Saturday, May 12, 2018

WWI Centenniel--The Hello Girls--Womens' Signal Corps (part 1)

2018 is the centennial of the end of WWI also known as the Great War.  Last fall, at the planning committee meeting for our DAR chapter spring fundraiser, we decided that a WWI centennial would be a good theme for this year's auction fundraiser.  As we sat there googling "women in WWI" we discovered the Hello Girls.  None of us had ever heard of these women.  A new book by Elizabeth Cobb on the Hello Girls had just come out so several of us ordered it right there.
Who were the Hello Girls?  Well--first, let's talk a little about the Great War.  WWI was the first war in which women were enfranchised in positions other than nursing.  In 1917, the Navy and Marines enlisted women.  In England, Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps enlisted women and 80 thousand British women served in uniform,  mostly in France.  WWI was also the first technological war in that it had airplanes, radio, telegraph and telephones -- all of which changed the way war was engaged.  Radio and telegraph were wireless and thus susceptible to being intercepted by the enemy.  Telephones were hardwired so they were deemed to be more secure.  AT&T Linesmen were enlisted to to run lines in the trenches to facilitate communication with commanders.    Of course operators were needed to route phone calls in the early years of telecommunication.
Thus the Army, under General Pershing called for 100 women to serve as telephone operators.  Women were enthusiastic at the opportunity to serve the war effort and 7600 women applied.  The recruitment was handled by the YWCA.  The women were trained in 7 centers around the US by AT&T and military drills were conducted in New York.  There were over 200 of these women who served in France.  They were called "Hello Girls"--even though operators at the time did not answer the phone with "hello," rather saying "number please" upon answering as it was their responsibility to route the call to the correct number.  

The Hello Girls served in France close to the front lines.

The supervisor of the Hello Girls was a 25 year old AT&T operator and college graduate named Grace Banker.  General Pershing oversaw the effort and acted almost as a father figure--many believed due to the recent loss of his wife and daughter in a fire.
One Hello Girl--Inez Crittenden--died in service on Armistice Day 11/11/1918 of influenza and she is buried in France.

Hello Girl Bertha Hunt took the call that the war had ended.

As was typically the case, women were not treated the same as men.  Women were not allowed to salute or be saluted. The Army did not pay veterans' benefits to the women's signal corps.  Women in the Navy and Marines were honored.  Army women were not--the rationale given that they were never discharged and thus not eligible for benefits.

Hello Girl Meryl Eagen remained active in feminist causes well into her golden years and in the 1970's she continued her efforts to have the Signal Corps recognized.  She joined forces with NOW (National Organization of Women), Senator Goldwater and Lindy Boggs (Cokie Roberts' mother) and finally 60 years after the war ended--in 1979--the Hello Girls received their formal discharge papers from President Carter.

Since I was going to portray a Hello Girl, I first had to study images of the uniforms.  The fact that all the photographs were black and white created a bit of a challenge.  I first looked at all of the details of the uniform in the pictures I found. 

What I found was that the uniform was comprised of a typical late teens skirt and a jacket with lapels that when button all the way up, closed off center to the neck.  The jacket had a high belt, typical for that era, that closed with a single button and it had two bellows pockets with flaps.  There were 4 buttons on each cuff.  Closer inspection shows that the buttons were not blackened like those on the men's uniforms of the time.  The uniform was completed with a typical white shirtwaist and a garrison hat that was piped in the seams.  Hello Girls were also issued a gas mask, which was carried in a canvas bag, and a helmet--both of which you can see in the photograph above.  The uniforms were made of wool.

More searching led me to a photograph from a display at the Army Signal Corps Museum that was published in a military magazine.  The photograph had this caption:
 A display at the U.S. Army Signal Corps Museum highlighting the contributions of female telephone operators in France during World War I. Two hundred, twenty-three “Hello Girls,” as they were best known, served overseas during the war, many just behind the front lines. The exhibit shows the type of switchboard they would have used to process calls – many from commanders to their troops – and the Hello Girls’ official uniform, which was worn by an operator named Louise Ruffle. The women were required to purchase the blue wool uniforms, which could run $300 to $500, themselves.


Finally, I had my first clue as to color.  I was able to find a nice dark navy blue twill suiting at Mood Fabrics that matched that in the photograph above from the display.  Next I found a portrait of Oleda Joure Christides painted by her sister.  This gave me a clue about the piping color for the hat.

I settled on the Wearing History teens suit pattern and shirtwaist along and I found that Laughing Moon had WWII suit pattern had a garrison hat that looked about right.

