Abstract: The Clothes Make the Women: Skirts, Pants, and Railway Labor during World War II

Albert Churella


Fashion—in the form of a seemingly insignificant distinction between wearing skirts or pants—was critical to women railway workers' efforts to attain union representation. Prior to World War II, "fashion," in the form of deeply entrenched gender norms, excluded women from railway operations. On the Pennsylvania Railroad, wartime labor shortages provided women access to the masculine world of railroad work. Although men and women shared comparable occupations, they did not share comparable clothes. The women trainmen's uniforms reflected the fashion standards of the age, reinforcing femininity at the expense of safety. The debate between women workers who preferred skirts and those who sought to wear pants concerned far more than a minor wardrobe choice. Rather, it symbolized working-class women's desire for more remunerative employment and their middle-class counterparts who favored gender equality. That conflict proved crucial to women's success in obtaining membership in heretofore all-male railway labor unions.