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In Part 4A we discussed Rules and Judging. In this article, we will cover Attire.


For decades it was easy to identify a corps marching into a stadium from a simple glimpse of their uniforms. Until the late 1970s most corps wore uniforms that were a part of their signature. Many were classics worn for decades. A majority wore cadet style uniforms with shakos while others had roots derived from other styles. There were the military inspired (Troopers, Knights), scout influenced (Madison, Racine, St. Paul), ethnic (Caballeros, Kilties, Muchachos), police inspired (Bluecoats, PAL Cadets), and nautical (Stockton Commodores, IC Reveries).

The evolution of corps’ attire transpired more slowly than other aspects of the activity. Two notable outliers were the Cavaliers and Madison Scouts 1971 shows, which were highly controversial at the time. The Cavies staged a “Circus” show with a ringmaster, clown, juggler, and a magician. Madison’s “Scouts in Fantasyland” show featured the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, and corps Director Bill Howard’s daughter as ‘Alice in Wonderland’. The VFW, in a sudden ruling, forced Madison to forgo the use of such non-conforming attire for the Championship; a factor that most people believe contributed to the Scouts placing lower than warranted. Many people also believe Ray Baumgardt’s daring brass book was too innovative for the activity and it exacerbated the VFW’s disdain for the show. For example, their avant-garde/tongue in cheek color presentation of “Yankee Doodle” was particularly underappreciated. The front half of Madison’s 1971 show can be viewed here:


In 1976, a shocking deviation from traditional uniforms emerged with Bobby Hoffman’s bright ‘banana’ yellow, knee length jackets that he designed for the Bridgemen. He referred to this new garb as “costumes,” possibly the first time that term had been used to describe what a drum corps wore. There were other “innovations” over the next two decades, with corps embellishing their uniforms using capes, shifting from cadet to satin tops, and experimenting with various headgear. A few corps introduced colorfully adorned characters in contrast with the rest of their corps, but most deviations from the norms were minor until Hoffman struck again with the Velvet Knights in the 1980s. VK poked fun at the activity in many ways, including costuming, with an outfit that included red Converse high top sneakers, white tuxedo jackets, and baseball caps. And those features were actually tame in comparison to the other outlandish costumes worn by the Velvet Knights in that era. During their most successful years, VK dotted the field with all sorts of characters and antics, including a “Viking” opera singer (aka “the fat lady,” played by a guy with Dolly Parton-like features), the “Wicked Witch of the West,” and members of the guard dressed as Martians. They had a gorilla “unzipping” a giant foam banana to reveal a bikini clad guard member, a hunter in an orange vest who falls in love with the aforementioned opera singer while chasing a Russian bear around the field, a group of Japanese warriors, and an entire squadron of Darth Vaders.

1992 Velvet Knights

1992 Velvet Knights

VK’s crazy costumes, antics, and characters were contrary to the serious nature of the activity. Most fans enjoyed the comic relief and extra “color” VK presented that had been absent in Finals since the Bridgemen folded. But those two corps were the exception. Most uniform choices continued to change slowly, and the use of costumed characters (if we set aside the proliferation of solo dancers) was infrequent. Over the next two decades, more significant shifts in attire began to appear. A trend that started in the ’80s with guards wearing color schemes far afield from the corps proper accelerated. Then guards began changing attire during shows, a follow on to the use of multiple and different colored silks that actually had its inception back in the 1970s. By 2000, almost all color guards were wearing contrasting uniforms to the corps proper, as influence from Winter Guard International (WGI) became more pronounced. The standard wool or cotton uniforms were being replaced with synthetic fabrics that were much more suited to the summer heat and easier to launder. These synthetic “costumes” could also be produced faster and were more affordable.

1976 Bridgemen

The Bridgemen in 1976

A major transformation was in the making. Program designers wanted to reinforce their total show concept with attire. Since every year brought a new show concept, they pushed for new garb every year to match the theme. Uniform companies had to be delighted. For the Cadets’ 2011 “Angels and Demons” show, the “corps proper” wore contrasting light and dark cadet uniforms, representing “good vs. evil,” and capitalized on this innovation to create clever visual effects. It was a factor in their winning the DCI title and other corps took notice of the Cadet’s GE Visual score (19.90 out of 20). Carolina Crown was one of the first corps to introduce drastically different “costumes” every year beginning in 2013 with their Championship “E=mc2” show. In an activity known for “copying what succeeds,” other corps followed as the “annual costume change” became more popular. Often, new uniforms have been completely divorced from a corps’ previously established color palette to be fully aligned with that year’s theme.

2011 Cadets

The Cadets, 2011

Every year, more corps have transitioned away from the cadet and military look. The Bluecoats, who had long worn fairly traditional uniforms, pushed the envelope off a cliff in 2016 with their “Down Side Up” show wearing no headgear, full white body suits for the corps proper, and neon yellow bodysuits for the guard. They followed this up with a mosaic of non-matching costumes in grey and blue color palettes, in 2018 and 2019, respectively. The Blue Knights wore spandex/sequin bodysuits for “The Great Event” in 2016, costumes adorned with large “eyes” for their program entitled “i” in 2017, and purple bodysuits in 2018 (the Purple Knights?). The Madison Scouts, known as one of the activity’s most traditional corps, were completely unrecognizable in 2017 with a “Last Man Standing” program featuring “tribal” costumes that mirrored a dark and angst-filled musical theme. Both Boston and Santa Clara scrapped their traditional colors starting in 2017 with spandex and bodysuit costuming intricately tied to themes. The Blue Stars dressed as construction workers for their “Carpenters” show in 2018 and followed that up with lumberjack/winter themed costumes complete with “fleece lined” boots for “The Call of the Wild.” As dramatic as the changes to the corps’ proper have been, the eye-catching colors and patterns that have adorned some color guards have been even bolder in recent years.

The Bluecoats, 2016

There are still some units wearing cadet uniforms. Some even maintain their classic colors, but the trend is clearly moving away from traditional. Just as with repertoire, the range of what attire is presented on the field now, for better or worse, offers tremendous variety. The key to this issue is what gets rewarded on the score sheets tends to stick. Although not all of the modern costumes have led to success, several in the top six have been handsomely rewarded. The innovations that have “worked,” predictably, are being copied. Like it or not, with top corps scoring well in GE by fusing their attire to themes, it is likely we will continue to see costuming on the field that helps “sell” a show’s concept.

Stay tuned for Part 4C where we will examine the evolution of Equipment and Props.


Featured Image: Clockwise from top left- Cambridge Caballeros, Racine Kilties, Boston Crusaders, and Madison Scouts. Center photo Chicago Cavaliers – “Drum Corps International – Round Rock 19June2011 b_0804” flickr photo by Henry Huey Photography shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

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