Camp fire gown

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Luther H. and Charlotte V. Gulick started the Camp Fire youth movement for girls in the US in about 1910. The movement was based on a romantic version of Native American culture, with each member making their own ceremonial costume based on the dress of the squaw. Today the movement is known as Camp Fire USA.

The gown pictured was worn by a girl called Sybil Vincent, who along with her friends from Croydon High School formed a Camp Fire group called Camp Keema, meaning ‘the camp which faces the wind’. The girls had been inspired to start the group after reading Elsie J. Oxenham’s Camp Keema series of books, about the adventures of a group of Camp Fire girls.

The gown is made from khaki cotton, with a hem edged with dark brown suede fringing. A triangular badge of coloured felt is stitched to the breast of the gown, depicting the emblem of the camp the wearer belonged to. Every piece of decoration on the gown has meaning – the beads are the equivalent of Girls Guides badges. There are seven crafts for which honours are awarded for tasks performed or skills attained, each with its own colour – orange is for home craft, red for health, brown for camp craft, green for hand craft, blue for nature craft, yellow for business craft and red, white and blue together for citizenship.

Sybil’s gown bears the membership pin, made of steel enamelled in blue and silver. The border of the pin bears the three elements of the word ‘Wohelo’ – ‘Wo’ for work, ‘he’ for health and ‘lo’ for love – the key philosophies of the movement. Sybil also owned the Fire Maker’s bracelet, which meant that she had been a Wood Gatherer for at least a year. Fire Maker was one rank lower than the most senior rank, Torch Bearer. Each Camp Fire group was led by an adult called the Guardian.