As you may or may not have noticed, the last year or so has been all about the uniforms. I have added quite a lot of items to my collection and I’ve been spending far more time and energy on authentic uniforms, militaria and related subjects than I had in years before. Some of my interests are expensive and I have to be frugal, so the spendy ones tend to move in cycles. Perfume and fragrance is on the back burner for the moment. I buy the occasional bottle, Serge Lutens Fumerie Turque for a song most recently, but they are few and far between. I have plenty of fragrances, I want to enjoy what I have right now. Sooner or later I will want to just enjoy my uniforms and obsess over notes, vintages and formulations again.
Since I don’t think I’ve gone into specifics much here before, I thought I’d show you part of my collection and tell you a bit about it. There are quite a lot of resources on the net dealing with British, American and to some extent German women’s auxiliary organisations, especially during WWII. My main area of interest is Swedish women’s auxiliaries, and they are less well known, for obvious reasons, and less well documented outside of the organisations themselves.
The main Swedish women’s auxiliary paramilitary organisation is SLK, the Lotta Corps or Swedish Women’s Voluntary Defense. It was founded in 1924 as a part of Landstormen, the Swedish Home Guard, originally the oldest age group of the conscripted population. Voluntary groups were gradually added to the organization. SLK was modeled after the Finnish Lotta Svärd movement, founded in 1918. The SLK moniker originally stood for Sveriges Landstormskvinnor, Home Guard Women of Sweden, loosely translated; from WWII on the official name is Sveriges Lottakårer, Lotta Corps of Sweden. The Lotta in question is the Finland-Swedish writer Runeberg’s character Lotta Svärd, a canteen worker who follows her soldier husband to the battlefields of the Finnish war of 1808-1808, when Sweden lost Finland to the Russian empire. He is killed, but she stays, tending to wounded Finnish soldiers.
The Finnish Lotta Svärd movement was the world’s largest voluntary defense organisation at one point during WWII, with over 200 000 members out of a population of 4 000 000, and they did a great deal of important work for Finland during the Winter War and the Continuation War against Russia. The organisation was ultimately banned and disbanded along with several nationalist and fascist organisations as part of the peace treaty with the Soviet Union in 1944. Its properties were transferred to a new organisation, which still exists today under the name Lotta Svärd Foundation. The Swedish Lotta Corps has been cooperating with the Swedish defense all along, performing a wide range of administrative and practical duties in conjuction with the armed forces, and is still alive and well.
The other three Swedish women’s auxiliaries are the Red Cross, the Swedish Women’s Motor Corps, SKBR, and the Blue Star, an organisation dealing with animal care. The Blue Star was founded as early as 1917 as a result of public concern over all the horses that were wounded, killed and suffering on the battlefields of World War I, then named the Red Star, a name and symbol that was deemed unsuitable and changed to the Blue Star when members were sent to aid in Finland during the Winter War. All four organisations were active in the Swedish defense during World War II, and in 1942 the Swedish military issued its first official women’s uniform, for women serving in these organisations. Some of them, notably SLK and of course the Red Cross, already had uniforms of their own, in the case of the Lotta Corps variations of the drab grey dress and headdress pictured above.
I am interested in just about any type of uniform worn by women, at the basic level. As a collector I mainly look for Swedish women’s uniforms up to the 1960′s or so, civilian ones as well as paramilitary, and I try not to buy anything that does not fit me. I have a motley collection of auxiliary, medical, commercial and other uniform items, and the only part of it that I have anything like an idea of ever completing is the collection of SLK items; that’s neatly limited enough to be feasible. Most of the things I’ve added recently are SLK items or parts of uniforms issued by the armed forces for the four women’s auxiliaries.
