Female Munition Workers’ Workwear in Britain, 1914-1918
: A Visual and Material Culture Analysis

  • Jennifer Richardson

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    Female munition workers’ dress during the First World War became a potent symbol of women’s war work. At the height of munitions production in 1917, the number of women involved in munitions production peaked at 1,000,000 and their unusual appearance in their distinctive workwear was the subject of much comment. Although female munition workers wore a range of garments, this thesis pays particular attention to their trousers, not least because these were a popular symbol of, and a central focus for discussion about, women’s changing roles in wartime.

    More than a form of protection or the articulation of a collective industrial identity, the dress worn by female munition workers operated as a highly contested moral symbol of women’s participation in a deadly form of weapons manufacture. This thesis provides a detailed account of how their dress was designed, produced and implemented, how it functioned and how it was worn. Established attitudes to class and femininity were challenged by changing practices in women’s work; these often coalesced in debates around working women’s appearance, particularly in relation to women wearing trousers. This thesis explores these debates, practices and challenges, in order to argue that this group of mainly working-class women was subjected to contradictory and shifting social expectations.

    Through analysis of newspaper advertisements and particularly through the examination of photographic portraits, this thesis provides a detailed survey of female munition workers’ dress in this period, uncovering the range of workwear worn across the country and the extensive outlets where it could be purchased. Women recorded themselves in their workwear in studio photographs in significant numbers. The investigation of these portraits shows that women were also keenly aware of the striking visual impact of their altered appearance and that they engaged with it in distinctive ways. The appearance of female munition workers dressed for war work was used to articulate ideas about gender, class and labour across a range of visual media, including illustrations in factory magazines, satirical press cartoons and comic postcards. Visual representations of female munition workers are thus placed at the centre of this thesis and are interpreted with methods from visual culture alongside dress history.

    Workwear from the factory floor has rarely been considered, contextualised and scrutinised as an object of study yet, as this thesis argues, these mass-produced items of everyday labour – alongside their visual representations - can reveal complex cultural attitudes to gender, class and work in war time.
    Date of Award2019
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Brighton
    SupervisorAnnebella Pollen (Supervisor), Cheryl Buckley (Supervisor) & Lucy Noakes (Supervisor)

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