A lot of the fashion origin stories one encounters are not entirely true, but the one about pants for women being popularized during the World War Two years is pretty much accurate. Many Western women had been wearing pants of some form since the middle of the nineteenth century, and as the 1940s approached, more women were wearing pants for sports, leisure, and work. But it wasn’t until war broke out that more and more women began wearing pants as they took over jobs traditionally allotted to men.
Women had been wearing pants as part of a pajama suit since at least the 1910s, but WWII brought a new nighttime pants suit to those in England and France – the siren suit. The siren suit was designed to go over one’s nightie in case the air raid sirens went off and it became necessary to head for the nearest shelter.
The siren suit (I’ve also seen it referred to as a blitz suit) was designed for speed of dressing, comfort, and warmth. The style above shows buttons or snaps, but most examples I’ve seen in photos show the suit as having a long front zipper. Most styles have multiple pockets in which to stow essentials that may be needed during the time in shelter. Many also had hoods, and were made of warm fabrics.
Which brings me to this garment, one of the newest additions to my collection. I recently was the high bidder on a few lots from an auction house that specializes in old clothes and textiles. I always enjoy this auction’s offerings, as they usually have nice sporting things. This last auction was no exception, so I sent in a few bids and crossed my fingers.
The jumpsuit was paired with a 1930s outdoors ensemble from the 1930s, consisting of pants, jacket, and matching hat. I wanted that set, and to be honest, didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the jumpsuit. It was described as being a 1940s one-piece ski suit.
When the package arrived, I acted like a kid on Christmas morning, and then got down to the work of examining each piece. When I picked up this one, I immediately got the feeling that this was no ski suit. Actually, I should have noticed this just from the photos, but like I said, I was distracted by the other piece.
On reflection, I realized that I’d never seen a photo of a woman’s one-piece ski suit from the 1940s. That does not mean this type was not made, only that if they were, they had escaped my attention in the many hours I’ve spent looking in fashion magazines and catalogs. Then I started thinking about the legs of my new suit. A ski suit has to have leg hems that are narrow, to keep the snow out. These are anything but narrow.
At this point I knew it was time to look at the details. First up was the center front zipper. The pull had an odd shape (not too unusual for earlier zippers) and I got out my new magnifier to read the brand name stamped on it. The brand is Lightning. This was the first clue this item was not manufactured in the US, as Lightning zippers were made in England.
There are also two zippers on the back, as this jumpsuit has a drop-flap to aid in the use of the toilet. My apologies about this photo as it is upside-down, but it has a very useful patent number and the words “Made in ENG”. Actually the patent number, 472518, has escaped me, and I’ve searched both US and UK patents.
I put the patent search on hold and took another look at the interior of the garment. The edges were serged, or overlocked, but in a style of stitch with which I am unfamiliar. Again, this points to a foreign manufacture.
I finally began to see the light. Big, functional pockets, a front zipper, wide legs, and a drop seat all told me this was not a ski suit. The fact that it was most probably made in England pointed to the siren suit, a garment you’d not expect to see in the US.
As I stated, I’ve never seen a one piece ski suit for adults of this era. Women were wearing jumpsuits and overalls for work, and these, while not terribly common, are found in the US fairly easily. But they are made from cotton or lightweight gabardine of wool, sometimes with cotton mixed in. This is a nice, textured wool and is quite hefty.
The drop seat also makes no sense in a ski suit. After skiing where you get wet (and this fabric would really make the snow cling) and cold, and you would change into something dry as soon as possible.
A former owner had sewn the flap shut. I can see why, especially if it has been worn in recent years as a jumpsuit. There is a bit of a gap between zipper and buttons. There is also a bit of a belt loop that was hidden under the stitches. I’m assuming there was a matching belt.
And speaking of buttons – these are not the originals. They are modern replacements, and while they match nicely, the buttons on the flap are too large for the holes.
There are four roomy pockets, and this one on the chest has a bit of a pocket within a pocket. Could it be for eyeglasses?
The other pockets expand to hold things and each has a single button closure. If you were headed to the air raid shelter, these pockets would be very practical, and could hold everything from your identification papers to a snack.
But these pockets make no sense on a ski suit, where the patch pockets are not secure enough to keep things safe while hurtling down a mountain. Most ski pants and jackets have deep inset pockets, and these are generally zippered.
The presence of a hood certainly seems to say “outdoors wear” but this hood is quite loose around the head, and there is no way to secure it. A ski hood or cap would tie or fit snugly on the head.
It would be warm, though!
In spite of the wrong buttons, the missing belt, and the mis-attribution of the piece, I’m very happy with this purchase. I already have quite a few ski ensembles, but where would I ever find a siren suit?
Thanks so much to Jonathan Walford at the Fashion History Museum for the help. Also, the photo of the pattern is not mine, and since I found it on Pinterest, I can’t locate the origin. My apologies to the owner.
UPDATE: The pattern belongs to Miss Rayne, and she has graciously agreed to let me use it.