In the campaign against knees, medicine was one useful ally. "Scantiness 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 economy.

As 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."

But 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.

America's 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 issues.

A 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.

Wise 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 entitled "Mary's Little Skirt":

Mary had a little skirt,
The latest style, no doubt,
But every time she got inside
She was more than halfway out.

When 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.

American Catholics were by no means alone in their determination to measure decency. "Wear longer skirts and win a badge," declared the All-Chicago Kiwanis Club, inviting girls whose skirts hung not less than twelve inches from the ground to apply for an "emblem of honor."

Few 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 sanctuary. Signs to that effect were posted prominently in church vestibules throughout the land.

By 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.

News 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."

The 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.

Branding 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."

Women 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.


Most 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.

1. Jenna Weissman Joselit. A Perfect Fit: Clothes, Character, and the Promise of America. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001. 65.
2. Joselit, 71.