Wearing the Trousers

07 March 2017

8th March marks International Women’s Day and to celebrate this special day our Curator Joanna looks at the story of how an athletic Scottish postie won a clothing victory for women.

Although trousers for women had been around for most of the 20th century and were seen on fashion icons like Katherine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich, almost no ordinary women in Britain wore them.

Marlene Dietrich in 1933 (Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-14627/CC-BY-SA 3.0), and an ordinary postwoman in 1942 (POST 118/1354)

Postwomen’s uniforms during war

The ranks of the General Post Office (GPO) swelled with women in the Second World War, as they had during the First World War. But in 1941 Postwomen were allowed to wear trousers for the first time. This change to uniforms was practical: clothing has to adapt to the demands of the wearer. As ‘Picture Post’ reported in 1941, “the question is not so much ‘should women wear trousers’, the answer obviously being yes, but ‘when, where and how’. You can’t fight an incendiary in confidence in clothes that flutter”.

Women had worked for the GPO for many years, and while they weren’t fighting incendiaries, they were undertaking a physically demanding job. Despite the introduction of the first uniform for women in 1894, before 1941 trousers were not an option.

The story of brave Jean

The first woman to request trousers was Jean Cameron. Jean became something of a celebrity after her call for trousers was made, and postwomen’s trousers became known as ‘Camerons’ in reference to their pioneer. She featured in two films in 1944, which are real treasures. In the video below we can see Jean on her postal route and hear her voice as she narrates…

“I’m Jean Cameron and my mother’s the Post Mistress at Glen Cova, Scotland. At first, I didn’t have a uniform, so I went my round in my ordinary clothes, and trousers seemed more sensible than a skirt. Then one day, the District Postmaster rang me up. I’d asked for a uniform, and he thought I’d forgotten to send the measurements for the skirt. ‘But Mr Makra’ I said, ‘I don’t want a skirt, it’d be no use to me in my job’, and I told him just why I had asked for trousers. You see, I go 15 miles a day with the mail. I use a cycle and where there are no roads, I have to walk. There are dykes to climb, rocks to be got over, and very often, I have to cross the River Eske. The mail you see, even in this lonely glen, has to go through.”

Jean was extremely excited when her first pair of ‘Camerons’ arrived. In the film, she explains that “what I was doing now thousands of posties would be doing later. But I was the first, and I shouldn’t be a woman if I wasn’t pleased to be the first to start a fashion.”

And start a fashion she did. More than 500 pairs of Postwomen’s trousers were ordered in two months, and by November 1943 14,000 pairs of Camerons had been issued. The exotic trousers, which had been on the front cover of Vogue just a few years before, were now the garment of choice for many Postwomen, and women across the country in a host of other roles.

Two of the GPO’s 90,000 female employees modelling their new ‘Camerons’, 1941.

One woman, Phyllis Warner, at the time wrote, “I had lunch today with an old friend I hadn’t seen for a year. She was telling me about the reaction of her Grandmother, who is over 80, to her first air-raid… As soon as it was over, someone rushed for the brandy, but Granny waved it away and, turning to one of her daughters, said with an air of great determination, ‘Dorothy, I must tell you that I am not going through this again without trousers.'”

While some women had worn trousers since the First World War, and even before, trousers were still seen by some people in 1941 as controversial. A newspaper article from 1941 describes the telling off that Mrs S. J. Coulton, a Sergeant in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), received when she wore trousers while “standing close to the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress on the Town Hall steps” during an ATS parade in Manchester. The article states that she was “severely reprimanded in public for appearing in trousers.” The article goes on to say that The War Office has decided that “the wearing of trousers in such circumstances must not occur again”, but it also reveals that “the incident has had a markedly bad effect on recruiting for the ATS”: for some people women wearing trousers was inappropriate, for others it was liberating.

Zelma Katin, a married woman who began working in transport in 1939 stated: “it’s extraordinary what a profound part in your and my psychology a uniform plays.” Wearing uniforms and putting on trousers meant not only that women were more able to undertake physical tasks, but that they saw themselves differently and were seen differently by society.

We will celebrate Jean Cameron’s legacy and share many images from our collection over on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Come and join in the conversation #IWD2017 #BeBoldForChange

– Joanna Espin, Curator