Ellison Langford / Women’s Museum of California
Any time you see a little girl or woman dressed in a blue shirt and red polka-dotted bandana, you know instantly who she’s imitating — Rosie the Riveter.
It’s one of the most iconic outfits in popular culture. But for an era of haute Hollywood glamour, it’s interesting that one of the decade’s most iconic images is clad in a plain work shirt and bandana. Why? Because those clothes were safe.
Although half of the women who worked during World War II had been working before the attack on Pearl Harbor, many of them had never worked in industrial environments. Each position came with its own risks. Welding was a fire hazard, lathes involved sharp blades, and certain machines could snatch loose hair.
As women were historically unheard of in these positions, safe work uniforms did not really exist for female figures. Some professions, such as nursing and waitressing provided plain, serviceable dresses, but those were not practical for rigorous industrial work. Women resorted to buying men’s heavy denim or leather coats, steel-toed boots, and gloves. But they had not been designed to fit women’s smaller frames, so they didn’t offer women the same level of protection.
Despite the skyrocketing numbers of women entering industrial work, lack of protective clothing remained a challenge for women throughout the war. In Portland, OR, the number of women shipyard workers jumped from 950 to nearly 30,000. Yet, the shipyard newsletter Bo’s’n’s Whistle observed, “It seems that thousands of these women spend their days off going from store to store in search of warm, practical, well-fitting work clothes, only to come back to work wearing poor substitutes; in many cases, not only unattractive but definitely hazardous to health and safety.”
Many agencies that could have made an effort to outfit women with better clothes didn’t think it was worth their while. Women were seen as makeshift substitutes for the male workers drafted overseas. While this kind of societal disruption could be tolerated for the sake of winning a war, manufacturing and federal authorities did not think industry ought to welcome America’s wives and mothers long-term. Especially if allowing them to stay would mean displacing servicemen returning in search of jobs. Clothing companies simply didn’t think it was worth the effort to design and produce heavy work clothes for women if they were only going to be in factories for a few years. As the slogan said, they could just “make do.”
Another issue was the tremendous pressure women were under to look attractive while they were at work. Publications ran stories counseling women workers on how to avoid looking run-down. The New York Times ran an article titled, “Training for War Work to Help Women Keep both Health and Looks.”
“No doubt every woman in the United States is willing to do anything kind of war work to which she can turn her hand,” the article ran, “but at the same time she hopes that at the end of the uproar, she will not look like a bit of scorched earth.”
One industry magazine, Aero Mechanic, published a series of questions that scored female workers on their “femininity quotient.”
Employers and labor agencies published guides on how to dress safely for the workplace. Employers often banned loose hair, open-toed shoes, and fuzzy sweaters, depending on how much of a danger they posed to employee safety. Manufacturers asked Veronica Lake[iv] to modify her peekaboo hairstyle (the inspiration for Jessica Rabbit) so women would not be in danger of getting their hair caught in a machine. Rosies didn’t wear their hair pinned under scarves because they thought it was cute; they tucked away their hair to keep it from catching fire or being snatched out.
Unfortunately, the era’s emphasis on feminine beauty pressured some women to flout safety regulations for the sake of their looks. In their diary of their summer spent in a war plant, two schoolteachers recalled that disregarding the rules was the norm. None of the women workers wore regulation slacks. Other than the authors, the only woman who wore her hair covered was the women’s counselor, in an attempt to set a proper example.
Although they were responsible for showing women how to protect themselves on the factory floor, many government officials seemed to wink at indiscretions– putting women at risk. “The director of War Public Services for the Federal Works Authority — in charge of expanding facilities for the war effort — told an interviewer in 1943 that women war workers deserved special commendation for the attention they paid to grooming. ‘They bring glamor to the job,’ she said. The personnel manager of a plant confirmed the importance of grooming: ‘We like the girls to be neat and trim and well put together. It helps their morale. It helps our prestige too.’”
Their clothes influenced how people treated them. A woman who wore slacks was considered “fast,” and women returning home in their work togs after a long shift sometimes found themselves scurrying through a gauntlet of catcalls before standing the long bus ride home. The women observed that a skirt could get a man to give up his seat; coveralls did not.
With her bold posture, the woman on the “We Can Do It!” poster has inspired countless women to face the challenges that lay before them. But she could never have done that without first being willing to embrace something as seemingly innocuous as an unflattering uniform.
Ellison Langford is an independent historian living in Gainesville, FL. You can follow her work about women’s experiences during World War II on Twitter and Instagram @RealRosieWWII
Editor’s note: Naomi Parker Fraley — the real Rosie the Riveter — died Saturday, Jan. 20, at the age of 96. Once believed to be Geraldine Doyle, the true identity of Rosie was uncovered as described in this article by The New York Times.