English women recruited to the Auxiliary Territorial Service (the ATS) in World War II found themselves the proud possessors of a mountain of kit mostly made from wool: two itchy khaki uniforms, four pairs of lisle stockings, three pairs of khaki lock-knit knickers (ouch!), two pairs of striped men's pyjamas, eight starched collars, including the studs to attach them, and a greatcoat meant for a man.Share
Iris Bryce, a new recruit, said, "The shoes were so heavy I clonked along feeling like Frankenstein."
During the height of the War, in 1943, an astonishing 10,325,000 battle dress jackets and trousers were produced by Britain's wool and textile industry. (Figures from British War Production 1939 - 45).
The uniforms extended right through to the underwear. Iris found the boned corsets so unforgiving and unflattering that she sent them home to her Gran, but was told that this was illegal as all the kit belonged to the King's Uniform, and she was not allowed to give it away.
For some poorer women, the uniform was a relief. Clothes rationing for civilians had been introduced in 1941, and in 1942 the government set maximum prices. The Board of Trade permitted only a few styles, made only from specified cloths, the ones that were not being used for battledress. Stockings were only available made in lisle or wool, as silk was needed for parachutes. Women painted their legs with potassium permanganate to give a somewhat streaky tan. A black eyebrow pencil was used to give the impression of a seam. By saving on stockings, the clothing coupons were reserved for more essential purchases, such as shoes and coats.
Some women from slum conditions found the single bed, provided by the army barracks, luxurious after sharing with siblings or other family members, and the uniform helped to instil a sense of equality amongst women from many different backgrounds. (Read more.)