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.

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