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What to wear: The archives uniform collection

The archive collection not only contains records, such as its UNESCO UK Memory of the World registered Narrative Reports, but also so many wonderful objects and items, such as our uniform collection. It contains over 500 unique items stretching from 1940-present day, tracking the wider changes in fashion over time as well as the changes in the nature of Royal Voluntary Service work. The small loan collection has been used by local offices to promote the work of the charity at events and has even featured on TV, most notably in ‘Housewife 49’ and last year’s Christmas episode of ‘Call the Midwife’.

Although the Women’s Voluntary Service was officially launched on 16 June 1938 it was not until 28 June 1939 that the first uniform was issued. Lady Reading had managed to convince Digby Morton, the London couturier, to design a suit, blouse and overcoat as a matter of public duty. She also talked the head of Harrods into making and supplying them, saying that the uniform would have to be brought. The original full suit cost a pricey £9 4s 7d, well out of the reach of most members, but the dress was more affordable at 47s 6d. Due to the uniform’s expense the WVS eventually released the material to allow women to make their own uniforms, with armlets being launched in 1943 for those who had no uniform but needed their status as a WVS member to be recognised.

By transforming the WVS into a uniformed service Lady Reading allowed her ladies easy recognition, becoming known as The Women in Green. After Lady Reading’s death in 1971 however, the organisation saw many changes and the uniform was no exception. It had changed little since 1939 but now new materials were introduced along with trousers (in traditional green of course!).

In 1998, the uniform was relinquished altogether in favour of casual work wear appealing to a new generation of members and increasing number of male volunteers. In 2004 the organisation was officially renamed simply 'WRVS' and the green and burgundy colours which had remained unchanged since 1939, were replaced by vibrant purple and orange. Finally, in 2013 with the name change to Royal Voluntary Service the charity returned to its roots leaving the purple and orange behind for green once more.

If you would like to know more about the clothing collection why not read our fact sheet, or listen to Angela Currie’s experience of wearing a uniform in her oral history on our online catalogue. Listen 35 minutes in to hear her talk about having to wear full uniform, including gloves, to build a soya boiler during her WRVS training at Easingwold College, which she describes as a ‘terrifying experience’.

Posted by Hannah Tinkler at 00:00 Monday, 08 December 2014.

Reports from everywhere - November 1954

MABLETHORPE. When a party of children came here on a school treat, about 20 were swept out to sea by a sudden enormous wave. Fortunately all were saved. They were brought to us. We gave them tea and lent them clothes while we dried and pressed their wet ones. By 6 o’clock they were ready to catch the bus for home as arranged.

DARLINGTON C.B. Writing postcards in a crowded London Post Office, I was asked by a man with both hands bandaged to address a parcel for him. He thanked me saying “ I knew you would help me,” proving that even the back view of a W.V.S. uniform attracts those in need. Long may it remain so !

PADDINGTON B. A member visiting the doctor’s surgery was in uniform. While in the waiting room a harassed G.P. looked in, saw the W.V.S. member, and asked, “ Can you cope with looking out files?” An hour later she entered the surgery. “ Gosh,” said the doctor, “ I apologise, but I was hours behind and am only a locum. In the hospital I’ve just left we had two W.V.S. who did cope, and so have you! Do you want a regular job ?”

RUISLIP U.D. The Guide Commissioner asked us to find some work of public service for a 15-year-old Guide, so we arranged for her to help in the Darby and Joan Club one afternoon. She continued helping all through the holidays, serving tea and washing up, and prepared vegetables for meals on wheels when we were short of a cook. She was always smiling and willing and the old people were delighted to see her.

BROMSGROVE U.D. A demonstration of emergency feeding was said to be the best of its kind so far. Eight women who can build ovens and feed fifty people at a time assembled an oven from a few bricks, a hotplate and a dustbin within an hour. The following day the oven was tested and quickly turned out cakes and tea.