Why? Because I think this is a fascinating part of our recent history, more specifically women’s history. Because I think that the increased visibility of women’s work, and thereby the societal and economic value of women’s work, through the increased use of uniforms in work performed by women went hand in hand with women’s legal emancipation, growing economic independence and equal worth as productive members of our society. It all began with a very simple, unintellectual and purely aesthetic love of the garments themselves, though. That love remains while my knowledge grows, and with it my reverence for the purpose of the things and their original wearers. It is also relevant to me personally because both my mother and grandmother volunteered in the Lotta Corps, that’s my grandmother second on the right up there, all of them wearing the m/1931 SLK organisational dress and headdress, and I’m a member of the organisation myself. Only supporting so far, but I do want to be more actively engaged at some point.
I buy only uniforms I can wear because I do occasionally wear them, I don’t just acquire and store them. There is, I think, a point to showing these garments, demonstrating them, how they look and move on an actual person, communicating their existence, bringing attention to them and telling people what they are. Reenacting things in them that might have been done by their original wearers is optimal, of course – cooking pea soup in a canteen or whatever – but I mostly bring them out for social events relating to military history and the eras they belong to. I enjoy wearing them. I enjoy performing them, if you will, a form of wearing and performing history that comes with a certain responsibility, too. They are mine, sure, but they are also part of a common history and heritage, and I don’t think that buying them and just keeping them well stored is necessarily the best way of shouldering that responsibility. Museums do that far better, and they already have examples of all these items (as a search for SLK at Digitalt Museum quickly demonstrates); they do not, however, display them very often, and usually never in action. I understand the wish to just own and collect these things, but I’m not sure I think it’s the most productive way of doing it. To each their own.
These are all examples of the SLK dress, from the 1920′s into the 1960′s. I have skipped the m/1951 marine/air force Lotta dress, because I have no decent photos of it and not a lot of accessories for it either.The other auxiliaries and civil uniforms may turn up at some later date. I think I can promise a full m/1942 kv in the near future, though.
SLK dress m/1926 (?) for senior members of the organisation. This is the more expensively made wool version of the organisational dress, for higher ranks and women employed in the organisation rather than volunteers, and the model is not entirely easy to date. The button loops and the slightly higher end of the button closure on the bodice, above the belt, indicate an older model, 1931 or earlier. The closest match I can find in the archives is labelled m/1926, which is as good a guess as any. It has shoulder pads, a WWII-era detail that may have been added by the wearer. One of the medals it came with was not given out after 1943. This probably belonged to a senior member of the corps, active before as well as during and after WWII. Material is a drab wool gabardine, with detachable white cotton piquet collar and cuffs, and the cap is part of the m/1942 uniform, which seems to have been authorised for use with the dress, in drab cavalry twill.
Waterproofed cotton coat m/1939 and cap for the Lotta Corps, with insignia denoting cooking duties, and organisational dress m/1931, also cotton. This coat was referred to as the tin plate coat (plåtkappa) because of the very stiff, waterproofed fabric. It was also worn by the Red Cross. The dress is one of several slightly different versions of the ensigned cotton m/31 dress, very similar but not identical to the ones worn around 1940 on top of the text. The cap seems to be field cap m/1942, same stiff cotton fabric.
This is the m/1960 version of the Lotta dress. It was issued at the same time as the first full uniform the Swedish military issued for women since 1942, and, coincidentally, pretty much the last uniform with a classic look for women but one. You don’t see this one very often. There were good alternatives that may have been preferred, including a sturdy work uniform. I’m not overly fond of this version; it’s nice to have, but feels cheaply made. Steel grey poly/cotton poplin, detachable white nylon piquet collar and cuffs, goldtone cufflinks, wool/poly blend cap, far too large, all from the same original owner along with several other m/1960 items.
Lotta dress m/1963, probably another model for officers and employed staff. This is the latest one I own, and one of the very nicest. It's obviously related to the previous one, but also shows a strong kinship with the older models, and both material, fit and cut feel far more solid than the m/1960 dress. Blue grey wool/poly blend, brass buttons with the SLK logo, which none of the others have. This one belonged to an old lady with quite a bit of representation, and she seems to have received some sort of medical or first aid medal.