Women in World War I -- Women's Uniforms
The Great War saw tens of thousands of women, American and otherwise, don uniforms to take on their war work. What is so striking about the uniforming of American women during World War I is that it occurred in all parts of women's war efforts. Whether attached to the military or to voluntary organizations, working in factories, on farms, or filling in other occupations as men left for overseas service, women wore uniforms. Women's uniforms of World War I fall into three main categories: suits (including jacket and skirt), breeches or overalls, and dresses and aprons. These uniforms could be handmade or store-bought. The design of these uniforms was influenced greatly by men's military uniforms, American and Allied, as evidenced by the strikingly military style of the women's uniforms. Other influences included Allied women’s uniforms and women's civilian dress in the United States.
The motivations behind the adoption of uniforms and their specific styles are varied. For women attached to the armed forces, such as the Navy's Yeomen (F), uniforms were part and parcel of military life. For others, especially factory workers and motor corps drivers, the change from traditional female garb to uniforms was simply a matter of practicality—women needed to wear clothes that were less restricting but still respectable, so uniforms modeled on military styles were a perfect option. Wearing uniforms also created and bolstered morale among organizations and groups of women, as well as engendering a feeling of self-worth and an established identity. Perhaps most importantly, the adoption of uniforms demanded attention and respect from the women’s fellow citizens. Women felt that the uniforms visibly validated their volunteer work and their accomplishments as actively engaged citizens, thus pushing the agenda of equal rights and the vote for women. This push for equal recognition was further aided by the uniforms’ echoes of men’s military dress, which helped suppress gender distinctions by aligning women more closely to the masculine values of the military. Women's highly visible and recognized wartime service, facilitated by their adoption of uniforms, ultimately contributed to their attainment of the right to vote in 1920.
About Our Collection
Our museum holds a vast collection of women’s uniforms from World War I, several of which are featured below. About one-fourth of the uniforms in this collection were donated by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America and worn by Society members during the war. After the end of World War I, a Society member suggested to its president, Mrs. Joseph R. Lamar, that it would be wise to preserve the uniforms that women had worn during the conflict. At the time, the Smithsonian’s United States National Museum was collecting artifacts from the war to go on display in the Arts and Industries Building. Carolyn Gilbert Benjamin, the Society's Chair of the Committee on Relics, worked from 1919 to 1922 to bring together the collection of Colonial Dames uniforms and have them sent to the U.S. National Museum for display. Donations also came from outside the Colonial Dames, from organizations such as the American Red Cross, the U.S. Navy, and the YMCA, as well as from individuals.
Over 60 uniforms from World War I went on display in the Arts and Industries Building in the early 1920s, photographs from which you can see in the slideshow above, and they remained on display until 1929. The uniforms were taken out of the exhibit space to make room for objects "of very much greater value," in the opinion of the curator. 1 The Smithsonian kept the uniforms in storage, while the National Society of the Colonial Dames searched for another venue in which to exhibit the uniforms. Ultimately, unable to find a new place to exhibit the uniforms, the Society decided to keep them in storage at the Smithsonian and officially donated them to the National Museum of American History in 1998.
Our collections do not have uniforms representative of every organization or wartime occupation of women. For example, they lack uniforms of women munitions and factory workers and those of women working other jobs like mailmen and policemen. However, the collections provide an insightful look into the way in which women contributed to the war effort and distinguished themselves as invaluable American citizens.
Please note that we are in the process of photographing these uniforms and will add them to this page as they are ready, so check back often.
Barton C. Hacker and Margaret Vining, "Uniforms Make the Woman," in Materializing the Military, vol. 5 of Artefacts: Military Technology, ed. Bernard Finn and Barton C. Hacker (London: Science Museum Press, 2005), 65–76.
Kimberly Jenson, "Volunteers, Auxiliaries, and Women's Mobilization: The First World War and Beyond (1914–1939)," in A Companion to Women's Military History, ed. Barton C. Hacker and Margaret Vining (Boston: Brill, 2012), 189–231.
Vivian Lea Young, "'Petticoats Are Part of this Uniform': American Women Volunteers of the First World War and Their Uniforms" (M.A. thesis, George Washington University, 1987).
1 Barton C. Hacker and Margaret Vining, "Uniforms Make the Woman," in Materializing the Military, vol. 5 of Artefacts: Military Technology, ed. Bernard Finn and Barton C. Hacker (London: Science Museum Press, 2005), 72.
- Physical Description
- "Norfolk"-style jacket of navy blue with gold buttons and navy A-line cloth skirt. Wide-brimmed, flat-crowned, "sailor"-style hat of navy blue felt.
- Specific History
- Donated by Gertrude French Howalt, who is believed to have worn the uniform while serving as a yeoman in World War I.
- General History
- In 1917 as the United States prepared for World War I, the navy faced a crisis: skilled clerks and secretaries were desperately needed, but men didn't possess these skills in the numbers required. Secretary of the navy Josephus Daniels asked his staff "Is there any law that says a yeoman must be a man?" The Naval Reserve Act of 1916 did not specify gender for members of the Naval Coast Defense Reserve, and the navy began enlisting women in March. While most women were in secretarial or clerical jobs, other skills needed included telegrapher, draftsman, translator, mess attendant, ship camouflage designer, and recruiting agent. The women were only permitted to serve at shore stations, but confusion occurred when some of the women were given orders for sea duty. To avoid this error the navy added the suffix (F) for female after yeoman to make it easier to separate the women from the men. The work done by about 11,000 women in the navy was highly regarded, but all women were discharged by July 1919 as the navy returned to peacetime activities. To compensate for the sudden loss of administrative talent, the navy got special permission to expedite hiring of some women veterans through the Civil Service. The navy nurses, who were employed as civilians with the navy, continued to serve during the period between the two world wars. Women were not "in" the navy again until World War II.
- Howalt, Gertrude S. French
- ID Number
- accession number
- catalog number
- Data Source
- National Museum of American History