Page last updated 16th November 2015
WAAF Service Dress Uniform Buyer's Guide
In January 1917, a campaign was started to allow women to more directly support the war effort by enlisting in the army to perform work such as cookery, mechanical and clerical work and other miscellaneous tasks that would otherwise be done by men who could better serve their country in the trenches. On 7th July 1917, the British Army Council formally established the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) authorizing female volunteers to serve in non-combat roles in France during World War I. In May 1918 the WAAC was renamed as the Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC). In April 1918 six thousand of those women already serving with the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and Royal Flying Corps (RFC) voluntarily transferred into the newly formed Women's Royal Air Force (WRAF). In April 1920 the WRAF was disbanded, followed by the QMAAC in September 1921. With war once again imminent, the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) was formed in June 1939.
Initially the recruiting age limits for the WAAF were 18 - 43. In 1941 these limits were extended to 17½ - 44. However, for ex-WAAC/QMAAC or ex-WRAF personnel who had previously served during the Great War there was no upper age limit for enlistment in the WAAF and there are reports of some ex-WAAC/QMAAC/WRAF senior NCOs and officers serving in the WAAF aged in their late sixties! Evidently their previous military experience was considered far more important than their age.
This article is aimed at the re-enactor who wants to portray a WAAF officer, NCO (non-commissioned officer) or OR (other rank). Unlike the RAF, WAAF officers and warrant officers, with very few exceptions, wore only the SD (service dress) style of uniform during WW2. WAAF NCOs and ORs employed in clerical, administrative and communications roles also usually wore SD uniform. Later in the war, WAAF NCOs/ORs who were employed as mechanics, drivers, barrage-balloon handlers and other such trades, were issued with the battledress-style blue-grey serge War Service Dress, including matching trousers, as this was considered a more practical form of uniform for them. But, as I know of no current source for WAAF War Service Dress, this guide will be confined to the subject of Service Dress only.
WAAF Service Dress was directly patterned on the pre-war RAF SD uniform in that it was a belted, button-fastened tunic with four flapped and buttoned pockets. It's important to note that WAAF tunics always buttoned-up in the male fashion (left-over-right) rather than in the usual female style. This was because campaign and decoration ribbons are always worn on the left breast and would be obscured by the usual female fastening. Additionally, WAAF tunics were initially re-tailored from standard male RAF issued items rather than being specially made for female personnel. The main difference between WAAF officers' and NCO/ORs' SD uniforms was that, on the officer tunic, the lower pair of tunic pockets were of the external bellows-type whereas the lower pockets of the NCO/OR's tunic were internal. Other differences were that the officer uniform was made of a good quality blue-grey wool barathea whereas the NCO/OR uniform was of a slightly coarser blue-grey woollen cloth, though not as coarse as the serge material of the RAF male NCO/OR's uniform. Female personnel wore a matching skirt rather than trousers. The skirt was a plain, straight, two-gore style of a length that finished between 14 and 16 inches above the ground. Later in the war the skirts became slightly shorter due to material shortages, but they always ended at or slightly below knee height. WAAF skirts were never worn above the knee.
Re-enactors intending to portray WAAFs should bear in mind that pilot wings and other aircrew insignia were never worn, as WAAF personnel were not employed in these roles during WW2. If you want to wear wings then you should perhaps consider portraying a member of the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) whose ranks did indeed include many female aircrew (see the Uniform of the A.T.A. guide on this website).
A note about medal ribbons is in order. WAAFs seldom wore medal ribbons during WW2 as they did not receive their war service medals until after the war. Although the Air Ministry had a policy of encouraging RAF personnel to wear their gallantry decorations as soon as they were awarded during the war, very few WAAFs received such awards as they were not generally engaged in front-line service. So, unless you intend to portray one of the specific WAAF personalities who did receive such an award, you would be best advised to avoid wearing medal ribbons. The only exception to this is in the case of a more mature female re-enactor whose apparent age supports having originally served in the WAAC/QMAAC or WRAF towards the end of the 1914-18 war as described above. After the war she would subsequently have been awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal for her WW1 service. Upon her later enlistment in the WAAF after June 1939, she would have been entitled to wear the ribbons of those earlier campaign medals.
I can thoroughly recommend several excellent books that have useful sections on the subject of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, including The Royal Air Force by Andrew Cormack & Ron Volstad, and World War 2 British Women's Uniforms in Colour Photographs by Martin Brayley & Richard Ingram. These are listed in the Bibliography section of this website.
