Sailors in skirts: Mainbocher and the making of the Navy WAVES

Resnikoff, Shoshana
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University of Delaware
The Navy WAVES were formed in 1942 in response to a wartime manpower shortage in the United States Navy. Meant to “free a man to fight,” the members of the newly formed women’s reserve became the first women to serve as full members of the US Navy. Their uniforms were designed by Mainbocher, an American couturier who established his career in France and returned to the United States when war broke out in Europe. A close examination of the uniforms shows the many kinds of work they did. They legitimized Mainbocher in they eyes of a skeptical American public, rebranding him as a patriot and providing him with the opportunity to test out his theories of sartorial functionality and uniformity on a large scale. They served as an ideal recruitment tool for the Navy, attracting the “right” kind of women to service in the WAVES. Finally, for the Waves themselves the uniforms performed a double-act of gender progress and restraint, making women feel like militarized sailors even as they reassured the American public and male members of the Navy that the Waves were feminine, non-threatening, and unlikely to upset the masculine culture of the Navy.