Down the back of the Museum, past the archives, behind the hangars, tucked into a corner, lies the clothing store. Over the past few months we have been busy upgrading the housing and updating the records of the many objects held within.
The clothing store consists of seven environmentally-controlled rooms which are home to uniforms, boots, safety equipment, helmets, hats and even the humble kit bag. Produced in their thousands to transport the belongings of airmen embarking for service overseas, you would be forgiven for thinking that there wasn’t really much of a story to these functional items. Made of white canvas, adorned with a service number and a coloured stripe or two, almost identical to hundreds like it, the kit bag is, at first glance, rather boring. But dig a little deeper and you can find some interesting stories!
For instance, how do you think they kept track of the sheer volume of kit bags being shipped, without the aid of barcodes, scanners and computers that we rely on today? Well, those coloured bands are actually a system used to identify where the bag was going. A single band indicated that the owner would not require the bag in transit so it went into the ship’s hold. Two bands indicated that the bag was to be placed in the cabin where the owner could access its contents, probably spare clothes, toiletries and something to keep them entertained on the voyage. This system was further refined in December 1943 with different colours indicating different destinations, with red bands indicating those en route to Canada, yellow to the United Kingdom and blue to the Pacific.
Some airmen, having been issued with their bland-looking kit bag, took it upon themselves to spruce things up a bit. Customisation of kit isn’t an uncommon occurrence in the military, with personnel making adjustments for personal taste, to better suit their working environment or repurposing damaged equipment. The kit bag offered the perfect platform for those with artistic flair. Whether celebrating their unit, the aircraft the Air Force had in service, or just showing where they had come from, several of the kit bags in our collection have a unique stamp on them. This customisation would also have helped with identification at their destination. With hundreds of similar bags in the ship’s hold, having something unique would make it easier to pick out – not too dissimilar to what we do today with bright-coloured bags at the airport luggage carousel!