the campaign against knees, medicine was one useful ally.
in modern women's dress is partly responsible for the tuberculosis
problem," declared Dr. Hoye E. Dearholt, the head
of a Wisconsin sanatorium. "Girls, between 15 and 25,
striving for a boyish figure and wearing scanty clothing have
lowered their resistance to the point where they are easy
prey of the disease." Though the New York Times,
for one, dismissed this statement and others like it, arguing
that the "assumption that such exposures are dangerous
rests on no study of vital statistics," the critics of
scanty clothing had little remorse about making their claims.
The short skirt, they insisted, was harmful to one's health.
Others indicted the short skirt for its chilling effect on
the need for fabric dropped--only seven yards were needed
to make a "flapper
uniform," compared with the nineteen or twenty yards
for an outfit produced in, say, 1913--textile production dropped
markedly as well. Calling for a "renaissance
of the long skirt," manufacturers throughout the
nation sought to persuade American women to return to petticoats
and long skirts to meet the crisis in the industry. "Of
all the absurd suggestions!" responded Harriot T.
Cooke. "The naïve idea that women should be so altruistic
as to increase the cost of their clothing by using more material,
forego much of their comfort and give up their smart appearance
just to help along one brand of trade is most amusing."
then, the critics of short skirts were not easily amused.
Modern-day fashions, they insisted, not only damaged the physical
and economic health of the nation but loosened its moral underpinnings
as well—and that simply couldn't be approved.
religious leaders labored mightily throughout the 1920s to
convince their flocks that flapper fashion was indecent. As
the Salvation Army, invoking history, vividly put it, the
"skirt that trails in
the dirt gathering germs is a menace to its wearer's health; but
the skirt that flaps around the knees is pretty much of a menace
to the modesty of the women who wear it."1
The modern church and synagogue were certainly no strangers to sartorial
popular sermon topic, the "glaring immodesty" of contemporary
clothing inspired clergymen like Rabbi
Stephen S. Wise of New York's Free Synagogue and Dr. John Roach
Straton, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, to new oratorical heights.
devoted his 1922 New Year's address to inveighing against the "follies
and sins" that "deformed society"—among them,
"decadent manners, improper dress," and the way young
women "openly" used cosmetics. Straton, for his part,
mockingly used humor to make a similar point, composing a ditty
had a little skirt,
The latest style, no doubt,
But every time she got inside
She was more than halfway out.
public appeals fell short, Catholics took up the tape measure.
"Skirts are not to be more than twelve or fifteen inches
from the ground, depending upon the height of the girl. Skirts
are to be pleated or otherwise made to afford ample fullness,"
priests, nuns, and parochial-school teachers proclaimed, issuing
detailed bulletins by the score.
Catholics were by no means alone in their determination to measure
decency. "Wear longer skirts and win a badge," declared
Kiwanis Club, inviting girls whose skirts hung not less than
twelve inches from the ground to apply for an "emblem of honor."
such strategies worked. As the limits of voluntary compliance became
all too obvious, the church launched a campaign of steadily mounting
restrictiveness. For starters, preachers were urged by Rome to redouble
their efforts to sway the hearts and minds of the female faithful.
The church proceeded to back up its harsh rhetoric by issuing a
series of equally harsh "edicts" prohibiting "unchristian"
dress. First, it cautioned women against displaying their arms,
legs, or necks when attending religious services or gatherings;
those who persisted in doing so would be forbidden to enter the
to that effect were posted prominently in church vestibules throughout
1930, as fashion's hold on its faithful showed little sign
of abating, the church embarked on an even more drastic course
of action. Pope Pius issued a series of regulations--the "twelve
rules of dress"—that culminated in barring
the immodestly clad from celebrating the sacraments. "Girls
and women who wear immodest dress shall be denied Holy Communion,
and shall not be admitted as sponsors at Baptism and Confirmation,"
declared the church. |
of the debate quickly made its way to the world at large, prompting
the New York Times to observe wryly, "powerful forces
are in clash when the Catholic Church and the orthodox synagogue
unite against present styles in women's clothes." But--it hastened
to add--the clash was not between the ecclesiastic authorities on
the one hand, and the daughters of the church and the daughters
of Zion on the other. Rather, this particular conflict pitted the
powerful forces of religion, Catholicism as well as Judaism, against
that equally “mighty circumstance that goes by the name of
Fashion." And Fashion, prophesied
the Times, would ultimately prevail. "When Fashion
speaks, economic forces, social forces, psychological forces, emancipations,
progress and all the rest mean nothing. The dressmaker breathes
upon them and they are not."
Times was right. As the 1920s came to a close,
hemlines descended and short skirts fell from grace. "Knees
have withdrawn into the mysteries and a good thing, too,"
one newspaper editorialized.2
Manufacturers and merchants were equally grateful and
quickly filled their stockrooms and windows with the latest
fashions. College girls and veteran feminists, however,
had a different response: "Not on your life."
A poll conducted among Hunter College students revealed
that a whopping 70
percent rebelled against the prospect of wearing longer
skirts, prompting one newspaper to observe that never
had "so many girls presented such a united front"
on any issue.
the long skirt "impracticable, uncomfortable and
uneconomical," the undergraduates "hooted"
at the idea that it represented a return to femininity.
The long skirt represented a return all right--a "long
step backward in the progress of women's emancipation."
Besides, it was "inconvenient in the subway, impossible
to accommodate to the length of a coat and bad in its
psychological effect on the wearer because it banishes
her sense of freedom and comfort." Rumblings of discontent
soon spread from .the college campus to the city, where
many women, newly accustomed to the "freedom
of their limbs," lambasted the new skirt length
as an "insidious attempt to lure them back to slavery."
penned indignant letters to the newspapers or introduced
protest resolutions at organizational meetings, charging
that the new styles injured their health and produced a
"psychology adverse to the further progress of women."
And still others debated "the long and the short of
the dress problem" at their business and social clubs.
American women eventually adjusted their skirts--and their
sights--accordingly. Dresses, longer than they were at the
beginning of the 1920s but shorter than they were before the
war, now covered the knees but not the ankles. As knees retreated
from public view, so too did talk of rebellion. What endured,
though, were multiple variations on the theme of womanliness.
Thanks to the Flapper Janes of the world, consensus on what
it took to look and act like a woman broke down in modern
America of the interwar years. In the end, it all came down
to one thing: from this point on, definitions of womanliness
would vary as much as hemlines.
Jenna Weissman Joselit. A Perfect Fit: Clothes, Character, and
the Promise of America. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001.
2. Joselit, 71.