Just over a year ago, I began writing this blog as a way to document some of my experience as a public historian. My first post was about giving a talk at a centennial NPS event in Boston. Last month, I was invited back to Boston National Historical Park (at the Navy Yard in Charlestown) to talk once again about women and war work, with a focus on World War II. As part of this event, I was also honored to serve on a panel about the legacies of Rosie the Riveter with a fellow researcher, a welder, and a gardener who has made her own rugged clothing line for women. Over the course of the day, our conversation circled around a few key themes, including: how women’s work cultures have changed, the significance of World War II to current public perceptions of women’s labor, and the ways that clothing shapes social cues of exclusion and inclusion.
Now, for a little backstory on why clothing was and is so important. During World War II, women working in government-run and/ or private shipyards as “Rosies” or SWONs – Shipbuilding Women of the Navy – needed sturdy and safe protective gear. But uniforms of that period and for that type of work were generally (I am always hesitant to definitively say exclusively) designed for men. In newspapers and other publications where SWONs were discussed, reporters fretted over this need for new patterns for women. Yet specific size or shape differences per se were rarely up for discussion. The issue was, by design, cultural and not practical. It was not as if pattern makers or tailors were altogether rare. It was the taboo, the threshold about to be crossed that raised alarm. Looking back, we can see that it was not so much the precise outfitting needs but the matter of how women could do this kind of work and avoid the risk of appearing unfeminine. Put another way: could women be temporarily outfitted in this gear needed for heavy labor without something more fundamental shifting in their own minds and in the broader public?
These questions resonated with some urgency among the female panelists who work in industrial and manual crafts today. The presenters who work in horticulture and welding, respectively, had done “hacks” to make their existing uniforms fit and suit their needs. I want to dwell here a moment. This words fit and suit are simply so apt. When male outfits are the norm in a line of work, how are women and frankly, anyone whose bodies do not conform to existing patterns supposed to react? How does one NOT see this issue of outfitting as a sign that on some level, one is being pegged as somehow less fit for the job?
Taylor Johnson, who also spoke to this issue, struggled to find good pants while working as a gardener in Boston. So she began her quest to “fit” in her field by unraveling what she knew about women’s clothing manufacturing. She took to researching clothing archives, NAFTA policies, and the contours of historic women’s patterns. What she found was a strong tradition of clothing made for women (by women) that is now largely forgotten in our world of cheaply made, disposable, mass produced textiles. Inspired by prewar women’s work dresses and the strength of historic denim, she reached out to designers and tailors to have her own line of custom-made apparel. The demand for more clothing of this kind has been overwhelming.
There are a few lessons in her story, I think. We talk so much about the social cues women internalize when it comes to work. It’s important to also examine the ways in which gatekeepers use something as basic as clothing to send messages about who belongs. Yet Johnson’s discovery of now abandoned designs for women (IE the practical yet tailored work dress) should also caution us about the problems with easy or linear narratives about the past. Historically, of course women needed sturdy work clothes. Of course they knew how to make them, or how to find someone who did. It is our own presentism and reliance on (unethical) systems of cheap (for whom?) clothing production that largely makes such histories harder to see.
Yet I also think there’s something particular about the Rosie figure (who, I should add, is what brought us all together) that is especially important to this discussion. Why isn’t there a better collective sense, today, about this history of women’s industrial garb? Well, let’s consider the pervasive image of women working that we do know–Rosie. Few women who worked during the war in heavy trades looked like Rosie the Riveter at work. On some level, most folks today might assume or intuit this, remembering if they choose to do a little homework that indeed, she was a product of wartime propaganda, not a true-to-life portrait. Many young women now, after all, have seen far more of her than any woman who worked in a defense plant 70+ years ago. Rarely seen and only briefly disseminated during the war, Rosie has had a far, far more robust postwar life than the artist could have imagined. So, this must make us think: what kind of “cultural work” is the image/icon of Rosie doing in the postwar period? Is this prominence perhaps linked to the “forgetting” of the earlier (and more supportive, perhaps?) culture surrounding women’s work wear? Keep in mind: the Rosie most folks focus on replicating in art and selfies today is quite different from Norman Rockwell’s own “Rosie,” a busy worker whose denim-based outfit might be far more reasonable for heavy lifting, then and now.
When seen through this lens of fashion and fit, the image of Rosie most know best might not seem quite so inspiring for women; instead, it might be read as presenting a false hiccup in a narrative about women’s place in industry. OK, I’ll admit it: even after two entire days of considering “the Rosie,” I am left with so much ambivalence.
I find this image both incredibly inspiring (she’s so proud!) and somehow very depressing (must she be so glamorous?). During my talk, I also argued that we cannot view this very famous woman-in-a-kerchief in isolation. After all, who is the other, arguably even more pervasive image of a kerchiefed woman from the 20th century? If you can’t remember, you might have an image of her in your pantry or refrigerator. Should you need to pay either a visit, you just may find that Aunt Jemima’s head is fully covered (in a very similar red kerchief). But she is smiling, for in this form of propaganda, difficult and demanding work is portrayed as simply delightful. In this way, Rosie is at least in part a symbol of privilege – a marker of a moment when people chose to see the issue of finding clothing for (mostly white) women to wear in a defense plant as a totally puzzling endeavor.