Groups competing in Drum Corps International have spent the past few years tailoring their uniforms to each season’s show while still working to maintain elements of their corps’ signature look.
For the past two seasons, the Bluecoats have taken the uniformity out of their uniforms; instead of having the corps members perform in identical outfits, as is tradition, almost all of the performers wore a unique costume. “Each performer [is] an individual while looking like a unified whole,” says Mike Scott, Bluecoats CEO.
The Bluecoats experimented with individual uniforms in its 2018 show, “Session 44,” which celebrated the artist within every individual, and in its 2019 Beatles-inspired show, titled “The Bluecoats.” In both years, some members wore checkered pants, some wore patterned pants, and some wore solid-colored pants. The same could be said for their tops. Performers wore each piece in a mix-and-match arrangement.
Though the Bluecoats wore mostly gray in 2018, all of the coats were blue in 2019. “Ever since 2016 when we stopped wearing a blue jacket, there’s been this meme on the internet about how the Bluecoats don’t wear blue coats,” Scott says. “We decided if we’re going to call the  show ‘The Bluecoats,’ we have to play off that.”
Thus, the Bluecoats’ signature blue uniform jackets returned.
The need to maintain a solid corps identity while experimenting with creative uniform ideas is not unique to the Bluecoats. During the past few years, drum corps uniforms have been evolving to fit each year’s show rather than remaining stagnant like traditional marching uniforms.
For years, Carolina Crown was known for its full-body cream-colored uniforms until 2013 when the staff decided to shake things up. “We were looking for an identity of something different yet fresh,” says executive director/CEO Jim Coates. That “something different” ended up being bright purple stretch pants, a garment never before seen by Drum Corps International (DCI) fans.
That shock value was exactly what Coates wanted. “We wanted to be noticed for the change that would also happen musically and percussively, the boldness of it all,” he says.
Thus, Carolina Crown became a pioneer in the new DCI tradition of annual costume changes.
The Bluecoats went through a similar process in 2016 when it traded in its police-inspired uniform for a stretchy white costume with blue accents but without its signature blue coat. In 1972, the Bluecoats began as a tribute to the Canton Police Boys’ Club in North Canton, Ohio. As a result, the corps wore blue jackets to represent its police heritage.
The Bluecoats 2016 show, titled “Down Side Up,” challenged drum corps traditions and included complex dance choreography in the drill. As a result, the stretchy uniforms were both a necessity and a signifier of a new tradition.
In addition to surprising audiences, corps uniform changes have begun to emphasize the story or theme of each individual show.
Santa Clara Vanguard, known for wearing red jackets that featured a “V” badge on the chest as well as green Aussie hats with a large feather, started moving toward show-specific costuming in recent years.
In 2018, when Vanguard won its first gold medal since 1999, the corps premiered uniforms specific to its show “Babylon.” And with the 2019 show, “Vox Eversio,” exploring elements of counterculture through underground movements like jazz and punk, Vanguard took the field in grey outfits with a giant red “V” across the chest.
“We can’t stand out there in something that looks like a marching band uniform,” says Andy Toth, visual coordinator.
For Carolina Crown, this year’s uniform created a physical, concrete representation of its show’s abstract theme, “Beneath the Surface,” which delved into the layers beneath what is immediately apparent.
Crown’s 2019 uniforms allowed for a literal look beneath the surface; the use of see-through fabrics made the top layer of the uniforms transparent. Underneath the sheer layer was a white form-fitting outfit featuring a purple line down the performer’s full body.
“Being see-through seems devoid of color, so we wanted to treat color very specifically, so that it popped in the right places,” says Rick Subel, artistic director and program coordinator for Carolina Crown. “This show is about seeing through the first layer into deeper layers. … Far away, you see the facade of what it is; closer, you see the detailing through the sheers. It had a multi-purpose look.”
Theater-style costuming also became paramount for the Blue Devils, whose 2019 show, “Ghostlight,” revolved around a myth about ghosts inhabiting the theater at night.
As a result, Blue Devils performers altered the appearance of their uniforms throughout the show just as actors on a stage go through costume changes. The Blue Devils entered the field wearing a more traditional uniform, including its long blue coat, black pants, and shako. However, through the course of the show, performers removed pieces of their outfits, transforming into new looks.
“The first long coat that the corps wore was about creating motion and movement,” says Scott Chandler, visual designer for the Blue Devils. Then, when performers removed their coats, “we wanted to reveal something more form-fitting. That also helps with choreography.”
The uniforms were specifically designed for quick, seamless changes while corps members were playing and marching. “The construction of the costuming … has to allow for quick changes just like a theatrical costume would,” Chandler says. “Velcro is our friend.”
