The Ghosts of Garments Past; a biography of the Trousered Uniform of the Munition Women Workers during World War I
by Jennifer Roberts, MA dissertation, University of Brighton
Aims: My aims were to find an example of a Munitionette’s uniform, worn by women in Britain in munitions factories in World War One, to discover its design, how it was made, distributed and who wore it. I called this process a Biography as it seemed the most appropriate word to describe the life story of a garment; the search was to discover the history of the garment from its conception, design and development to where it was worn, who wore it and what happened to it.
Methodological approach: I was not lucky enough to find an existing pair of the trousers. I used the oral history archives of the Munitionettes at the Imperial War Museum and also contemporary diaries and autobiographies extensively. I found official war time pamphlets and instruction manuals showing garments which could be ordered centrally. I accessed an extensive archive of photographs which related to a very large factory at East Riggs in Scotland. This archive included a series of photographs of both women munitions workers, their supervisors and places of work. All of this despite the lack of surviving garments has allowed me to analyse the design, function and consumption of the range of Munitionettes’ uniforms.
The Munitionettes: There is an assumption that the majority of the Munitionettes were working class but some middle and upper class girls did work in the factories although they were mainly employed in supervisory positions, mimicking society at the time. Nursing, auxiliary services and the Land Army were deemed more acceptable war time employment for upper class women. There was an assumption that the girls who worked on the most dangerous jobs like TNT were working class as judged by their behavior and language. One factory foreman recalled ‘When they got a lot of these rough types as we got….they’d go in the pubs at night and well, they never had time to have a proper wash and clean up like decent girls.’ They were paid around a pound a week, aged from 16 upwards. A large number, but not all, of these women would have come from poor working class homes many attracted by the higher wages as well as their patriotic duty. Most would not have been involved at all in campaigning for equal rights for women- i.e. they were not suffragettes. Articles at the time accused the women of extravagant spending and although some were able to buy clothes this referred to some younger women, who did seem to have more spending money, but with many women having their menfolk at the front the money was spent keeping their families going. This was not the first time that trousers had been worn by women, in the mid 1800’s women wore trousers working at the pits. Other World War I women workers also wore trousers; window cleaners, whose work involved demanded they wore trousers for reasons of decency or the physicality of the work like coal workers or the Land Girls who wore heavy well-made corduroy knee breeches covered with long jackets. Up until this point, trousers were not worn in public apart from the Rational Dress Society and cyclists in the mid 1890’s and round 1917 riding breeches were recommended by Vogue for skiing but again this only applied to women from privileged classes.
The Actual Trousers: The actual trousers were very basic, of a poor quality, functional and unstylish. The basic outfit, as seen in the photographs was very loose which allowed for movement but would not have provided much protection as the dust and chemicals would have been absorbed through exposed skin or eaten away at the cloth. Trousers were expressly distributed for work involving very dirty work, climbing ladders or the crane drivers to preserve women’s decency when working up high. On looking at the photographs different tones of the fabric can be seen and it seems that the trousers may have been made to a standard pattern hence the differing lengths depending on the height of the wearer. Colour it seems was also important in order to depict the rank of a worker.
Gender and femininity and feminising of the uniform: Gender and femininity had a role to play in the attitude towards the trousers during and after the War. These trousers specifically came to be associated with hard, dangerous and dirty work. Additionally negative characteristics were added in by the press, defining Munitionettes as immoral as well as ‘lower’ class women, seen unfairly as improper and closely linked to sexual impropriety. At work the women had to remove all trappings of femininity like hairpins and corsets before commencing work in the factory. A.K Foxwell, a middle class supervisor at the Woolwich Armoury in Greenwich London, writes extensively and romantically on how the women tried to feminize their uniforms firstly with flowers, then brightly coloured ribbons and even stockings and high-heeled shoes. The reality as the photographs from the East Riggs Archives show was very different. Many women died or were injured in explosions or from illnesses developed from working with chemicals such as their hair falling out, their skin turning yellow from picric acid poisoning, gingivitis (gum inflammation) and periodontitis, which resulted in the loss of teeth and infection entering the jaw bone. Trinitrotoluol poisoning, which caused liver damage and aplastic anemia, or pleurisy.
Conclusion : The main reasons why the trousers did not survive the war was because either they became impregnated with the chemicals used and were destroyed after the war or because the surplus stocks were sold off by the government most probably because they were shoddy or because there was no such need for such poorly made and culturally unacceptable clothes in civilian life. They had no function in either in any woman’s public or private life after the war. As the majority of women were replaced by men after the war there would have been no need to retain their uniforms. As none of the oral history records pursued what the women did with their uniforms and the records are ambiguous this conclusion has to be supposition until further research can substantiate the truth.
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