A Pair of WWI-era “Womanalls”

I first came across this garment while reading Carrie Brown’s wonderful book, Rosie’s Mom, on female industrial workers during the first world war. Brown’s text is peppered with fantastic images, and while most show women at work in factories in skirts or dresses, some also illustrate women in knickers, overalls, or coverall-like garments – especially when those women are working dangerous jobs where skirts might catch in machinery or knock over dangerous chemicals. Brown uses the term “womanalls” to describe the full body version of this garment, and while “overalls” or “boiler suit” actually appear to be more common, womanalls certainly does show up in period sources and has the advantage of being an entirely unique term.

From page 104 of Rosies’s Mom, by Carrie Brown, 2002.

The image from “Rosie’s Mom” that captured my imagination showed two women dressed in womanalls, one of whom was standing on a ladder, her back to the camera. The wide legs of the womanalls nipped in to a thin waist, and the bodice had that simple, wide collar that is so quintessential to the 10s and early 20s. This was no auto mechanic’s coverall – this was something way cooler, and I wanted one.

The womanalls worn in that photo were wonderfully feminine, but they also embodied an ideal of practical clothing for hard-working women that I love. I read Brown’s book while doing research for my Mill Girl project, and building this garment seemed like a logical addition to that wardrobe of working women’s clothing of the early 20th century. (Though in addition to making an historically accurate version, I’m also daydreaming about a “womanall” for modern wear.)

Once I had decided I was going to make myself some womanalls, I had to do a little more research. I was able to find a single extant garment being sold by a vintage dealer. I’m very grateful for the series of detailed photographs that were included in the listing. It was a slightly different style from the garment I wanted to make, but I was able to figure out much of the construction from the photos provided. A combination of advertising images and drafting instructions in tailoring trade journals, along with my growing understanding of standard bodice block shapes for the time period, allowed me to assemble a plan for the garment’s patterning and construction.

Note: there is a reprint of a period pattern for WWI-era overalls and coveralls available for sale here. I haven’t had a chance to look at the full pattern, but if you’re interested in making your own womanalls and don’t want to draft a pattern, it would be worth looking into.

Patterning the Bodice

To create the bodice for this pattern, I adapted the shirtwaist pattern I had drafted for my mill girl outfit. It has the characteristic pigeon-breasted look of most early 20th century shirt waists: the fullness in the pattern is pushed to the front of the waist, eliminating the need for darts. (For more on period patterning, see my blog post on early 20th-C dressmaking resources. To create this look from a modern bodice block you can rotate the bust dart to the center front area of the waistline and then simply gather the fullness into the waistband.) One of the advantages of recycling the shirtwaist pattern was that I had already spent a good deal of time fussing with that pattern to create a sleeve with a wide range of motion: for both the shirtwaist and the womanalls, I needed to be able to reach my hands over my head without the sleeve pulling up the waistline.

Though I knew I would likely wear this garment with the sleeves permanently rolled up, I patterned long sleeves with simple cuffs. Instead of separate cuff plackets, I left open the bottom three inches of the sleeve seam, reasoning that these garments were work wear, constructed using basic utilitarian techniques, and that a separate sleeve placket would have been deemed unnecessary.

Patterning the Legs

As I planned out how I would draft the trouser portion of the garment, I drew on my own understanding of the relationship between different parts of a pants pattern, developed through years of making my own pants and through patterning many many pairs of men’s breeches while working at Fort Ticonderoga.

This image of workers at the Gorham Manufacturing Company in Providence, RI, in 1918 shows womanalls with a very baggy seat to the right. Image from page 59 of Rosies’s Mom, by Carrie Brown, 2002.

The legs on these garments (and other women’s bifurcated legwear of this era) tend to be very full. My assumption is that this was a compromise between the practicality of trousers and the need to obscure women’s legs and bums. With a coverall, however, the other challenge is to create a garment in which the wearer has a full range of motion. (You don’t want to get a wedgie every time you squat, for example.) This means including a lot of material in the seat. However, it isn’t always necessary to have the same amount of material in the front of the crotch. The seam from waist to crotch is called the “rise” and if the front rise is significantly shorter, the extra material in the seat tends to pouch out, whereas if they front and back rise are closer to the same length (the back rise will always need to be a little longer, so this is definitely relative) the crotch of the pants will drop lower and the bum will be less obvious. There are period photographs showing womanalls with both a pouchy seat and a dropped seat. Curious about what a fuller seat and shorter front rise would look like, I drafted my garment along those lines, and the result was a great range of motion and a noticeably baggy bum. When I make this pattern again, I will lengthen the front rise to experiment with that variation.

