Soliderettes

Don’t worry, said the Washington Daily News  in May 1943. A “Soldierette” was a Land Army Girl, and she did not need to wear overalls — she could wear a wrap-around skirt and “go feminine for farmhouse work.” This gem is nested within a basket of terrific details in the online article, “To the Rescue of the Crops” from the National Archives Winter 1993 Prologue magazine. The government put out a call — a plea, really — for women and girls to help with the farm work left undone with young men serving. It was volunteer work, in that women weren’t conscripted into it, but most women were paid and thousands participated. The photographs make it seem a lark, fun, and exciting — perhaps it was, but women who wrote diaries and letters reported hard physical labor, sore sore muscles, and homesickness.

In the midst of all this patriotic farming, clothes became a concern. Whatever would women wear for this work?

Keep in mind, while many farm women did work with the animals and in the fields, most stayed in the home, operating a farm on the home front even in peaceful times: cooking, cleaning, putting in extremely long days, keeping community groups going, keeping the small-congregation churches open, staffing the volunteer school, library, town, and township boards, raising their own children, pitching in for other households. But in 1942, while many farm women already had ‘work clothes’ for field work, the government seemed to think girls and women from the city were bereft of any kind of suitable work wear. So the federal government designed clothing for the new Women’s Land Army — and almost no one bought any.

life cover sept 27 1943

Cover, Life Magazine September 27, 1943.  This teen girl on the cover of Life Magazine wears her government-designed work blouse and WLA armband as she hoists corns for the camera.

Most women in the Women’s Land Army of the United States wore what they called “knockabout clothes” — work clothes they already had. So even in the Life Magazine issue about the Land Army, the girls in the work photos wear an assortment of practical clothing, almost none government design. From the issue below, you can see the range of clothes, from our cover girl left corner back row, with her WLA shirt over a printed knit shirt, the girl on the far left back row wearing her government-designed WLA overalls, but the front row is just girls — wearing their own clothes.

sept 27 1943

Life Magazine, September 27, 1943. The cover girl of this 1944 pamphlet shows the government-designed clothes (women had to pay for it, but it was purchased from WLA offices (aka your local USDA or 4H office). Here, our Farmette girl wears the government-designed WLA overall and blouse.

A1-59-1010001

Pitch in and help! The Women’s Land Army calls 800,000 to the farm in 1944.
[Washington, D.C.] : U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, [1944]
University of Missouri Libraries Federal Government Documents Collection. This is from University of Missouri’s online exhibit, “Women’s Land Army.”

Below, another image of the same uniform. There’s style in the overalls (note the lack of metal buckles on the overall straps – we are in the thick of late 1943 and 1944 at this point in the war) and her floppy, uh, sun hat? cap? Whatever that bit of fabric perched on her head was supposed to be.

A1-59-1020001

United States. War Food Administration.
The Women’s Land Army of the U.S. Crop Corps, 1944
[Washington, D.C. : U.S. G.P.O., 1944]
University of Missouri Libraries Federal Government Documents Collection

Actual girls and women wore their “knockabout” clothes. Modeled on men’s wear, knockabout clothes included knit shirts (usually not quite a tshirt, which is literally t-shaped from and back pieces; tshirts were still largely considered underwear, and as we’ll see, a printed knit shirt might be found, but genuine tshirts — not), dungarees (denim or heavy cloth “jeans”) or pants, headscarves or wraps, and overshirt blouses. Not a big deal, it turns out. And, the photographs taken for local papers and by government workers records the range of “play clothes” women wore in the early 1940s.

This image from Oregon State University’s archives, “Girls with Hoes,” makes clear that girls had plenty of knockabout clothes and little need to outfit themselves in specially-bought workwear.

617949816a6ff3abc0d95d9bd0501a7b

As I said, knockabout clothing. Knit shirts (those diagonal stripes and ribbed neckline!). The second gal from left, with striped knit shirt and contrasting plaid overshirt, pigtails, and legs akimbo — so cool. Down the line, ready for work and so freeking cute. Those gloves, by the way, on the woman fourth from left, sure look like government-issued WAC work gloves. You can see these and other government-issued supplies for WACs and other servicewomen in the 1943 catalog posted on Internet Archive.

gloves

 

If you want to learn more about the WWI and WWII Women’s Land Army in the U.S., a great place to start or end is Pamela Jo Pierce’s Masters Thesis, “That Dame’s Got Grit: Selling the Women’s Land Army,” written at Utah State University. This absolutely spot-on research thesis explains how the idea was marketed, from girly art to wonderful pics of undergrads from Oregon State in their knit shirts, blouses, and flannels with hoes and pitchforks hoisted.

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