I started with the garrison hat.  After measuring my head, I made a mock up using some denim I had on hand and found the hat to be a perfect fit.  I found some gold colored cotton twill fabric online and had ordered a yard of that. I cut a long bias strip 1/5 inches long and folded it in half lengthwise around some narrow cotton cord (less than 1/8 inch).  Using a zipper foot, I stitched close to the cord to make piping with a 5/8 inch seam allowance.  The piping was inserted in the seam around the band piece.

 The hat was lined and completed with a WWI  Signal Corps pin which I found on Ebay.

The suit required some research.  Wearing History patterns are copies of actual period patterns have have been made multi sized.  The original directions are not very detailed, assuming the user to have knowledge of the sewing techniques used at the time.  The pattern publisher has annotated the directions.  I found this book on google books and liked it so much, I ended up ordering a reprint on Amazon.  The book was published in 1917 and is very useful for making clothes from this period.

I took my measurements in my corset and decided to start with the skirt as I felt that I didn't need to make a mock up.  My assistant was on duty and ready to help with her responsibility of being a pattern weight.
The skirt in the pattern has a front opening all the way down so I changed it to cut both the front and back skirt pieces on the fold with a side opening.  The skirts of this period were set above the waist.  They had a 3 inch or so wide waist stay inside that had darts pointing upward.  The waist stays fastened on its own.  Wide petersham ribbon was suggested but I read that someone had used drapery heading so I did that.  
 I trimmed the heading to the correct width, sewed the darts and bound the cut edge with bias tape then I followed the lesson in the sewing book for "hanging a skirt" which is where you stitch the skirt to the top of the waist stay.  Thus the skirt doesn't fit at your natural waist.  It hangs from a few inches above.

I also decided that the hem of the skirt needed some support as it was too drapey.  Fortunately, I had stocked up on various stabilizers the last time G-Street Fabrics had a sale and I found 2 inch horsehair to be perfect when tucked into the hem.

Here you can see how the skirt sits high and falls rom the top of the waist stay.  It closes with a placket with hooks at the top and snaps going down--both of which were used according to the sewing book.

Now onto the jacket.  I had purchased some WWI buttons on Ebay.  They were blacked as that was standard on men's uniforms.  All of the photos of the women showed lighter buttons so I had to soak them in acetone to get some of the lacquer off after which I used some brass polish on them.  I found smaller ones for the sleeves but they are bright brass so they're not a perfect match in terms of finish but that's okay.

I made a mock up of the jacket in size 36 as my corseted bust measurement is 37.  It was too big and I decided to cut the size 34.  I also had to change the collar.   The pattern has a "revers," which is the lapel, but the upper collar was a separate piece that overlapped.  I played around with the unpleated collar piece, trimming off the front corder and stitching it to the top of the revers, also trimming off the back until I came up with a shape I liked.  I ended up using that fabric collar as the pattern piece for the collar for my jacket.  Using hair canvas as the interfacing, I pad stitched the revers and the under collar piece and I stitched hair canvas at the upper back neck.  Then I constructed the front facing, back facing and upper collar and stitched them to the jacket at the edges.

The front and collar edges were top stitched.  The sleeves were changed by adding a placket to the back seam.  I stitched 4 buttonholes in the upper part of the placket but didn't cut them open.  I just stitched the buttons over them, securing the upper and lower placket together.

Next was creating bellows pockets.  I used paper to try different sizes to see what would look best on the front of the jacket. I determined that an 8 x 8 inch pocket with a 1 inch gusset and a flap 2.5 by 8.5 inches set about an inch above the pocket would give me the look I want.  I followed the directions on this video to construct the pockets.  

Facings and hems were catch stitched in place and will be completed with a lining to be done this week.  I needed to wear this for a function and given the heat, I figured I could do without the extra layer.

I fudged a little with my underpinnings.  Since I don't have split drawers, I didn't want to wear my long Edwardian corset so I used a waist training corset, a chemise and a petticoat.
 My Miss-L-Fire flight boots are the closest thing to womens' miliary boots I had since I had.

And thanks to Ebay, I was able to snag a WWI gas mask bag.

Here is the completed uniform:

And some scenes from our fundraiser:

I'm pleased with the outcome of this project.  I still need to upgrade it with a jacket lining, appropriate arm patches and arm band, and a proper late teens shirtwaist  I will report back when those are completed.

Part 2, Uniform upgrades can be seen in this post.