Curator Joanna looks at the story of how an athletic Scottish postie won a clothing victory for women.

Women’s employment opportunities expanded in the Second World War and alongside this change came tensions about what women should wear. Today, it’s commonplace to see postwomen wearing trousers on delivery. However, when and where it was appropriate for women to wear trousers has historically been controversial.

Postwomen, one of whom is wearing ‘Camerons’ (trousers named after Jean Cameron), 1941 (POST 56/109)

Postwomen’s uniforms during WW2

Women swelled the ranks of the General Post Office during the Second World War, as they had during the first. This time round, one postwoman, Jean Cameron, demanded the right to wear trousers. In 1941, the change in uniform was authorised and, for the first time, postwomen could choose to wear either trousers or a skirt on duty.

Postwomen performed a physically demanding job, and a skirt was not always practical. 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”. While postwomen weren’t fighting incendiaries, Jean Cameron’s description of her postal route reveals a physically challenging expedition:

“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.”

Images from Coming of the ‘Camerons’ video © National Library of Scotland

The story of pioneering Jean

Jean Cameron became something of a celebrity, and the trousers became known as ‘Camerons’ in honour of their pioneer. Two films were made in 1944, featuring Jean on her postal route. She was excited to be a trendsetter and explained 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.”

More than 500 pairs of postwomen’s trousers were ordered in just two months. By November 1943, 14,000 pairs of Camerons had been issued.

Trousers were chosen for their practicality by women in lots of different circumstances during the Second World War. Phyllis Warner, described the reaction of her friend’s grandmother 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.’”

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

Some women had worn trousers since before the First World War but, in 1941, trousers were still viewed by some people as controversial. A 1941 newspaper article 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’ and as a result, the War Office has decided that wearing trousers ‘in such circumstances must not occur again’. The article reveals that ‘the incident has had a markedly bad effect on recruiting for the ATS’, highlighting how trousers were viewed in competing ways. For some people, women’s trousers were inappropriate, for others they were a symbol of modernity.

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!

– Joanna Espin, Curator