The Image of Women in the Navy

How did people perceive the WRNS?

WRNS recruitment poster, 1970
WRNS recruitment poster, 1970 (RNM)

A perception existed amongst the public that the Women's Royal Naval Service was the most 'glamorous' of the female auxiliary services.

This idea stemmed partly from the WRNS association with the Royal Navy, regarded as the 'Senior Service'. Those in charge of the WRNS believed in the importance of maintaining high standards and there was a sense of elitism in WRNS recruitment.

The manner in which the WRNS presented itself also encouraged this image. Official photographs and recruitment material portrayed the Wrens as ladies, with an air of refinement and elegance.

The idea of women in uniform, however, has simultaneously created a sense of controversy as women adopted a non typical female role. This enforced a contrasting public perception of the Wrens.

A threatening image developed around the women, with naval personnel concerned about retaining their jobs or naval wives who pictured voracious husband snatchers.

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The glamour

At the outset of World War Two the newly reformed WRNS rejected their old uniform as they considered it 'dowdy'. Instead they adopted a version of the 'fore and aft rig' of naval officers with a tailored jacket, shirt and tie. The Wrens continued to wear a skirt instead of trousers in the majority of roles.

The Wren ratings initially wore a hat in a floppy 'pudding basin' shape. This design was later replaced by a version of the sailor's cap, which looked much better and proved more popular.

Geoffrey Preston recalls the effect of the Wrens uniform on Allied servicemen in Hamburg during World War Two (RNM).

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The WRNS knew that the majority of women were concerned with looking attractive and the improvement in the design of the Wren uniform went some way to encouraging women to join the Service.

Read Third Officer Elizabeth Agar's description of her officer's uniform in March 1941

Wrens needed to keep their uniforms immaculate as it was a visual presentation of the standards of the service. They were subject to the same examination of their kit as their male counterparts.

Read about Clare Turner's problems with keeping to the strict uniform regulations during her service in World War Two

Officer's tropical kit was composed of a white drill short-sleeved dress with gilt buttons. Working rig was a white drill shirt and skirt. These sleek, white uniforms epitomised the air of efficiency associated with the Wrens.

Photograph of Wrens at Basra dressed in tropical uniform
Photograph of Wrens at Basra dressed in tropical uniform (RNM)

Read about S Hammett's (nee Wall) attempts to keep her Wren uniform in good condition whilst serving overseas during World War Two

The postwar period further reinforced the Wrens' aura of femininity. The image of the WRNS ensured not only a female organisation but also a feminine one. Dress designers created aspects of the uniform, such as the extreme elegance of Jean Allen's design for mess dress in 1964.

Jean Allen's design for WRNS mess dress, 1964
Jean Allen's design for WRNS mess dress, 1964 (RNM)

Concerns about the maintenance of femininity can be seen in the WRNS officers' training courses, which included lessons on beauty culture and so on.

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Not all aspects of the Wren uniform were glamorous.

The Navy issued new entrant Wrens with huge, shapeless blue overalls in order to carry out their initial training. These rather provided a contrast to the glamorous images that lured recruits in to joining the service.

Photograph of Wren wearing overalls, WWII
Photograph of Wren wearing overalls, WWII (RNM)

Listen to Phyllis Thomas describing the large boiler suit that new Wren recruits wore as uniform (RNM).

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WRNS ratings had to endure some even worse additions to their uniform. They wore oversized pants, known as 'Blackouts', under their skirts. These huge garments, elasticated at the waist and knees, kept out the cold. They also supposedly deterred any unwanted male advances.

Nancy Hunt (nee Crichton) served as a Wren Steward between 1942 and 1945. Read about an alternative use which she had for her 'Blackouts'

Cartoon about Wren uniform, WWII
Cartoon about Wren uniform, WWII (RNM)

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To bed with the Wren

The image of the Wrens has enjoyed an ambivalent relationship with male naval personnel. Their services to the war effort were highly commended by many in the Admiralty, but many servicemen did not really regard females in uniform as important or necessary. Others saw them as just being there for the added pleasure of the sailors.

Listen to Marjorie Spencer comment on the attitude of male Stewards towards Wrens (RNM).

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There were a variety of well used jokes and anecdotes about the purpose of the Wrens. Wrens, for example, demanded the right to wear black silk stockings in summer, rather than woollen ones, during World War Two. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, stated that 'the Wrens like the feel of them and so do my sailors'.

An alleged signal was sent out to all tailoring establishments on contract to the Service when stocks of woollen cloth was low - 'Wren skirts will be held up until the ratings needs are satisfied.'

Another common saying was, 'Up with the lark, to bed with the Wren.'

There were various humorous poems written by men in the Navy about the Wrens, highlighting the women's apparent uses.

'The Wrens' poem, written by a serviceman at Kranji W/T station, WWII
'The Wrens' poem, written by a serviceman at Kranji W/T station, WWII (RNM)

Read a poem written by Lieutenant Clifford Wright RNVR about the WRNS

During World War Two there was undoubtedly a tendency towards living for the moment and this often encouraged short term or intense relatioships to develop as couples never knew if they would both survive the war. American GIs began to arrive in Britain during 1943. Their salaries were seven times that of British servicemen. They therefore had far more money to spend on British girlfriends, as well as access to luxury goods such as chocolate and silk stockings with which to win them over. It was thrilling for the British girls, including the Wrens, to go to dances and films with GIs.

Valentine's card given to Wren Elizabeth Candy, 1946
Valentine's card given to Wren Elizabeth Candy, 1946 (RNM)

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Picturing the Wrens

The Wrens were also a popular subject matter in naval cartoons, usually portrayed as either plump and formidable matrons, or nubile young women in stockings.

Cartoon of Wrens from HMS King Alfred magazine
Cartoon of Wrens from HMS King Alfred magazine (RNM)

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Image problems

Whilst romances have undoubtedly developed between Wrens and other service men, not all such attentions were sought by service women. They received a hostile reaction to their presence at times.

There was a belief during World War Two that women in uniform were 'easy'. Military service allegedly encouraged deviant behaviour in women, encouraging them to take on typically 'masculine' tendencies and become more sexually voracious. Men regarded women in uniform as being more available than civilians, especially mobiles stationed far from home. Mixed camps sometimes had cases of rape, or attempted rape. Female latrines had armed guards stationed outside in order to shoot intruders.

Wrens tended to receive rather less of these accusations than some of the other women's services. This was partly due to the WRNS tending to recruit from the middle classes, meaning that the Wrens tended to keep aloof from the male ratings. Even so, Wrens were still pestered by ratings, particularly those stationed at foreign ports who had not seen any white women in long time.

The government set up a parliamentary committee to investigate 'welfare conditions in the three women's services' in November 1941. The committee concluded that there was no justification for the charges of 'immorality' by the public against service women. In fact, the discipline of service life was more likely to encourage good behaviour amongst women.

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Naval Wives Protest

Service women often had an image problem concerning their sexuality, with them portrayed as nymphomaniacs. The proposal to send women to sea in the early 1990s created a peak of media interest in relation to this image.

Naval wives considered the idea of the Wrens being at sea with their men such a threat that they took to the streets in protest. A small group of naval wives even marched to Downing Street.

The Navy officially disapproved of relationships between male and female service personnel, although some inevitably still occurred.

However, the feared outbreak of 'sailor snatching' did not happen, and overall the integration of female personnel into the Navy proved that men and women could work alongside one another, even in the confined space of a ship. There are even indications that the amalgamation has improved discipline, making the majority of servicemen think more about their behaviour and in some cases, even their own appearance!