Women's World War Uniforms and Changing Gender Roles

By: Kristen Cnossen

This week the interns were asked to put on a presentation demonstrating the cultivation of our work this summer. The following is my presentation - in transcript form - over five women's uniforms found in the MdHS collection.

Please refer to PowerPoint for images: Women's War Uniforms

SLIDE 1: The 20th century witnessed a shift in gender roles for women; the World Wars mobilized the U.S. population on an unprecedented scale that necessitated women take what were traditionally jobs only performed by men. Previously, women stayed home as housewives, relying on their husbands to earn an income. When war took their husbands overseas, women had to step into the man’s role of “provider,” while still preserving their own home lives.

SLIDE 2: Nationalism during both wars ran strong as it unified the United States through the common loss of loved ones and the goal of succeeding. Propaganda posters reflected the new, war time ideologies of the US population; boosting morale and encouraging civilians to volunteer. Some of these ideologies expanded women’s roles; women were expected to hold the country together as their husbands, sons, and brothers went to war.

SLIDE 3: One such poster depicts “Rosie the Riveter,” the fictional character created to demonstrate the new jobs women could perform within the States – such as riveting, agriculture, and assembly line. The infamous “We Can Do It!” poster, by J. Howard Miller, depicts Rosie in a button-up shirt with a headscarf, a hand on her muscle, and a determined gleam in her eyes. This poster from World War II held women to a new standard as both housewives and participants in the economy; for the first time physical strength in women was viewed as useful, instead of unattractive. Rosie’s blue-collared uniform shirt reflects men’s clothing and her striking red headscarf would have kept debris out of her hair while she worked. Both the uniform shirt and headscarf emphasize practicality over fashion.

SLIDE 4: Although Rosie was created during the Second World War, World War I signaled the first change in women’s clothing from emphasizing style to practicality. SLIDE 5: Due to the previous century’s introduction of women’s tailor-mades, or suits, women’s styles during the 20th century evolved into simpler garments that increased flexibility and decreased fatigue for its wearer. The new pared-down and masculinized style was crucial for working women during World War I.

SLIDE 6: One traditional job women were encouraged to take during World War I was that of a nurse. Twenty-one thousand four hundred and ninety eight U.S. Army nurses served in military hospitals abroad and at home during the course of the war (Hepburn and Simon; 2007). The standard nurses’ uniform was a long, neutral dress under an apron with a cap or headscarf. SLIDE 7: Prior to the 19th century, the majority of nurses were nuns, and as such, the nurses’ uniform was built around traits of the nun’s habit. When nursing moved into the public sphere, however, hospitals were free to choose their own nursing uniform style. Most hospitals kept the traditional plain dress, apron, and cap, deciding only to change the color of the dress and the style of the cap.

The Maryland Historical Society has two prime examples of World War I nurses uniforms. SLIDE 8: The first is dated to 1917 and features a plain grey cotton blend dress and apron. The dress is floor-length with a gathered natural waist and long, thin sleeves. The front closes on the wearer’s left side with four buttons on the shoulder. The white apron closes in the back with one mother-of-pearl button and ties around the neck. The uniform concentrates on utility, as the lack of adornment and simple design identifies this as work wear. The apron would have provided added protection and sanitation.

SLIDE 9: The second uniform, from 1918, does not include an apron. Instead, it comes with three sets of removable white cotton collars and cuffs. The removable items serve the same purpose as an apron, protecting the main dress and wearer from dirt and fluids, as well as allowing the wearer to bleach the cuffs and collars without affecting the dress. The powder blue dress is long sleeved with a high neckline and gathered natural waist. The front closes with mother-of-pearl buttons, concealed under a layer of fabric so as not to get caught on anything while the nurse worked. A patch pocket sewn into the wearer’s right side of the skirt gave the wearer a convenient and quick place to put something, so the nurse could have her hands free at a moments notice.