What About Corps Identity?
With annual changes in uniforms, corps now face a new dilemma: how to maintain a consistent corps identity while utilizing different costumes every year. “With the advent of everybody doing more theatrical costuming, you lose a certain identity,” Subel says.
Consequently, many corps are finding innovative ways to insert visual indicators of their persona into their costumes.
For Carolina Crown, that motif is a full body-length line down the left side of the uniform. This year, that line was a purple stripe underneath the transparent top layer.
“The last three to four years, we’ve [had] a line element that goes head to toe,” Coates says. Even as uniforms change color and design, “you could tell that was still Crown because of how we utilized that line,” he adds.
For the past two years, Santa Clara Vanguard has incorporated a giant “V” across the entire uniform top. In 2019, Vanguard also incorporated unique shades of the corps’ traditional colors into its very nontraditional, counterculture costumes by making the “V” a shade of red and by making the color guard uniforms a shade of green. Toth says this color scheme “gives a nod to the history” of the corps uniforms.
The Blue Devils maintains corps identity by starting the show in full traditional uniform, then transforming it as they perform.
“Scott Chandler identifies that in this era of costuming, they wanted to make sure people knew we were the Blue Devils when we showed up at the gate,” says Patrick Seidling, the Blue Devils corps director. “The members were thrilled that for two minutes, they got to wear something that looked like the iconic Blue Devils look.”
For corps members, maintaining identity through uniform is important since that can be a big part of their emotional connection to the organization. Through the years, the Blue Devils have managed to create character costumes that still incorporate a color scheme indicative of the group.
“If you grew up since you were 10 years old idolizing the Blue Devils, the uniform makes you feel like the Blue Devils you grew up with,” Seidling says.
New Fabrics and Technology
Many of the changes in uniform traditions are influenced by changes in production processes and materials. A major turning point in drum corps costuming came from the rise of more athletic fabrics, which allow corps members to do more intricate choreography.
However, one of the most revolutionary developments in drum corps uniforms has been the use of digital printing, which allows corps to get specific designs printed onto any fabric, keeping production costs down. Digital printing was used to pull off the Bluecoats’ individualized costumes and was also a staple in the Blue Devils’ color guard costumes, which had comedy/tragedy masks on them.
Printing designs allows corps to wear costumes made of whatever material is best for their types of movements and pace while still having the uniforms look apropos for the show.
“The possibilities are wide open now; we have a lot of opportunity to create texture, color, and print,” Chandler says.
With new fabrics, new printing technology, and new drum corps uniform traditions developing, the future is still somewhat unexpected. What most corps directors know, however, is that next year’s costume and visual design process is going to take a lot of work and forethought to step up their game once again.
Chandler plans to start dreaming up next year’s Blue Devils uniform once the 2020 show theme is set. “The concept always informs what the costume is going to be,” he says.
The Bluecoats will also have a lot of planning to do. The Bluecoats started with more than 300 concept sketches and experimented with hundreds of color iterations for the 2019 uniforms. “Our costume design process starts [now],” Scott says.
Thoughts from Uniform Manufacturers
While corps directors and visual designers are imagining creative new concepts for costuming, uniform companies are utilizing new fabrics and technologies to bring these visions to life. What are their thoughts on the new drum corps uniform trends?
“The drum corps costumes are intended to bring greater emphasis to the story being told on the field. The longevity of the costumes is of lesser concern since they are only intended for one season. … We serve an ever-changing industry.” Steve Trull, Vice President, DeMoulin
“There’s identity costuming, and there’s story costuming. … “[Drum corps] is 15 minutes of theater on a very big stage. … A lot of things can be printed, so they don’t look like what they are. Fabrics are illusions.” Michael Cesario, Designer, Fred J. Miller
“Designers [are] looking for lighter-weight garments.” Richard Fruhauf, Co-owner and Director of Business Development, Fruhauf Uniforms
Corps are seeking “lightweight, durable, flexible fabric that allows [their] body heat to be pulled away.” Landon Fruhauf, Co-owner and Director of Business Development, Fruhauf Uniforms
While creating show-specific costumes, incorporating elements of the corps’ traditional identity is “not just for the kids; it’s for the alumni, the staff, [and] the fans. … Trends change every year. It’s always [about] looking forward.” Joe Lutes, VP of Sales and Marketing, G2 Performance
“The crazy designs that were part of the [Bluecoats’] jacket and pants were all digitally printed. It’s a heat transfer process that embeds the design into the fabric.” Jeff Elliott, Media and Marketing Specialist, Stanbury Uniforms
All in all, while uniforms have been evolving over the past few years, the designers and manufacturers say that they are ready to take on any new changes that might come.