Camp Fire Girls Ceremonial Gown

As I mentioned in my post about the Camp Fire Girls magazine, Everygirl’s , Camp Fire Girls had “Indian” ceremonial dresses that each girl decorated with her own symbols.  As luck would have it, I ran across an older one this week.

The dresses could be purchased from the Camp fire Outfitting Company, and there is an ad for the company in each of my Everygirl’s magazines.  In 1929 the gowns were priced from $2.65 to $3.60, depending on the length of the leather fringe at the hem and sleeves.  Other items could be purchased, such as moccasins and a fringed leather piece for the neck.  Sewing patterns for the gown were also available.

Leather patches were decorated with symbols.  Girls were encouraged to make up their own private symbols, but for the symbol-making-impaired there was a book of symbols available for 50 cents.

From the 1918 Camp Fire Girls, manual:

The ceremonial gown should be as beautiful as we can make it but there is the danger of confusing true decoration with meaningless ornamentation. This should not be found a common mistake, for Camp Fire Girls are imbued with the very spirit of beauty. If we will keep in mind that our gown is more than a passing fad, more than a girlhood phase of our existence, that it is, in fact, a proud record, writ large with our accomplishments and ideals, imbued with symbols of dear friendship, memory-hallowed, and alive with the promise of hope fulfilled, we will come into a rightful sense of purpose.

I was pretty amazed to find current photos of teens in ceremonial “Indian” gowns on the Camp Fire website.   I would never have guessed that the modern teenager would want to dress up in what is basically a sack with fringe.  There are quite a few articles online about how the “Indian” culture of the Camp Fire Girls (and the Boy Scouts) came about as a reaction to the increasing pressures of modern life.  I suppose what was true in 1915 is even more true today, but then there’s that tricky cultural appropriation issue.  What was a non-issue in 1915 in not so easy to brush aside in 2014.



Filed under Curiosities, Proper Clothing

17 responses to “Camp Fire Girls Ceremonial Gown

  1. I was a Brownie & a Girl Scout. The Campfire Girls and the Mariners always seemed a bit too upscale for me — probably because I thought our brown or drab-olive uniforms were ugly, while they got to wear crisp navy and white. (And they had TV commercials with a gracious lady opera singer who wasn’t anything like my troop leaders!)
    I never knew about these ceremonial dresses. Can you tell us more about this one? It looks like the badges have been removed and repositioned — or do you think the leather just rotted and fell off, leaving a stain or an unfaded area? Or that girls passed their dresses on to younger sisters?
    I really hope most girls bought a pattern and made their dresses. I learned to sew in the Girl Scouts — it’s funny to think that 40 years later I was getting paid for sewing! Hoorah for all of these empowering organizations!


    • The thread holding on the leather patches has rotted, and the patches are falling off. Most of the ceremonial dresses that I’ve seen do appear to be home sewn. It would have been a very easy first project for beginning sewers.


  2. Christina

    The Camp Fire thread is really interesting Lizzie and it is good to see an example of a dress. Cultural appropriation as you say should not be brushed aside. I’m also really surprised that girls are shown on the website wearing “Indian” gowns. Their program is designed to “reduce cultural stereotypes.” I can tell you that here in Canada this cultural appropriation wouldn’t happen.


    • NoriMori

      Culture is not property. Someone deciding to use some positive elements of a culture they enjoy, and make it something their own, does not prevent the originators of that culture from continuing to use it. What the “borrower” creates from it can be beautiful in itself, and even become its own culture, as the Camp Fire Girls became its own culture. There also is no conflict with reducing cultural stereotypes here, since no stereotyping is occurring. If they were to say, “This is exactly what Indians wear, and we fancy ourselves to be Indians”, then a complaint about stereotyping would be valid. But the Camp Fire Girls are not claiming to be Indians; they are claiming to be Camp Fire Girls who use symbols and rituals are partly(!) inspired by Indians.


      • Christina

        I have read your comments on this post with interest. There are more qualified knowledgeable commentators than myself who may respond to your position on cultural appropriation and the American organization Camp Fire Girls but as a Canadian here are my comments. There are specific references relating to early Camp Fire Girls literature where the “noble savage” view of indigenous peoples was prevalent. For example the word “primitive” is used. I find it difficult to reconcile the Camp Fire Girls movement with the so called progressive era of the time when there was forceful removal of indigenous children to schools and as one author puts it ” put them on the path to Christian civilization.” Again quoting from Pauline Turner Strong ” Ironically, young Indians were forbidden or discouraged by Euro-Americans from learning their own physical traditions at the very same time that organizations such as the Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls were being developed.” These associations cannot be disconnected from the discussion around cultural appropriation. There is a difference between “playing Indians” and dressing-up in a kilt.

        You may find this publication from Simon Fraser University (Vancouver, Canada) interesting;


  3. When I went through the catalog collection at UC Santa Barbara, I discovered all kinds of catalogs depicting ceremonial clothing for clubs I’d never heard of, like the Rebekkah Society. They all drew on some kind of reimagined exotic clothing style.