So the only choices left for the typical buyer are to obtain a good modern reproduction uniform, or to 're-clock' a later post-war WRAF/RAF uniform.
Unfortunately, unlike other Allied service uniforms, there are very few manufacturers or retailers of reproduction WAAF uniforms. In fact, at this point in time, I know of only one, Warhorse and Reproductions of History. As I haven't personally had dealings with them, and they unhappily suffer from mixed reviews, I am unable to recommend them.
There is another UK supplier, The History Bunker, that advertises a tailor-made WAAF SD uniform package at a fairly reasonable price (see image at left). They don't describe it as an ofiicer's uniform but, given that the lower tunic pockets are of the bellows type, it can't be anything else. However, I must issue a caution here. From personal experience we can tell you that, although these uniforms are very well-made, some of the styling details are just plain wrong. The most obvious fault is that the tunic is made to fasten in the usual female manner rather than the correct male style of left-over-right. The waist-belt is held in place by belt hooks rather than being sewn to the back of the tunic, and the buttons supplied as standard are just plain brass rather than RAF King's Crown pattern. We have recently been working with The History Bunker to improve their WAAF uniform to a sufficient level of authenticity suitable for serious re-enacting. If they address the problems that I have described, this uniform package will definitely be worth recommending.
So, given the scarcity of original or reproduction WAAF uniforms, the only option left is to 're-clock' a post-war WRAF/RAF uniform. The term 're-clocking' was coined by Graham Cornell in his excellent Beginner's Guide to RAF Uniform, which can be found on this website, and refers to the process of converting a more modern WRAF/RAFuniform to resemble an older WAAF pattern. With the post-war evolution of the WAAF into the WRAF and then, more recently, the complete integration of women into the RAF, the female uniform has undergone several revolutionary changes which unfortunately render the tunics totally useless from the point of view of re-enacting. We do occasionally see women wearing 1970/1980s-era uniform at 1940s events but these bear absolutely no resemblance to the period of service that they probably believe they are portraying.
Luckily, the male RAF officer's tunic has hardly changed at all since WW2, except in colour and one or two other minor points such as the change from King's Crown RAF brass buttons to Queen's Crown pattern. Current-issue RAF uniform has changed in colour to a much bluer shade of blue-grey and is unfortunately unsuitable for 're-clocking'. This is a pity as it is readily available on ebay at very low prices. However, officer tunics from the 1970s and 1980s are of a colour not too dissimilar to that of the earlier WW2 period, and these are ideal for 're-clocking' as WAAF officer tunics. These can often be found at the trading stalls selling vintage uniforms at the various 1940s events, and regularly come up for sale on ebay at reasonable prices. A good starting point is to find one of these tunics in the correct chest size to fit the female re-enactor. Yes, there will be a fair bit of alteration required for one of these tunics to fit the female form, such as narrowing the shoulders, taking-in at the waist and shortening the sleeves, but the result will be a tunic of the correct pattern that fastens in the correct manner and the colour of which is reasonably close to the original item. Moreover, the quality of the uniform will be greatly superior to most typical reproductions.
Post-war RAF tunics dispensed with the lowest brass button and replaced it with a flat plastic one that sat under the waist-belt, so another task will be to create a fourth buttonhole below the waist-belt. See the 'before' and 'after' images at upper left. The standard silver-coloured 'Staybrite' alloy Queen's Crown RAF buttons will need to be replaced by brass King's Crown buttons which are available either as originals through ebay (beware badly tarnished examples) or as reproductions. The only source we currently know of for these is What Price Glory. The last item to be addressed is the waist-belt buckle. This again will be of a silver-coloured alloy and needs to be replaced by a brass one of the correct pattern. These regularly turn up for sale on ebay for a few pounds.
Similarly, a 1970s/1980s-era male NCO/OR's tunic can be successfully 're-clocked' into a WAAF NCO/OR SD tunic by exactly the same process.
The next item required is the WAAF skirt.
Luckily, whilst the women's WAAF/WRAF/RAF tunic has completely changed in style
over the decades, the matching skirt has remained pretty much the same. The only
differences have been in the shades of blue-grey cloth used. The trick now is to
obtain an officer's skirt from the same era as the officer's tunic so that they match
in colour. It's important to note that WRAF/RAF skirts were issued in two
different versions: the No.1 Dress skirt and the No.2 Dress skirt. The
No.1 Dress skirt is the correct one that will match the officer's tunic.
