As the US observed Veterans Day earlier this month with the typical federal holiday and somber memorial services, I was struck by the reality that there are so few World War II veterans still alive. This prompted a nostalgic mood, albeit for an era I missed by almost four decades. However, I think the nostalgia exists because WWII had such a tremendous, lasting impact on our culture and style for reasons far beyond the battlefields.
This war created a huge void in the US workforce as men were drafted into military service. The labor shortage led to an unintentional revolution, not only in women’s rights and gender roles but also in our society’s views on sex and style, that forever changed our nation.
With the factories, farms and offices emptied by war-time drafts, the US had to abandon its customary gender roles and recruit the nation’s women to keep industries running. To promote their cause (and counteract any sexist objections), the government launched its “Victory” campaigns. Posters served as PSAs to instill a sense of patriotic duty in women, getting them out of the house and into the workforce. These women were told they were supporting their country’s success during wartime, leading to the term “Victory Gals” (V-Gals).
V-Gals contributed however they could: as a farmers, secretaries, nurses and other acceptable occupations for ladies. But more importantly, the factories needed to keep producing supplies for the war, so women found opportunities in jobs that they never could have imagined performing before. US women had earned the right to vote just two decades earlier, so this was an unprecedented advancement in gender equality. Overall, 6 million American women joined this wartime effort.
With V-Gals taking on new roles, a significant fashion evolution began to take place as well. You simply cannot work efficiently in a factory or farm wearing a dress. For the first time in history, women were routinely wearing pants and “utility” clothing without objections. Also, the long feminine hair styles that had been popular for centuries were not practical for these working women, as film star Veronica Lake so convincingly demonstrated with her own silky locks and chic red lips.
Pants, overalls, hair “turbans”, and shorter styles became chic out of necessity. For those of you wearing glam jumpsuits nowadays, you have Great Britain’s WWII-era women to thank for this trend. These one-piece pant sets were designed during the war, named “jumpsuits” because they were intended to give British ladies a functional yet ladylike garment they could “jump” in to when bombs starting dropping in the middle of the night.
The wartime rations created changes in fashion for all ladies, working or not. Materials used for garment-making were in short supply, so this led to shorter hemlines on skirts and the appearance of more faux “costume” jewelry. Color trends also reflected the war’s impacts as women’s clothing were more frequently appearing in neutral, utilitarian hues of greys, browns and dark greens.
Of course, this dramatic social change brought about an abundance of backlash from traditionalists that were appalled by women doing “men’s work” and dressing accordingly. But the federal propaganda machine used their ad campaigns to address that too.
To protect the “breadwinner” male egos, wives were encouraged to describe these jobs to their disapproving hubbies as a way to help the nation win the war and support “our boys” serving in combat.
How the V-Gals Became Dirty Sluts
Sexism and male egos were not the only opponents of Victory Gals. As the war continued, cases of sexually-transmitted diseases, mainly syphilis and gonorrhea, increased at alarming rates. Fortunately, penicillin treatments existed by WWII to cure this new epidemic in the States. Syphilis has been documented since the 15th century and was known to cause dementia and disfigurement when untreated. (Hitler and Mussolini were rumored to be suffering from advanced stages of this disease during the war.)
But this outbreak on the homefront created a need for more propaganda from Uncle Sam’s gang, so the first national safe sex campaign was launched. These PSAs were pioneering as they implored the still-popular logic of prophylaxis and protection in sex. But they also disgraced and stereotyped the Victory Gals by naming them as the source of these STDs. Although significant historical evidence indicates syphilis emerged from Europe, these widowed and unwed hard-working V-Gals were pegged as the promiscuous, disease-ridden enemies of “our boys” returning home, thanks to the same government that encouraged them to serve their nation to help win the war. Here’s a sampling of the PSA propaganda:
It’s noteworthy that in three of these four PSAs, the women are smoking. While cigarettes were still seen as popular, chic and completely safe during WWII, I find it interesting that these images show a couple rough, nasty tramps with cigarettes crudely pursed between their lips. My research on this topic revealed that tobacco was long thought to treat syphilis, so it’s no accident (in my opinion) that cigarettes appeared in this particular way for such ads. Despite the distorted reality and sexist stereotypes used in these PSAs, at least they started promoting the need for safe sex.
While these “Juke Joint Snipers” were allegedly terrorizing returning soldiers with burning, slutty seduction, there was one V-Gal that had such a powerful presence she overshadowed and outlived the sexism and propaganda of the WWII era. This iconic woman inspired not only other Victory Gals but millions of American women in every decade since the war. Her name: Geraldine Hoff Doyle.
Ummm…who’s she? Geraldine was only 17 years old when she was working as a metal presser in a Michigan factory. The Victory Gal campaign was still not fully developed when a government photographer took a picture of Geraldine at work. Without her knowledge, this photograph was made into an illustration used in a PSA targeting potential V-Gals. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Geraldine realized she was the iconic “Rosie the Riveter”.
Over the years many women claimed to be “Rosie” but historians were able to confirm Geraldine was the real deal. (The name Rosie the Riveter came from a popular wartime song.) How she lived over 40 years unaware of her fame is a mystery to me but regardless, her beautifully badass public persona has continued to serve as the symbol of women’s equality and empowerment ever since.
Veterans Day is a distinguished holiday reserved to honor our nation’s war veterans. To serve in the military is a role that earns our collective, national respect. But writing this blog reminded me that “war” and “veteran” are terms that should not be exclusive to a nation’s military. I am able to choose any occupation, wear what I please and live as an independent, free-thinking woman because of the courage and patriotism of the Victory Gals. Therefore I consider them to be veterans as well and will honor them as such. Will you?