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Fashion From the Frontlines Part I: The Four Branches of the Women’s Military

The United States attempted to remain neutral during the first two years of World War II. However, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced his intent to involve America in the war against Axis powers. One day later, he declared war on Japan and said on the radio: “We are going to win the war.”

The period between December 1941 and September 1945 is one of the darkest periods in American and world history. It also proved an especially pivotal moment of progress for women in American society. In an effort to maximize soldier counts, men were moved from non-combat roles into frontline facing positions. The remaining unoccupied roles--both in the military and industry--were filled by women. The purpose of this exhibition is to examine the lives of women who contributed to the war effort, both on and off the frontlines through the clothing they wore.

The first portion of this exhibit explores the fashionable uniforms worn by women who served in the military. During World War 1, women played important roles as stenographers, nurses, and as servicewomen the Women's Land Army. Their roles expanded in WWII and between the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (which later became the Women's Army Corps known as WACs), Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), Women Accepted for Volunteer Military Services (WAVES, a naval branch), Marines, and the Coast Guard, over 350,000 women served.. While the uniforms of each branch share similar design elements, each is distinguished in some way, whether by fashion designer, color, silhouette, and/or material.

WAC Uniform for the European Theatre of WWII

The Army created the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) in 1942 and shortly after re-designated it the Women's Army Corps (WAC). As with other branches of the military, the purpose of the WAC was to free up roles occupied by men so that more men could serve in combat. The WAC thus supported their male Army counterparts. Women serving in the WAC had particularly unique jobs because they were the only women allowed to serve in combat areas, mostly in Europe.

This WAC uniform of a six paneled skirt, Eisenhower jacket, and cap was officially class A for wear in European Theatre of Operations (ETO). The insignia on the jacket informs us that the wearer of this uniform was a weather specialist with the US Strategic Air Force, Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force: Eisenhower's headquarters. Though around 1,000 women served in Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs), it was not until after the war that women were invited into the Air Force through The Women's Armed Services Integration Act of 1948.

The jacket in this uniform is known colloquially as an “Ike” jacket, since Eisenhower urged the production and use of this style by US troops. Due to the dramatic clothing shortages and procurement issues women experienced in the ETO, WAC uniforms were made by British counterparts. The resulting uniform garnered resounding popularity and was only worn in the ETO.

This uniform was worn by its donor, Gwen Bymers (1930-2002). The jacket originally belonged to a friend of Bymer’s, but they switched because of a small emergency. Unfortunately, as was custom for WAC women, the friend had to return Ms. Bymers' jacket to the Army at the end of the war. Moreover, the survival of this outfit is quite unique. Following the war, Bymers went on to obtain her Ph.D. from UCLA. After graduating, she became an assistant professor in the Dept. of Household Economics and Management. Later, she became the chair of the newly formed Dept. of Consumer Economics and Public Policy

WAVES Trouser Uniform from WWII

On July 30th, 1942, President Roosevelt enacted legislation that enabled women to enlist in a new branch of the Navy: the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service, or WAVES. One of the main purposes of this new branch was to fill clerical jobs with women to increase the availability and number of male servicemen for positions entailing combat.

WAVES women had two primary uniforms: “whites,” which were designated for dress, and “blues,” which were designated for work. “Whites” were accompanied by white shoes and “blues'' were accompanied by black shoes. Because the SPARS originally used WAVES uniforms, there is a great deal of overlap in dress between the two related branches.

This suit is a set of “blues” WAVES servicewomen wore during the summer months. The suit contains a white short-sleeve gabardine blouse made of cotton, navy gabardine slacks made of wool, a woolen jacket, and a tie. We know that this is the uniform of an officer as indicated by the light blue mohair tape on the cuffs. Traditionally, a WAVES uniform consisted of a matching skirt and jacket set, but in February of 1943, servicewomen were allowed to substitute a skirt for trousers if their work was permitted. Women were allowed to remove their jackets while performing this type of work.

This suit was worn by Lieutenant Kate Hopwood Payne during World War II. After Lieutenant Payne received her officer training at Smith College, she managed degaussing projects at her station in San Francisco. The process of degaussing involves spooling an electrical cord around a ship and running current through the circuit to reduce the impact of the ship’s effect on the earth’s magnetic field and thus its ability to register on enemy sensors. The strategy is still employed by the Navy today.