This version, sometimes described as 'heavyweight', is a four-gore skirt made of a woollen
fabric and is lined. The No.2 Dress 'lightweight' skirt is made of a
wool/polyester material and is completely unlined. Whilst the No.2 Dress
skirt is the right colour, it's fabric looks completely different against
the wool barathea of the officer's tunic and simply doesn't match. The No.1 Dress skirt comes with a
front pleat which must be removed or otherwise sewn-up to conceal it, but
this is a straight-forward operation - see the
'before' and 'after' images at left. It does mean that the skirt is
slightly less than authentic because of its additional seams, but we consider
this to be an acceptable compromise in the absence of anything better. Do not be tempted to buy the
un-pleated lightweight No.2 Dress skirt, it just won't match
with the man's tunic.
Here at left is an example of a re-clocked post-war RAF male officer's tunic and WRAF/RAF officer's skirt converted into a WW2 WAAF officer's uniform.
There are a number of online
sources for RAF rank braid, including ebay, but one excellent
Monty's Locker which specialises in authentic reproduction
British Forces badges and insignia of the WW2 period. Below is a list of the WAAF officer ranks and their RAF
The officer's cuff braid is sewn on with its centre 3¾" (9.5cm) from the bottom of the cuff
WAAF NCO and OR rank insignia was identical to that of
their male counterparts in the RAF, and from January 1942 the two services
shared the same badges of rank and trade. Here is a summary of the
All WAAF/RAF badges of rank, with the exception of that of Under Officer, are readily available as originals or reproductions from ebay.
NCOs and ORs (but not officers) wore the RAF eagle insignia at the top of both upper sleeves
just below the shoulder.
These were embroidered in pale blue on a black felt background. Later in the
war they were printed in grey on a black cloth background for reasons of
economy. The insignia
are always sewn-on with the eagles facing to the rear. Good quality embroidered
versions of this insignia are available from
Soldier Of Fortune.
The only supplier of WAAF officer caps with which we are currently familiar is Soldier Of Fortune. It's a reasonably well-made, authentically patterned, fully lined cap of the correct shade of blue-grey barathea and comes complete with a nice bullion King's Crown cap-badge. Don't be tempted to order a size larger for a more comfortable fit as, in our experience, these caps tend to be generously sized anyway.
The NCO/OR's cap was a plainer design with patent leather peak and was worn with a standard brass King's Crown RAF cap badge. The only supplier of which we are currently aware is Apple Tree Lane.
Unlike men's shirts which
come in either standard collar or chest sizes, shirts for females must be
correctly sized for both collar and chest in order to fit properly. If a
woman orders a man's shirt with a size 42" chest, it will almost certainly have a collar size of 16" - 17"
which will be far too loose at her neck to permit the wearing of a tie. So, obtaining a modern replica
shirt is more difficult for the female re-enactor than for her male
counterpart. The only solution is to acquire a modern RAF-issue female
shirt as these are of approximately the right colour and are available in a wide
range of chest and collar size combinations. The best source we have found
is Cadet Direct.
Their RAF Blue Shirt Woman's, Long Sleeve (see image at lower left) is a little darker and
bluer in colour than
is preferable but it's the best compromise we have found so far. It comes
fitted with epaulettes but these are not visible
under the WAAF tunic and purists could easily have these removed if
The best source for a WW2 gas mask haversack
Soldier Of Fortune. They stock an excellent replica of the
original Mk.V haversack at a reasonable price. Do not go trawling through
ebay trying to find an original WW2 haversack as they will be expensive
and usually not in very good condition as they will have been used for all
manner of other purposes since the war.
RAF blue-grey steel helmets are not quite so easy to find (I had to source mine from a dealer in Holland!) but standard Army-issue green helmets are fairly common and much cheaper. Soldier Of Fortune stock reconditioned Army helmets with new liners and chinstraps at a not-unreasonable price - simply discard the camouflage net and re-spray the helmet shell in RAF blue-grey. Alternatively, acquire a cheap helmet shell and recondition and re-spray it as per Graham Corner's excellent DIY article, RAF Steel Helmet Restoration, available on this website's homepage.
The steel helmet was carried on the outside of the respirator haversack, held in place by the helmet's chinstrap. The combination was carried on the left hip, with the haversack strap either across the chest on the right shoulder or casually slung over the left shoulder.
The devil is in the detail, as they say! Why not add this detail, in the form of replica ID cards and other ephemera, to your carefully recreated period ensemble? Soldier Of Fortune carry a small range of such paraphernalia.