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History and Heritage

The History of a Classic

Remembering the WWII WAVE Uniform

Ask female veterans why they joined the military during World War II, and they'll list many of the same reasons women do today: They wanted to serve their country. They wanted new and better opportunities. They wanted to support family members in uniform.

Ask women why they chose the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) specifically, as opposed to the WAC (Women's Army Corps), and many will confess that they did it for the uniform, specifically, the designer uniform.

"I knew I would never have designer clothes so there was my opportunity," said Eileen Horner Blakely, as quoted by "So when someone says, 'Why did you join the Navy?' I say, 'Well, number one, blue is my color. I don't look that great in khaki or green.'"

After the Navy agreed to enlist women in 1942, a famous fashion designer, Main Bocher of the Mainbocher New York fashion house, undertook the project of designing the female Navy uniform from scratch at the request of Josephine Forrestal, a former Vogue writer and wife of then-Under Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal.

Women had served in the Navy as yeomen during World War I, but fashions had drastically changed during the interwar years. Both the WAVES and Navy leaders agreed those uniforms were unsuitable as a starting point, wrote Capt. Joy Bright Hancock in her memoirs, "Lady in the Navy."

Hancock herself had served as a yeoman (F), spent years as a Navy civilian and was instrumental in the creation of the WAVES. The newly minted female Sailors, she said, "believed themselves to be the best-dressed women in America." That was thanks to Mainbocher.

Mainbocher designed a blue dress uniform, gray summer uniform, white dress uniform, evening dress uniform, raincoat and overcoat, all for free or for the nominal amount of $1. (Reports vary.) WAVES also wore working smocks, overalls and pants when their jobs made skirts impractical or unsafe.

"Not as dark as the standard Navy blue of the men's uniforms, the original WAVE outfit was still dark enough to serve as a background for the light blue stripes of the officers and the appropriate insignia of the ratings," explained Hancock. "The officer's hat, which owed its characteristic style to the hat worn by John Paul Jones, was almost universally becoming, so much so that at present time [1972], it is still worn by all WAVES."

There were a few changes after the war, when the WAVES and the Navy Nurse Corps agreed to standardize women's uniforms. Mainbocher organized a fashion show for Navy leaders to show them off, including a darker blue dress uniform.

"It was quite the affair! ... I'm sure that nothing like it had ever happened before in the history of the Navy," recalled Hancock, who became the WAVE director. "Approval was secured."

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