Women’s Work Overalls, circa 1917

Quite apart from work clothes worn by women doing war work (See “College Girls Become Farmers”), Butterick offered “bloomer dress” patterns in 1917.

Bloomer Dress Overalls, 1917

The woman with the mop is wearing Butterick pattern 9294, called a "Bloomer Dress." Delineator, July 1917, p. 52.

The woman with the mop is wearing Butterick pattern 9294, described as a dress, which resembles the “Bloomer dress,” of 19th century dress reformer Amelia Bloomer. Its “overalls or bloomers are soft and pretty.” Delineator, July 1917, p. 52.


“The design is also delightful for negligee wear” in washable silk or satin. Butterick  pajamas for 1917  were also  gathered  at the ankle.

During World War I, fashion magazines used many military terms in a punning way –“over the top” fashion, the “dress parade,” etc. Here, “home-reserve” and “active service” are not meant to be taken literally, although many American women did take active roles in formerly male occupations, from farms to factories, in 1917. (Although World War I  began in Europe in August of 1914, the United States did not enter the war until April 6, 1917.)

Like the original Bloomer outfit of the 1850’s, Butterick dress No. 9294 conceals the trousers above the knee with an ample overskirt.

The month before, in June, a more daring “Bloomer dress” was shown; without a concealing overdress, it is more like a boiler suit or coverall.

Center, Butterick Bloomer dress pattern 9235, Delineator, June 1917, page 62.

Center, Butterick Bloomer dress pattern 9235, Delineator, June 1917, page 62.


“The next step in the woman movement is into the bloomer dress.” Butterick pattern 9235 is suggested for domestic duties, with no mention of volunteer work. “If you would sprinkle the lawn or clean out the attic you might as well be practical about it as well as feminine.”

The Ladies’ Home Journal suggested equally revealing outfits for women taking on traditionally male jobs in 1917, but did not offer patterns for them.

Ladies' Home Journal, September 1917.

Ladies’ Home Journal, September 1917. Not all of the Journal’s suggestions had overskirts.

Of course, some women factory workers simply adopted men’s overalls for their war work.

American woman in Ladies' Home Journal, August 1917.

American woman in Ladies’ Home Journal, August 1917. Women doing previously male jobs freed men for military duty.

Other women workers wore variations on gym clothes, usually voluminous — and shape disguising — bloomers.


College girls working at a dairy, Delineator, October 1918. They are literally wearing their gym suits.

Butterick’s Delineator magazine formed its own “Women’s Preparedness Bureau”…

Delineator magazine's Women's Preparedness Movement, July 1917, p. 22.

Delineator magazine’s Women’s Preparedness Bureau, July 1917, p. 22. “There are many kinds of service, from coursing on the clouds as an aviator to managing a spirited steed or a modern rifle.”

From Delineator's Women's Preparedness Bureau, July 1917

From Delineator’s Women’s Preparedness Bureau, July 1917.

“Businessmen are realizing that they will have to employ women in positions where formerly only men were to be found….”

The Woman's Preparedness Bureau offered to match women with suitable war jobs. Delineator, July 1917, p. 22.

The Woman’s Preparedness Bureau offered to match women with suitable war work. Delineator, July 1917, p. 22.

However,  The Ladies’ Home Journal published a much more practical multi-page article in November 1917. You can read it online thanks to the Hathi Trust. Here is the link. It may be slow to load, but it is interesting reading in women’s history.

Top of the first page of a long article on War Work for women in the United States. Ladies Home Journal, November 1917, page 39.

Top of the first page of a long article on War Jobs for women in the United States. Ladies Home Journal, November 1917, top of page 39.

This long article names government offices and civil service testing opportunities. If an army moves on its stomach, it also moves on a flood of clerical work.

One part sounds all too familiar…

From "War Jobs for Women," Ladies' Home Journal, November 1917, page 39.

From “War Jobs for Women,” Ladies’ Home Journal, November 1917, page 39. “All the facts he gives are from government sources.”

Given the current political climate, I found this paragraph — about the women who took those unglamorous jobs — quite interesting. They were often first generation Americans, the daughters of immigrants.

From The Ladies' Home Journal, November 1917, page 39.

From The Ladies’ Home Journal, November 1917, page 39.

Of course they had an economic incentive, but many of these first generation American women must have come from cultures not accustomed to letting their daughters work outside the home or family farm, away from the watchful and protective eyes of fathers and brothers.

A Disturbing Sidelight on Women in Trousers, 1920

At a Silent Film Festival, watching Oscar Micheaux’s historic 1920 silent film Within Our Gates, I saw female members of a lynch mob wearing variations on these wartime work outfits.

The movie, Micheaux’s response to the glorification of the Ku Klux Klan in Birth of a Nation, shows the lynching of a black family. Just after their little boy escapes, a mob including women surges toward the gallows. One of the women is wearing a suit; one wears a light, summery dress; at least two others wear voluminous gym knickers with middy blouses tucked into the waist. Whether they are farm workers or young women in gym suits isn’t clear.  The film is very grainy, but shows women appearing in a crowd of men while wearing trouser-like work clothes. Click here to see them in motion.   (It is grim.) Note that Micheaux has included women of all social classes in his lynch mob. This two-minute scene is powerful. Incidentally, his leading lady Evelyn Preer wears an extensive nineteen-teens wardrobe in the course of the film, so we can see period clothes in motion on a lovely but real woman’s body, instead of a fashion illustrator’s fantasy.


Filed under 1900s to 1920s, Musings, Old Advertisements & Popular Culture, Uniforms and Work Clothes, Vintage patterns, Women in Trousers, World War I

6 responses to “Women’s Work Overalls, circa 1917

  1. Thank you for all the wonderful historical references. I knew that the Ladies Home Journal was heavily involved in getting women into the war effort, but the Delineator’s role was quite new to me.

    • I haven’t looked at any of the other major “women’s magazines” from 1917 — just those two. After April 1917 many of the war-related articles are virtually identical. It looks like government agencies realized that there was a nationwide, pre-existing platform for distributing information about rationing and volunteering to the (female) target audience. (When I start going through 1914 to 1916, I expect to find more examples of subtle propaganda — like Delineator’s early 1917 series of articles on “What the women of France are doing” and other “preparedness” messages.) I’ve been reluctant to write about them in a fashion blog, but they are fascinating (and troubling.) Also, it’s hard to show an entire page from a large-format magazine like Delineator, which, to its credit, was also running a long series about infant mortality in the U.S., called “Save the Seventh Baby.” I haven’t explored Modern Priscilla or McCall’s Magazine — I’ve barely taken a sample of those hundreds of bound Delineators from 1900 to 1937 in the San Francisco Public Library. A scholarly comparison of several American women’s magazines and the war effort, 1914 through 1918, would be a good topic for a historian (and probably has been.) A search found some British websites like Gale and the Magazine Forum

  2. Sophia

    This made me think of the bloomers and tunic combinations I’ve seen by a company called ‘Magnolia Pearl’ https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/397724210824774595/ Though, I have to say, at the price they command I’d be thinking twice about wearing them to dig the garden.

  3. Pingback: Teens Era Transitional Suit Set | Seam Racer

  4. Pingback: Vintage Overalls 1910s -1950s History & Shop Overalls – MykList

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