WAVES Gray Seersucker Uniform

This gray and white striped seersucker ensemble exhibits the classic WAVES anchor motif on lapel, removable shoulder pads, and two pockets on the jacket. All branches of the women's military had seersuckers to wear when lightweight clothing was needed for exercise or movement. Though the women in each branch had seersuckers, they differed slightly

SPARs Uniform

On November 23rd, 1942, the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) created an additional branch designated for women called the U.S. Coast Guard Women’s Reserve. This new branch would be known as the SPARs, an abbreviation based on the USCG’s motto: “Semper Paratus—Always Ready.”

Similar to their Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) sisters, SPARs servicewomen had a navy winter uniform. The uniform was to be worn with nude nylon stockings, oxfords/pumps, gloves and, sometimes, a matching handbag. We can tell that this particular uniform belonged to an Officer because of the gold buttons on the jacket.

This look was worn by Officer Marjorie Holmes Sullivan (1917-2009), who grew up in Ithaca. After attending Cornell, she enlisted in the SPARs. Following WWII, she worked in the Alumni Affairs Office at Cornell. She worked there for 20 years and eventually retired in 1983.

SPARs Dress Whites

This is an officer's set of dress whites. There is a Coast Guard insignia on the collar, a shield on the right arm and the US Coast Guard band on the enlisted hat that would have been worn with it. This uniform would also have been worn with the matching handbag with its white cover. It resembles the WAVES dress whites -- the only primary difference between the two uniforms is the insignia.

SPARs Navy Wool Bathing Suit

In addition to their navy winter uniform, the SPARs also had a white summer uniform as well as a bathing suit. This is a SPARs bathing suit that was worn for recreational and training purposes as SPARs women were required to know how to swim. Typical of modest 1940’s swimwear, this one-piece is made of wool, contains inserts for the bra and crotch regions, and looks similar to a mini-dress as per its skirt. We importantly note that the only feature which identifies this swimsuit as being connected to the SPAR is the Coast Guard insignia at the right hip area.

During this era, we see the two-piece bathing suit emerge, which is partially a result of the fabric rationing that occurred during WWII. Because fabric for swimwear was designated for use by servicewomen, less fabric was available to use for civilians. As a result, it became necessary and fashionable for women to devote less fabric to swimwear. Thus, two-piece bathing suits showing just a sliver of midriff popularized.

Women's Marines Uniform

The Marine Corps Reserve established the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve on July 30th, 1942. The women of the Marine Corps served an especially important role in World War II as their work made an additional number of men available for combat, specifically on the Pacific front.

The first women who entered the Marine Corp received very little training—they were immediately placed on active duty. There were over two hundred different job variations a woman Marine could hold: radio operator, aerial gunnery instructor, photographer, control tower operator, baker, quartermaster, auto mechanic, etc.

The unit was demobilized in July of 1946, at the end of World War II. At its height, the Marine Corps boasted approximately 17,460 servicewomen. Only 1,000 remained by the end of 1946 as only a small number were approved to remain on active duty by Gen Alexander A. Vandegrift, Commandant of the Marine Corps.

This winter ensemble is a traditional Marine's uniform. The six-panel A-line skirt and suit jacket are made of wool and designates its branch with the gunmetal insignia. The sleeves are emboldened with a green and red patch that signifies the servicemen's rank. A single chevron is seen at the hip pocket, which suggests that she might have been promoted prior to discharge.

The uniform’s style closely resembled that of the male marines. The outfit was designed by Anne Adams Lentz, who worked on school uniforms and on the WACC uniforms. Lentz selected the same forest green color which male marines wore, but opted for a more lightweight cloth. The wearer’s lipstick and nail polish were to match the chevrons red trim cap tassels. Unlike the pockets added to other branches’s uniforms, the pockets on the Marine uniforms were functional.

This outfit was worn by veteran Frances W. Lauman (1914-2004), who was stationed at Cherry Point, North Carolina as a Private First Class in the USMC women's Reserve. Lauman and all three of her siblings are Cornell Alumni—her father was a professor of rural sociology. Following the war, Lauman pursued a position in the research library reference department of Cornell University. When she retired, she continued volunteering at library archives.

Women's Marines Seersucker

This green and white striped seersucker suit features a six-panel a-line skirt, a pocketed short-sleeved jacket, and matching overseas cap. A screw-on insignia is visible on the lapels and cloth insignias signifying rank and pinned on each sleeve. The fabric is a lightweight cotton with a unique soft yet crinkled hand which made the outfit comfortable, breathable, and easy to launder.

This uniform is one of the most distinctive ensembles worn by servicewomen during World War II. The Marines’ seersucker is especially unique because, while other branches’ seersuckers consisted of a dress, the Marines’ seersucker consisted of a jacketed skirt suit.