Construction Details

For me, the most interesting detail on this garment was the butt flap. The whole back of the trousers unbuttons, allowing the wearer to go to the bathroom without fully disrobing. This means that while the waistband goes all the way around the bodice of the garment, only the front of the trousers is sewn to it. The back portion of the trousers is sewn to a separate waistband, with plackets set into each side seam. The drop is 11” on the sides, and that is plenty of room for me to easily go to the bathroom without having to disrobe. Bonus points for the fact that I can wear it over my union suit, which also has a built-in crotch opening to facilitate going to the bathroom.

I also love the pocket styling on these garments. One particular style of pocket showed up on multiple examples and was easy to emulate.

At the ankle/knee, the womanalls are gathered to a band and can be buttoned at two different sizes. (The original showed three buttons here, but I simply sized mine for the two sizes I knew I needed). The legs can either fit snuggly below the knee, at which point the trousers blouse out like knickers, or be fastened on the tighter button around the ankle.

Finally, the pair of vintage “womanalls” had metal buttons like those you might seen on blue jeans. These buttons come with a small rivet tack and are attached by means of either a hammer or a hand press. The presses are useful for setting all sorts of hardware, and so this project became my excuse to finally get one. There are a total of 18 buttons on the coverall, as well as two snaps on the center-front fly, which I presume were used because a button fly would look too masculine.

What’s Underneath?

When I first started planning this garment, I knew I would wear it over my union suit (there was something very pleasing about the idea of an outfit consisting of two full body garments in which you could still to the bathroom), but I admit that I haven’t quite figured out what else ought to be going on under there. The womanalls are a bit… drafty, with just modern undergarments. They feel great with just the union suit underneath, but that certain doesn’t provide all that much support in the bust. They also feel pretty good with my corset and a corset cover on, and so far that hasn’t seemed to impede my activity or had a negative effect on my physical comfort, though I admit I have yet to work a shift on the munitions factory floor in this getup. There is period commentary on why one should not wear a corset in this context, and to me that suggests that some women did, and others did not. Sometimes habits like that are hard to break. If you have any sources which might shed more light on what you could be expected to wear for undergarments with an outfit like this, I would love to see them.

The back fall fully unbuttoned, showing the lower half of my corset beneath. I wonder if women who chose to wear corsets under these work garments wore yet another layer (drawers – on top of them to protect their corset from the rough works garments.

A note on foot/legwear: I’ve seen images of women in leather boots, as well as leather boots with kid or canvas tops, heeled shoes, and canvas shoes that we would call tennis shoes or keds today. In general, they seem to also be wearing black stockings. I’m still on the hunt for the perfect footwear for this impression and the shoes I’m wearing in the photos are very much a stand-in.

9 thoughts on “A Pair of WWI-era “Womanalls”

  1. These are amazing!
    There are some recordings of conversations with women who worked as munitionettes during WW1 on the Imperial War Museum website (also more photos, all of which seem to have the short front rise) – one of them (‘We were all covered up’) talks about how they couldn’t wear anything that might contain metal, because of the risk of explosions. So it seems unlikely they’d be allowed to wear corsets, unless they could prove they had no metal eyelets or hooks or boning. The recordings are here: https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/9-women-reveal-the-dangers-of-working-in-a-first-world-war-munitions-factory

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love the Womanalls. Just a quick comment on corsets and WWI workers. They definitely did wear them, and they were designed especially for them. Marion McNealy’s reprint of W.D.F Vincent’s Corset Cutting and Making has a WWI Munitions Worker Corset, which was designed without any metal (no busk, no metal boning) to avoid any potential electric sparking. It would be a perfect accompaniment to your womanalls.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wanted to share a photo of my WWI YWCA poster that shows a female munitions worker in a similar garment. I love your project! Please let me know how I can share it with you. Thanks!

    Like

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