Salvation Army WWI War Service Uniform

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Salvation Army WWI War Service Uniform.

This is part dress diary, part research paper. But I suppose any dress diary is it's own form of historical research. Formatting is inconsistent because I finished grad school years ago and I'm not about that life anymore. ALA can suck it.

Psst....any grad student hopefuls out there?

Okay, moving on!

Like many of you, I've drooled countless hours over the Women's Motor Corps of America uniform at the Met. Most of my reenacting friends have spoken a desire to recreate it. You can see why! Look at it, it's dapper! 


Sew Decades Ago reproduced this beauty with excellent success. 

I hit a roadblock as I was planning my Motor Corps of America impression. Wouldn't I want an actual car from the 1910s as part of my kit? It's like portraying a calvary unit without the horses, or a red cross knitting volunteer without the actual knitting. I'd be only presenting an outward appearance without showing the full scheme of my duties. Rather hollow impression, don't you think?

Off I was to find a war service job that I could fully submerse myself in at events. I thought donning the iconic red cross uniform, but I know very little about medicine, and the other red cross duties appealed very little to my personal interests. Then I thought about the AFFW, the American Fund for French Wounded, but I couldn't figure out a demo that would fit with the impression. 

Then I stumbled upon the Salvation Army.

I was shocked to read how involved they were in the war effort. It was one of those "Why didn't I learn this in history class???" moments. They were an iconic part of wartime culture, with even popular melodies written about them. 

Most of all, I was awestruck by the numerous pictures of women knee deep in muddy trenches, risking life and limb, to provide an ounce of comfort with their doughnuts and company to the young boys marching for Uncle Sam. 

They weren't always a welcomed sight. Some soldiers were suspicious, after all the enlisted were there to defeat the huns! Now the US was sending goody-two-shoed soap-box-preachers to the trenches? Exposing meek and mild girls to the horrors of warfare?

"The idea of women in the camps was so new to our American soldiers, and so distasteful to the French, that they presented quite a problem until their work fully justified their presence. It got about that some real American girls were coming. The boys began to grow curious. When the big French limousine carrying them arrived in the camp it was greeted by some of the soldiers with the greatest enthusiasm while others looked on in critical silence." (Romance of the Salvation Army, pg. 60)

Prove their worth they did. One tale is that while under heavy fire, a colonel told the doughnut lassie she'd be killed if she didn't return to safety, and which she replied, 

"Colonel, we can die with the men, but we cannot leave them!" (Romance of the Salvation Army, pg. 12) 

Now, that's some chutzpah! 

Not only did they serve doughtnuts and coffee, they mended clothes and wrote letters for the soldiers. 

source: left and right (cool thing is that sweater vest is totally from the priscilla war work book, just with ribbing at the shoulders)

I was given the best piece of advice at my first reenacting event. You have to have a cool gadget for crowd appeal. I get it, sometimes my handworked quilting isn't the most exciting activity. Then what's a better way of grabbing the crowd's attention then with coffee and doughnuts? 

Now that I'm dedicated to creating a Salvation Army impression, I face my next hurdle. Reproducing the uniform. I haven't been able to locate existent uniform, or high resolution color images of one. My next bet was to seek out the one place that might have one in their collection, so I emailed the nearest Salvation Army museum, and inquired if they had a uniform. They said yes! I replied, explaining my interest, and asked if I could study the uniform for my research. And then...


Oh well! They probably thought I was some crazy person. I know I do get a few bewildered looks when I tell people how I spend my weekends. I didn't pester them any further, taking their silence as a decline, and summoned up some creativity and gumption to continue on. Isn't this how most dress diaries go? Experimental archaeology? Asking questions, examining photos and material culture, and just trying your best to get it right? Even though it never goes 100% right...

Let's get started!

The Shirt:

There isn't many pictures of the SA lassies without their smock and uniform. I'm basing my foundation layers off of this photo. Even though the knitted vest and her sewing work is covering most of the shirt, I'm assuming by the collar that it's a 1917 Olive Drab shirt. The US Militaria Forum has an informative post about army regulations shirts from that time period, and it's kinda cool to see there were shirts with different fabrics used because of the fabric shortages.  

Sewing basic oxford-style shirts isn't my thing. Not very exciting. Since I have the wallet, and not a lot of time, I decided to buy a reproduction. I went with Man The Line's M1917 Combat Shirt. I bought mine through ebay, so it was significantly cheaper then the listed price on their website. 

I bought a size small, and it's still really roomy for my tiny frame, but I imagine it's exactly like the fit above.

The Vest:

Unable to find a perfect olive drab at my local yarn shop, I turned to knitpicks for affordable, quality wool yarn. I took a chance on Wool of the Andes Thyme, which was described as a "medium olive green color. Like the dried herb it is named after, Thyme is a classic yellow green that has a cozy and vintage appeal. Perfect for both men and women and looks rich when paired with a variety of colors."

Medium olive? Sounds good enough! I bought 7 skeins, totaling $14 after shipping. Boy, did they deliver! It's a perfect olive drab! 

