Auburn’s White River Valley Museum takes visitors through the history of the working woman with 100 years of women’s uniforms.
Did you know that women were not awarded military rank until after World War II? Or that public toilets for women were not available until the early 20th century as more women began working and ready-made clothes made shopping an enjoyable experience?
The last 100 years have been witness to a long road of change for American women. In 1918, women were took part in World War I as telephone operators in France, railroad workers, pilots and teachers, among other jobs. A lot of these women were not recognized or appreciated for their wartime effort at home or abroad. But that did not stop many American women from pursuing careers outside of the home and creating change in a time that undervalued a woman’s work ethic.
The White River Valley Museum in Auburn is showcasing these women in its new exhibit “Women at Work: Uniforms and Work Wear 1910-2010.” The exhibit takes the visitor through 100 years of American women’s work uniforms, in an effort to highlight women’s history and the evolution of their rights in society. Sixteen women’s uniforms tell the story of women military veterans, flight attendants, nurses and many other professionals.
IF YOU GO
‘Women at Work: Uniforms & Work Wear 1910-2010’
Through June 18, White River Valley Museum, 918 H Street SE, Auburn; $2-$5 (253-288-7433 or wrvmuseum.org).
A personal collection of women’s uniforms, called “Beauty and Duty,” from guest curator Alice Miller and her husband, Steve, makes up half of the exhibit. Each uniform is prefaced by the name of the original owner, photo and a brief history of her experience. The Millers wanted to focus on the individual women and her accomplishments in the particular uniform.
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“The reason we get a lot of these uniforms is because people don’t want to be forgotten, and it’s a history we don’t write down all the time,” Alice Miller said.
The exhibit greets visitors with a 1918 uniform of a “Hello Girl,” or telephone operator, who worked during World War I when there were over 35,000 women in military uniform. Miller points out that it was the Great War that brought women to careers outside of the home. Women worked on the railroads, became nurses and opened their own businesses. They did all of this before they received the right to vote.
“It represents a lot of change and work women have done,” Miller said. “When men go off to war, it leaves women to do all the work.”
Nursing was a popular profession for women during wartime. The exhibit travels through the evolution of nursing from 1930 to the traditional Navy and Marine Corps nursing uniforms worn until the 1970s. The nurse cadet corps during World War II trained 124,000 nurses for free in exchange for their enlistment.
The history of women in the military continues with uniforms from the WWII-era Red Cross, an Air Force colonel in Vietnam and the uniform of the first female Marine officer to be sent into a conflict zone in Vietnam — who was required to wear a full skirt, hose and heels. The exhibit comes full circle with the 1991 maternity uniform of an Army captain.
The exhibit also boasts nonmilitary uniforms, including the traditional, many-layered habit of a Catholic nun, including an ankle-length skirt, headwear items, a rosary and the ring worn on the left hand. There is a 1943 Rosie the Riveter outfit, including the head scarf and toolbox of a worker who labored on the tail section of the B-17 for Boeing. The complete 1968 “air hostess” uniform from Trans World Airlines is included, plus the paper dresses that were often worn while in the air to represent popular travel destinations. Finally, a firefighter’s turnout from the early 2000s and two teaching outfits from 1906 and the 1960s show the dramatic evolution of women’s careers and workwear.
Each uniform is complete with the hat, shoes and outerwear or other accessories that were traditionally worn.
Miller adds that women’s uniforms through the decades have been fashioned after what was in style at the time. Not all the uniforms are as functional as they could be, but they are stylish and impeccably tailored.
“They entrust me with these uniforms,” Miller said. “We take very good care of them. We document their history. The uniform is beautiful, but it’s the history that is important.”
Miller has been collecting women’s uniforms for 20 years. It all started with a Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) uniform. She and her husband share their collection with museums and groups in the Seattle area. Each uniform is restored professionally and kept in climate-controlled cases to keep them in impeccable shape.
Walking through a century of working women puts into perspective the obstacles women have overcome to serve their country and make a living for themselves while fighting for recognition.
“Women have always been there and have always played an incredible part in all of our history,” Miller said.