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Boy Scout uniforms in colonial East Africa, like civilian clothing, were tangible but malleable archives of social reality that enabled young African men to imagine, if not create, new identities and realities. By appropriating Scout clothing and symbols and turning them to new purposes, they challenged the established colonial order and proposed new social identities. Yet uniforms constituted a special category of clothing that is largely missing from broader studies of African dress. Scholars have tended to assume that the disciplined and regimented nature of Scout clothing protected from capture both authorized and unauthorized wearers.
Uniforms conveyed great power in colonial Kenyan society. The colonial regime used them to discipline and empower the African soldiers, policemen, and civil servants who extended its reach into urban and rural African communities. The uniforms of these colonial proxies conveyed the standardized message that their wearers represented the authority of the state and accepted its guidance and discipline regardless of who they actually were. Yet the institutionalized power embedded in uniforms also made them vulnerable to appropriation. Their conformity and enforced anonymity meant that anyone putting them on could claim the authority and privileges they represented. The Scout uniform therefore became the center of a fierce struggle in colonial Kenya between Africans who sought to turn it to their own uses and the colonial authorities who recognized that it had the ability to undermine British rule by blurring racial, class, and gender lines.