I got to work, swatching a square of the Wool of the Andes, and then used the measurement to calculate the amount of stitches I'll need for my small frame. I ended up scaled down the pattern, both in length and width. 

WWI knitting patterns were designed for ease and speed. The sleeveless vest is basically a long scarf with a hole in the middle, and since its knitted in garter stitch, it knits up fast! I kept the same features, but following the unusual detail in the picture above, I added 2x2 ribbing at the shoulders. It took only two weekends to knit the whole thing up. 

In the end, I only used 5.5 skeins of yarn. So I have two skeins left over, probably not enough for a scarf, but I'm too lazy to knit a pair of socks either. 

During the Annual World War One Commemoration at Museum Village, I found a collector who had some original knitted items in his collection. I didn't get his name, so if you are the lovely gentleman who allowed me to take pictures of your belongings, please comment below so I can give you credit and properly link you to your social media.

The one thing that struck me is that the items had mistakes. Knitters in the 1910s were just as imperfect as we are, even in wartime knitting. I don't know I expected otherwise, especially when these goods were pressed to be knitted at lightening speed. It doesn't matter if you accidentally repeated a knit or purl, as seen in the sleeve edging above. As long as it doesn't have holes or dropped stitches, the sweater still keeps you warm, doesn't it? 

From my eyesight, it looks whipstitched together, doesn't it?

There was also a garter stitched scarf with the Red Cross label stitched at the bottom right corner. I'm in love!

After examining his originals, I didn't feel so bad that my vest had a few visible hiccups.

The Skirt:

The Salvation Army uniform is rather a mystery to me. There is one uniform in the Smithsonian, but is off view, and the only picture that is circulating on the internet is a black and white, lo res image that's hard to study. I've seen some differences in the skirts, from pleats, buttons down the front, skirts with pockets, and skirts without pockets. 

For example:

From the folds in her skirt, I'm assuming there are side pleats. 

Plain skirts without buttons or pleats...I think.

Two pleats at the front.

Two skirts with pockets, and one with buttons!

Talking to other reenactors, all I can assume is there were fabric shortages that accounted to the different styles seen above. I also imagine there was a different uniform for home services and those at the front lines. It's something I'm still researching. 

I decided to make a simple skirt, without buttons or pockets, just to give myself a break when it came to sewing all those extras. I'll leave the hard work for my SA tunic, when I have the time to tackle it.

For a while, I was mystified by the fabric and structure of women's uniforms during WWI. I've talked to several reenactors who claim that most uniforms were cut from barathea, which isn't a fabric you can easily get anymore. Unless you have deep pockets. That's a common problem I face in reenacting. Probably the closest fabric you'll get is tropical worsted wool, that is if you can find it in that perfect shade of khaki green.

I searched ebay for a while and found an army green wool twill at a reasonable price. I decided just to end my misery and purchase what I could find before time ran out.

My only complaint is the wool might be too nice of a wool!

I don't have much time to figure out the tunic, so I set out making the skirt. Too lazy to draft a pattern, I bought Wearing History's 1916 Skirt. I'm glad I did, it was super quick to put together, and I didn't have to spend my whole weekend trying guessing the amount of flare in a late teens skirt.

I made some changes the skirt, including cutting the front on the fold and adding a placket to the side seam. I also didn't include the interior belt, instead adding a waistbelt for practicality and ease. I stashbusted with the fastenings, using the biggest snaps I had on hand instead of hooks and eyes. I hate sewing hooks and eyes. I might swap them out with smaller snaps, but they worked well enough during the event, so I might leave them.

I used Jennifer Rosbrugh's tutorial on sewing plackets, but still had to use my handy-dandy seam ripper to fix some mistakes. I'm picky when it comes to visible stitches being uneven.


I broke my outfit in at the Annual World War One Commemoration at Museum Village. It was my first WWI event and I enjoyed meeting all the doughboys and huns, drooling over people's extensive collection, and just enjoy the picturesque scenery, even if it was a bit chilly!

The finished vest! 

Me thinks I need a second petticoat!

Final Thoughts: I really appreciated the simplicity of Wearing History's pattern. Sometimes you don't want to guess at a project, and even though the pattern instructions are rather bare-bones (as originals from that time period are), if you've sewn a skirt in the past, you can sew this skirt. I'm glad I took the time to knit a vest, I really think it makes the outfit. I hope that I can get started on the tunic soon, and maybe purchase some more Salvation Army ephemera for a display. There's still improvement to be had, but not bad for my first event. 


  1. This couldn't be more timely! I've been researching the Hello Girls uniform for a presentation next month. Black and white photos certainly make it hard to determine colors but I did find that those uniforms were a wool melton for winter and cotton sateen for summer. I need Navy and tried twice to order the cotton sateen from Mood but they didn't have enough of either piece I chose. Like you, I went with a navy blue wool twill. It's gorgeous stuff--almost too nice to use for this. Also interesting--the pics of the Hello Girls look like their shirts are actually women's shirtwaists! I've also been using the same pattern for the suit. It just has the right shape. WWI is interesting and so under represented in the costuming world.

  2. Do you sell the Doughnut Dollies uniform? If so, for how much? I looking for one for m Salvation Army History Room.

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