Women's wear dresses up new exhibit

By Lezlie Wolff - Staff Reporter

Women's just-do-it attitude is revealed in a new exhibit at the White River Valley Museum. 

The Women at Work: Uniforms & Work Wear, 1910 to 2010 shows how women were held to different standards compared to men and still got the job done. 

While the men who the women served with in Vietnam wore fatigues, even the uniform of the highest ranking female Marine, Col. Vera Jones, included girdle, hose and heels. 

The many uniforms on display are from Alice and Steve Miller's collection of approximately 150 service and military uniforms. 

Miller said she grew up in Tacoma in a military family.  

 Being around military all her life, Miller said, was the incentive for the collection.  She likes hanging around with veterans and hearing their stories. 

"I used to love it when my sister would come home in her dress blue uniform. She just looked so beautiful," Miller said.

The idea of the exhibit just came naturally out of that. Miller said White River Valley Museum Director Patricia Cosgrove chose pieces for the exhibit from the Millers' collection. 

The exhibit takes you on an evolution of service uniforms. You start with the Hello Girl uniform and you'll notice there are no ribbons or decorations on the uniform. It identified that she was with the U. S. Signal Corps and would have some patches and her overseas bars on it. 

"By the time you got to the two women colonels in the Vietnam era, they had quite a few ribbons," Miller said. 

"It was neat to see how women's history in the military has changed. They had to work their way up just like anyone else," she said. 

Miller said that 22,000 Army nurses and 7,000 Navy nurses served in World War I and did so without rank, even though they had to come from accredited nursing schools and were registered nurses. 

"They had three years of school behind them, just like the male officers."

"They did a wonderful job," Miller said, which led, in part, to women getting the right to vote. 

Today, she said, all nurses are officers. 

But even that took time.  For a time, women in the military could "wear rank" but would not be commissioned nor receive any more pay or benefits. 

They called that passive rank, Miller said, and the women took it. 

It also produced an interesting uniform, which Miller has. A uniform which is so rare, she said, "there are hardly any pictures of it." 

"The Army said, 'If you want to be like men, by golly, we're going to make you look like men,'" Miller said. 

"They took away their beautiful blue Edwardian uniforms with the big, slouch fedora and gave them this hideous brown jacket that looked like the men's with a long skirt made out of the same ugly brown material." 

Miller said the ensemble also came with a coat and garrison cap.

"Well," Miller said with a chuckle, "it was 1919, there was no war, and there was no regulation of when to wear this uniform." 

She said the nurses folded them up and put them in their trunks. They wore their white uniforms during duty hours and their civilian clothes during off hours.

 "I have one of those uniforms," Miller said. They were issued from 1919 to 1940 and "it is as unattractive as all get out." 

Her uniform is in perfect condition and Miller said the pussy-willow yellow blouse still has the tags on it. The original owner "never bothered to wear the uniform at all."

Miller said the exhibit gives a really good impression of how far women have come in 100 years. "When you look at the Hello Girl and her big skirt and large garrison cap and you look at the fire fighter turn-outs, I love that. And the medical specialist in her maternity uniform.

"These women, they started out with nothing. They started working very, very hard. It makes you feel like 'Oh my gosh, we've really come a long ways.' I think that's the neatest thing about the exhibit," Miller said.

Women at Work: uniforms & Work Wear, 1910 to 2010 is on display through June 18 at White River Valley Museum, 918 H St. SE, Auburn. 

It is open Wednesday through Sunday noon to 4 p.m. First Thursdays extended hours are 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Every First Thursday and Third Sunday admission is free. Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for children and seniors. 

For more information, visit wrvmuseum.org,

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