SLIDE 10: Women supported the war efforts not only as nurses, but by replacing men in factory and farm jobs, as well as, volunteering for organizations like the YMCA, Salvation Army, and Red Cross. On the home front, nearly three million women were newly employed by the food, textile, and war industries; women worked as streetcar conductors, radio operators, and in steel mills and logging camps (Bryant; 2016). Abroad, women volunteered for non-combat roles such as nurses, cooks, and administrative assistants for the military - although the military refused to enlist women officially (“World War I: Women and the War; 2016). The new forms of work introduced additional styles of clothing for women. Most occupations came with a prescribed uniform which copied men’s working clothes as there was no precedent set in women’s fashion for work wear (Smithsonian; 2012, p. 238). SLIDE 11: Where no official uniform was recommended, women wore austere clothing, such as that seen on these “Land Army” workers, or farm hands. Similar to nurses’ uniforms, the workers wear a plain dress, or blouse with a skirt, and an apron wrapped around the natural waist. The apron protected the wearer and skirt from dirt and the head cloth would help keep the worker’s hair clean and tidy.

SLIDE 12: When the war ended women were expected to return to their traditional roles. There was no longer a gap in the job economy for them to fill; yet many remained in the workplace and sought higher education (“World War I”; 2016). This new type of woman brought with her styles of clothing not only for working women, but for the average woman, as well. The 1920s witnessed the revelation of the lower part of women’s legs, putting an emphasis on shoes and stockings (Smithsonian; 2012, p. 240). SLIDE 13: The freedom in women’s clothing coincided with the civil rights movement; both of which proved that, ultimately, women wanted to have more control in their lives.

The 19th Amendment gave American women a voice within the government, so that when the U.S. entered the Second World War in 1941 and women were once again expected to step up to the plate and help, they had some say in exactly how they would assist. The changing gender roles for women, due to the precedent they set during World War I and the passing of the 19th Amendment, led military leaders to be less hesitant in officially recognizing women, some women even received ranks and honors (“World War I”; 2016).

SLIDE 14: Women’s war efforts also included upholding the economy at home and supplying troops with ammunition, weapons, gear, planes, and daily care needs. Women worked on assembly lines in munitions and aviation factories, as riveters and farm hands, and took part wherever there was need.

SLIDE 15: Women served on the front lines as nurses, witnessing the horrors of battle first hand along side the soldiers they aided. Sixty thousand Army nurses served stateside and abroad, three times the number of nurses that served during World War I (Sarnecky; 1999) The increase of nurses was due to the expanded number of roles women played; women could serve as telegraph operators, supply drivers, or civil service pilots, along with being nurses.

SLIDE 16: The fact that women serving in the Second World War were a multi-talented labor force can be seen epitomized in this uniform. The patches on the wearer’s left shoulder identify it as that of a Red Cross driver, who was trained in emergency first aid as well. The blue grey double-breasted dress sports long sleeves and a mid-calf length. The two large pockets at the breast and waist and five sets of large black plastic buttons at the front closure are based upon the style of a man’s military uniform, giving the wearer a sense of stature and authority. The shorter length and padded shoulders were emblematic of women’s uniform styles during the 1940s.

SLIDE 17: Along with working in factories and as nurses, women would partake in the war efforts by volunteering for committees such as the Office of Civil Defense. The Office of Civil Defense was established in 1941 to facilitate participation of all citizens in war programs aimed at protecting civilians.

Lack of funding meant that the Office of Civil Defense relied on volunteers; thus, believed to have more free-time than men, women’s and children’s involvement was highly encouraged. Women served as ambulance drivers, fire fighters, and emergency medical aid (Nationals Women’s History Museum; 2007).

SLIDE 18: As depicted here, women’s Civil Defense Uniforms were modeled to the public, characterizing volunteers as smart and stylish women. Fashion plate-type photographs, such as these, were meant to recruit women into the organization (Smithsonian; 2012; p. 298), much the same way as advertisements today encourage consumers to buy certain products.

SLIDE 19: This Civil Defense Uniform consists of a military blue short-sleeved cotton jacket with a matching knee-length skirt and garrison cap. The uniform sports the Civil Defense logo on each lapel, the garrison cap, and the wearer’s left shoulder. The uniform itself is more feminine and lighter than the previous uniforms, even though it contains the same elements: a man’s style jacket, clean lines, large patch pockets and folded lapels. It echoes the styles of men’s uniforms, but the fitted jacket, flared skirt, and short sleeves (not usually seen in a man’s uniform), are indicative of the feminization of the masculine uniform style. This and the previous slide’s modeled uniforms all demonstrate how women during the 1940s had not only adopted men’s uniform design, but acclimated it completely into women’s fashion.