    • I was reading your comment about the Rebekkah Society, thinking it sounded like the Odd Fellows, then did a google search and found that’s exactly who they are!


      • B

        Awesome post, amazing blog!
        A fashion historian owe to take a consistent look at this unique nexus of ceremonial wear and uniforms from the turn of the century: there is a strange convergence of associative life, fraternal societies and youth movements, whose ascetic ideals show through in their relationship to apparel.
        Here in Europe it seems those three strands have separated once again with the totalitarian regime’s monopolies on such activities, I would be so curious to read about the situation in the US;


  4. I really get what you mean when you say “What was a non-issue in 1915 in not so easy to brush aside in 2014.” And that is so true for things in the mid-20th century as well. I have a few items that feature cartoon versions of Indians, and sometimes I wonder what people will think. However sometimes I see pieces with Dutch imagery or British caricatures and feel no one takes offense. It seems like only those of color are subject to being offended, when “cultural appropriation” can mean any culture or country, not just race.


    • This is such a complicated subject, and it’s one that I honestly think most people who are outside a culture group often do not understand. For instance, I’m very offended by the “hillbilly” caricature: barefoot, long-bearded, moonshine swilling, ignorant. But I’m sure it does not occur to most who are not from the Appalachian region that this is an embarrassing stereotype, if not quite a cultural appropriation.

      I personally don’t see anything offensive about say a mid-century brooch in the shape of an Indian chief wearing a feathered headdress, no more than I’d find a brooch showing a white woman’s face offensive. Lots of types of people were depicted in costume jewelry in the mid 20th century. But I’ve seen some that I do find offensive such as African and Oriental caricatures.

      But it’s really not up to me to judge what should be offensive to others. If someone says an item is offensive to them, then it is, regardless of how I feel.

      Susan posted a link to a really good article on an earlier thread:


      • Mim

        I think it’s to do with power. I’m British, specifically English (which is what people outside Britain usually actually mean when they say ‘British’); we might get grumpy about being maligned as a nation but we’ve never felt completely powerless. And having forced aspects of our culture on the wider world, we can hardly whinge when people adopt it, which is a bit different to picking up significant bits of other cultures and playing with them simply because they look shiny.


        • NoriMori

          While your reasons that cultural appropriation are seen as more acceptable for some cultures than others is very true, they also mean that the problem is not the appropriation in itself, but marginalization and oppression. The solution is not to enforce a double standard that “you can borrow from these guys, but not these guys”, but to redistribute the “power” so that these groups are no longer marginalized and oppressed.


          • NoraMori: I’m repeating myself:

            But it’s really not up to me to judge what should be offensive to others. If someone says an item is offensive to them, then it is, regardless of how I feel.

            Period. I don’t care whose culture you choose to appropriate. As you have argued, you can dress how you damn well please. On the other hand, if people are offended by your appropriation, then so be it. It’s your right to dress as you wish. Just don’t be surprised when others consider you to be a cultural nincompoop.


      • NoriMori

        Susan, that article is not good at all. It simply perpetuates the fallacy that if something is sacred to one culture, it must be treated as equally sacred by all people outside that culture. ” ‘When nonnatives wear war paint, they are trying in their own minds to show support,’ he said. ‘Their heart is in the right place, but they don’t realize that these are sacred objects.’ ” So what? If they’re sacred to you, you keep on treating them as sacred. I’m not stopping you.* I respect your view of them as sacred, and I don’t doubt they are both aesthetically and spiritually beautiful in their original context. In the meantime, I, who am not part of your culture and am making no pretense to using them in their original context, am not obligated to treat them as sacred.

        I am allowed to wear a kilt even though I’m female and not Scottish. I am allowed to wear a cross even though I am not Christian. I am allowed to wear a kimono (and use a Japanese username) even though I am not Japanese. I am also allowed to wear bastardizations of these. And I am allowed to wear aboriginal dress — bastardized or otherwise — even though I am not aboriginal. There are two reasons for this. 1) These things do not belong to anybody; 2) I am not impinging on anyone’s freedom by doing this. But someone who tells me I’m not allowed to wear them? *They* are impinging on *my* freedom.

        * Systemic oppression is probably stopping or at least hindering you, but that’s a separate issue.


  5. Christina

    I think there is a distinction to be made when referring to cultural appropriation. Indigenous peoples whose land was colonised and whose culture and language was removed have a particular place in history. We need to acknowledge that. What is great about Lizzie’s post is how clothing defines social history and how we can go on another journey of discovery. I know I did with this dress.


  6. Dee

    What a wonderful heart felt article site. I just found a camp fire girls ceremonial gown with patches and 2 pins on the collar. 1 is in gold and is the torch bearer pin engraved 1918 and the 2nd is a Guardian pin in sterling. It has the head band and beads with a sweet wooden hanger painted and stenciled. Not sure what to do with it but it gave me heart joy knowing someone lovingly made this and enjoyed girl scouting like I did. If you have any ideas where I can find more information about antique gowns and pins I’d appreciate it.


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