Fashioning and Performing Martial Femininities: Military Uniforms, Modernity, and Gender Identities in the British Women’s Corps, 1914-20

Friday, January 5, 2018: 1:30 PM
Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, SC Johnson Center
Krisztina Robert, University of Roehampton
This paper examines the social and cultural meanings of British women’s wartime employment, including the relative status and gendered connotations of women’s war jobs, by exploring war workers’ uniforms: the main means of constructing wartime gender identities. The discussion focuses on four main types of dress worn by army nurses, public service employees, military auxiliaries and munitions and farm workers. These groups represented different types of modern femininity shaped by war conditions and signified by their members’ distinctive outfits. The paper analyses the process through which different types of modern womanhood were constructed during the war by examining the design, evolution, representation and displays of war workers’ uniforms. It identifies the main agents involved in the production of the outfits and their respective roles. Leaders of women’s war organisations designed the prototypes of the outfits, carefully considering every material aspect of the costumes to reflect the corporate values of their organisations and to attract the right type of recruits for their units. Representations of popular culture, including posters, postcards, fashion and press illustrations, transformed these official designs into a series of highly-coveted and iconic symbols of modern femininity, offering women a choice of new female identities to be adopted by joining different organisations for war work. Women workers completed the process of constructing modern femininities through uniforms. Utilising their regulation dress, popular images and their own fantasies, they altered the official patterns and devised their own displays, creating a multitude of modern female identities based on their class, age, ethnic, regional, political and occupational backgrounds. Through a parallel analysis of different types of uniforms, the paper seeks to illuminate the highly complex and relational process through which wartime gender identities were constructed.
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