SLIDE 20: Although the Office of Civil Defense was a popular organization for women to join, they joined many others, such as the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) and the Air Warning Corps (AWC), as pilots and technical support staff. Both women and children volunteered for the Air Warning Service, organized under the Air Warning Corps, as “spotters,” meaning they scanned the skies for enemy aircraft, enforced blackouts, and served as air raid wardens in case of attack (Nationals Women’s History Museum; 2007).

SLIDE 21: This Air Warning Corps uniform consists of a knee-length maroon skirt with a matching long-sleeved jacket. The jacket is tailored with two patch pockets at the waist, shoulder pads, and large, notched lapels. The front closes with four large gold buttons casted with an eagle carrying an anchor surrounded by fourteen stars. The two small gold buttons above the breast on each side are casted with the same design. The upper left sleeve sports a patch consisting of the Air Force logo with the letters “AWC,” for Air Warning Corps, in white between the wings. As a part of the Air Warning Corps and organized under the Army Air Force, this woman would have manned Army Radar Stations and sent visual reports to the Ground Observer Corps (Schaffel, 1991).

The pin on the maroon garrison cap is a white circle containing “Army Air Forces” and "AWS,” for Air Warning Service, framed by two brass wings. Working within the Air Warning Corps, the Air Warning Service was a civilian arm of the Ground Observer Corps, focused on recruiting volunteers to take part in ground sightings of enemy aircraft (Clements, 2016).

SLIDE 22: The 20th century marked a turbulent time for the United States; men left for war overseas and women were expected to defend the homefront. Women rose to the occasion; donning feminized men’s uniforms, women volunteered for programs that did not have the funding to hire men - women became a backbone the country relied on during war.

SLIDE 23: Women held up morale during war for families and neighbors, participated where they could, and encouraged others where they could not. Without the recognition, or even pay, afforded to men who held similar positions within society, women provided a foundation on which the war efforts could be built. Rationing lead to the simpler designs of clothing observed during both world wars; whereas, new types of work lead women to adopt men’s work wear. Subsequently, women’s clothing as an overall became masculinized; as styles shifted from the curvy silhouette of the early 1900s to the austere fashion of the 1940s, women were encouraged to adopt the clean lines found in men’s garments. Women utilized masculine fashion during the war to encourage rationing, convey authority, and demonstrate their new position within society as worthy of the same jobs, education, and respect as men.






Bryant, Joyce. “How War Changed the Role of Women in the United States.” Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Retrieved 27 July 2016. http://teachersinstitute.yale.edu/curriculum/units/2002/3/02.03.09.x.html

Clements, John. “Ground Observer Corps Aircraft Warning Service, 1944.” Radomes. Retrieved 29 July 2016. http://www.radomes.org/museum/documents/GOC/GOCAWS1944.html

Hepburn, Stephanie; Simon, Rita J. Women’s Roles and Statuses the World Over. Lexington Books; Lanham, Maryland. (2007)

Nationals Women’s History Museum. “Civil Defense.” Partners in Winning the War: American Women in World War II. Copyright 2007; Retrieved 25 July 2016. https://www.nwhm.org/online-exhibits/partners/33.htm

Sarnecky, Mary T. A History of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps. University of Pennsylvania Press; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 1999

Schaffel, Kenneth. The Emerging Shield; The Air Force and the Evolution of Continental Air Defense 1945-1960. Office of Air Force History, United States Air Force; Washington, DC. 1991. PDF Retrieved 29 July 2016. http://permanent.access.gpo.gov/lps48543/emerging_shield.pdf

Smithsonian. Fashion; The Definitive History of Costume and Style. DK Publishing; New York, New York. 2012.

“World War I: Women and the War.” History & Collections; Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, Inc. Retrieved 29 July 2016. http://www.womensmemorial.org/H&C/History/wwi(war).html