud to wear, Mainbocher fashioned a dress made from a durable fabric, featuring a gored skirt with pockets, a pleat in the back and deep armholes to allow for active movement, and button-down lapel tabs. Mainbocher chose leaf green to reflect the outdoors. A green beret for girls and a military overseas-style hat for women completed the ensemble.
According to the text panels, by manufacturing each outfit in the same color and material, Mainbocher strove to achieve “more than mere uniformity; unity of dress reflects the unity of purpose and ideals of the entire membership,” the designer was quoted as saying. Mainbocher continued by explaining that while uniforms help to create a harmonious effect at large gatherings, each group should have distinguishing features. Therefore, designing a uniform was “something like chess.”
Hilda Friedman, a fashion designer and professor of fashion design at The Fashion Institute of Technology, redesigned the Senior uniform in 1960. She refashioned the uniform as a two-piece dress and button-down jacket in deep green sharkskin. The ensemble also included a dark green hat with embroidered insignia, a snap-on tuxedo-like tie, and a coordinating blouse. In 1968, sportswear designer Stella Sloat updated the uniform to make it more casual. She designed two dresses: one was in polyester and wool; the other was in polyester and rayon. A beret completed the uniform’s feminine, sophisticated look.
In 1978, Halston designed a five-piece wardrobe for the Girl Scouts. He created a fitted jacket that could be worn belted or unbelted, a skirt that was designed to be worn a little below the knee, a vest and trousers, all in traditional Girl Scout green. An ivory-check blouse completed the ensemble; it was equipped with a scarf that could also be used as a sash when it was worn outside the pants or skirt, rather than tucking it in. All of the garments were made in Dacron polyester. The uniforms were launched at the Four Seasons Restaurant, like a traditional designer collection, but with adult Scouts modeling Halston’s designs.
Bill Blass redesigned the uniform in 1984. He created a seven-piece ensemble that could be assembled into nine combinations. The pieces consisted of a dropped-shoulder, modified dolman sleeve; an A-line skirt with front pleats and side pockets; and pants, all made of a green Dacron polyester and cotton blend. A complementary green, blue and white polyester blouse, a self-belted green Dacron polyester and cotton dress, and a green acrylic cardigan sweater with front pockets completed the wardrobe. The uniforms helped Scouts achieve either a relaxed and informal look, or a professional and businesslike style. Blass’s designs remained until the Girl Scout uniform was remodeled in 1994.
An informative illustrated catalogue booklet accompanies the exhibition. Sketches and descriptive text of each uniform on display provide additional details about the uniforms. For example, it describes the remembrance knot that was a feature of the khaki uniform worn between 1919 and 1928. The knot was tied at the narrow end of the scarf to remind girls to do a good deed. After they did something kind that day, they untied the knot. To save fabric, the tie of the uniform worn between 1942 and 1948 changed from a triangular neckerchief to a Windsor tie.
We learned more interesting Girl Scout trivia in the exhibition. For example, the Columbus College of Art and Design was invited to create two Girl Scout posters in 1987. The first recipe for s’mores appeared in Tramping and Trailing with the Girl Scouts, a book published in 1927 that features the popular Girl Scout silhouettes on its cover. We saw an example of the symbolism-filled friendship knot that Girl Scouts make and give to each other. A flag and quilt introduced us to the Mariner program, which was launched in 1934 for older girls who had access to a body of water large enough to allow boating activities. In the doll collection display case, we saw Susan Scout, a felt doll made by hand from a kit that was offered by the Girl Scouts in 1953. Sitting beside her was Sylvia, another Girl Scout doll that could be purchased for $1.50 in 1940. A reproduction of an archival Girl Scout Week poster on display was a Girl Scout version of the “Monday’s Child” nursery rhyme. This girl born on a Wednesday noted that “Wednesday’s Scout is bent on thrift, to patch the hold and darn the rift.”
A scavenger hunt is available for Girl Scouts to complete while looking at the exhibition. A bookmark providing an archival recipe for Girl Scout cookies is a clever take-home souvenir.
I was partial to the Girl Scout logo buttons, reversible scarves, insignia prints, and wrap skirts that I saw in the exhibition, but my greatest call to action came in the form of the 100th anniversary bandana that Carole Schmidt, one of the docents who happened to be one of the exhibition’s organizers, was wearing. A visit to the Resource Store at the Council’s headquarters at 1700 WaterMark Drive was in order.
The store carries a complete line of Girl Scout uniforms and badges, as well as books, science kits, scrapbooking supplies, camping equipment, Precious Moments figurines of Girl Scouts, ornaments, and Girl Scout-themed clothing and accessories. I leafed through the Girls Guide to Girl Scouting binder, which includes a variety of badges, handbook sections covering traditions and history, cookie badges and an awards log. I smiled appreciatively when I saw a strand of freshwater cultured pearls with the Girl Scouts insignia on the clasp, symbolizing the dedication and vision of Girl Scout founder Juliette “Daisy” Gordon Low, whose strand of pearls was one of her most cherished possessions. “Wear these often with pride and the same sense of determination demonstrated by Daisy as you follow her legacy of building girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place,” the accompanying card read. In addition to picking up a 100th anniversary bandana and some “Year of the Girl” pins, I brought home a set of lip balms in Trefoil, Thin Mint, and Samoa flavors, perfect for Easter baskets. The Council also has an online shop.
“Historic Girl Scouts Uniforms and Memorabilia Exhibit” is on view until June 1, 2012 in the Gladys Keller Snowden Gallery, which is located on the Ohio State campus in 279 Campbell Hall, at 1787 Neil Avenue. The gallery is open Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Fridays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 12 to 4 p.m. A special workshop on fashion careers, body image, and historic Girl Scout uniforms for Girl Scouts in grades 2 to 5 will be held on Saturday, May 19 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Registration is required through CORA, the Council Online Registration Access system, here.
If you’re interested in learning more about Juliette Gordon Low and the Girl Scouts, maybe you’d like to check out some books I’ve read recently: First Girl Scout: The Life of Juliette Gordon Low, by Ginger Wadsworth (Clarion Books, 2012); Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts, by Stacy A. Cordery (Viking, 2012); Girl Scouts: A Celebration of 100 Trailblazing Years, by Betty Christiansen (Stewart Tabori & Chang, 2011); and Tough Cookies: Leadership Lessons from 100 Years of the Girl Scouts, by Kathy Cloninger (Wiley, 2011).