In Los Angeles in the autumn of 1938, two men were apprehended for burglarizing the home of Helen Hulick. Miss Hulick was the primary witness and victim of the crime. On 8 November 1938, she appeared in the courtroom of Judge Arthur S. Guerin to testify against the men. However, she was not allowed to take the witness stand that day. She was told by the judge that her appearance was unacceptable for the courtroom and that she was to go home and return properly dressed for the next hearing date. What was so offensive about her appearance? She was wearing slacks.
Arrested for Wearing Pants
Slacks or trousers were the terms used at the time to describe women’s pants. They were often flowy and fitted like a skirt from the waist to the hip with loose, wide legs, sometimes pressed with a sharp crease, sometimes cuffed, or sometimes they were almost like an ankle-length split skirt. They were also referred to as pajamas, dependent on the style (not resembling modern pajamas at all). Women often sewed their own slacks, and patterns were available from the large pattern publishers, but a good seamstress could always adapt a man’s pattern to suit herself or create her own.
In the 1930s, it wasn’t unheard of for women to wear slacks. Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn were rather famous for wearing slacks on and off the movie set. Ginger Rogers often danced with Fred Astaire on the big screen while wearing slacks or looser styles we might call “palazzo pants” today. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel began wearing and designing pants for women as early as the 1920s. Helen Jacobs, a famous tennis player in the 1930s, skipped skirts on the court, opting instead for shorts, much like we’d wear in modern times. Amelia Earhart spent most of the 1930s wearing trousers, whether she was flying a plane or serving as a career advisor at Purdue University. In the Los Angeles area, it was more common than other parts of the United States to see women regularly wearing slacks as casual fashion due to the influence of Hollywood. In many cases, women wore slacks for “sports” attire.
However, most professional or formal settings required clothing of a certain quality and conformity. It seems that Judge Guerin found issue with Miss Hulick’s clothing primarily because he found it unacceptable for a woman to be wearing “men’s clothes.” He considered it an affront to decency for her to wear anything other than a dress. She did not testify on 8 November 1938. The hearing was rescheduled, but the hubbub around Hulick’s “slacks case” caught national attention. The two men on trial were not named in a single article, but Helen Hulick, in her scandalous slacks, was photographed and appeared in papers across the country. She was quoted as saying, “You tell the judge I will stand on my rights. If he orders me to change into a dress, I won’t do it.”
It was noted in most newspaper articles that Miss Hulick was a Kindergarten teacher. She tells one reporter that she’s been wearing slacks since she was 15, and that’s really all she ever wore, saying, “I like slacks. They’re comfortable.” She did admit that she had just one formal dress in her wardrobe. For any teacher who is getting on the floor to read books, playing outdoors with young kids, or just having to be on her feet all day, slacks seem like a practical solution.
Given the growing normalization of wearing pants during the 1930s, it is hard to believe that a woman would be treated so harshly for the clothing she wore, even in court. Especially considering she was the victim of a crime and only present in court as a witness. Was it against the law to wear pants to court? Apparently, the issue would soon be settled by Miss Hulick’s decision to arrive in court a second and third time in, you guessed it, more slacks. She was allowed to testify at the third hearing, but as soon as she stepped down from the stand, she was arrested for contempt of court. Judge Guerin was reported as saying, “I see you have once more disobeyed the order of the court and have returned in mannish attire.” He sentenced her to five days in jail.
Much hoopla was made over Hulick being “forced” to put on a denim dress for jail, but she was released a few hours after booking by her lawyer based on a writ of habeas corpus. She had come prepared on the third day of courtroom slacks-wearing with her lawyer, hinting at the fact that the whole shenanigans may have been taken on as a test case. The Los Angeles Times reported on 10 November 1938 that Judge Guerin said, “When the young woman returns, then I’ll be prepared to test just how far I can go in maintaining dignity in my courtroom.”
The contempt charges were brought before the Appellate Division of the Superior Court on 18 November 1938. Superior Judges Edward T. Bishop and B. Rey Schaufer found Miss Hulick to be within her rights to wear the clothing of her choice and ruled that clothing styles did not come under the jurisdiction of the court. It was a victory for slacks wearers, everywhere!
The original burglary case was finally seen through to sentencing on 23 January 1939. The two burglars, finally revealed by name as Charles Spencer and Kermit Johnson, were again essentially ignored in most newspapers because Miss Hulick arrived in court wearing…a dress! Perhaps it was the one formal dress she owned because it was described as evening attire in a rust color complete with veiled hat. The press reported her as giving up slacks and claiming that she “had a date every night since she started dressing like the rest of the girls,” but it seems as if she was playing them for the easy joke. Thanks to Helen’s willingness to wear the pants, and get arrested for it, women ultimately gained one more step toward making decisions for themselves.
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Throughout history clothing has not only been a necessity, but has also been a canvas for self expression, artistry and even political stance. The clothing worn by us and our ancestors has often been set by tastemakers of the day and adapted to fit geography, need and socio-economic status. It has also been influenced by events of the time period, particularly during times of war, economic boom and depression, and even epidemics. For instance, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, as scientists discovered more about germs and how diseases are transmitted, it was thought that women’s skirts trailing in the dirt or mud carried the bacteria which caused tuberculosis (then called consumption, and one of the leading causes of death); the same was thought for the shape of men’s moustaches, beards and sideburns, which were extravagant in style during the era. Corsets, too, came under scrutiny as they were thought to limit the movement of the lungs and blood circulation. Therefore, hems were shortened, corsets were loosened (ever so slightly) and hair was trimmed as fashion underwent changes to adapt to the learning of the time. Flour or seed sack dresses were made from the cotton sacks which held grain, seed and other goods, as a product of necessity from the economic fallout of the Great Depression and World Wars I and II, even becoming so popular that manufacturers were prompted to begin printing sacks with floral and geometric designs for their second purpose as clothing.
Clothing and fashion, aside from being interesting to look at, can also apply to family history. Many families may have photographs, drawings or paintings, and heirlooms such as hand-made quilts and cross-stitch samplers or even jewelry and service medals in their possession which can be identified and dated based on fashion or fabric choice. These items are just as important to genealogy as documents and DNA. The fashion and styles of different eras can also provide us with context of our ancestors, even when no photographs remain.
One of the best ways to identify clothing or hairstyles from a particular era and geographic location is through newspaper research. Newspapers local to where your ancestors lived often published drawings and photographs of community members, as well as all the “latest fashions'' depicted in advertisements for local merchants and as community news. Fashion trends throughout history often began in Paris and filtered through London to large cities on the east coast of the United States, such as New York and Philadelphia, and out through communities nationwide. Even rural communities adopted (and adapted) popular styles which connected them with the rest of the world. Side-by-side photographs of fashions featured in newspapers for every year between 1900 and 1920 can be viewed through the Library of Congress.
Another way to understand the fashions of a particular era is to become familiar with the art and textiles of a particular time period. The Fashion Institute of Technology has a comprehensive Fashion History Timeline which can be viewed by decade. Museums and historical societies will often have original or reproduction period clothing which is both specific to a time period and the geographic region of interest. Books are also often available which showcase fashion through the years and can help date family heirlooms.
Getting to know your ancestors through the clothing they wore and the fashion they followed provides a creative way to better understand how they may have expressed themselves, presented to their communities and even fit into the world. Photographs or quilt squares can have new meaning with a better understanding of where they came from and what they meant for the time period.
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