In 1921, consternation reigned in Burlington. Sides were chosen and generation gaps widened as one city struggled with that age-old conundrum: “What’s the correct way to dress for a young woman?”
The 1920s had ushered in the “flapper” era of skintight dresses and loose swimsuits, and not even the closed youth of Burlington were deaf to the call of the gin and jazz sirens.
The issue of changing social standards and a burgeoning feminist awareness would be fought in that local institution of bohemian and free-thinking: the local high school, where the hems of skirts were working their way up to many knee-length dimples.
The battle cry against this creeping decay of morality was launched by a visiting Temperance lecturer, Ms. Linne Carl, who appeared before the Burlington Women’s Club to raise the general damnation clamor for all that was wrong in the older generation. young.
“Immorality among high school students is greater than among college students (gasp),” warned the ever diligent Ms. Carl. “Clothing has a lot to do with the immorality of girls and women today.”
Linne admitted that high-necked garments, skirts to the ankles and sleeves to the wrist and all made of heavy sackcloth may lack comfort. But, he said, such clothing was still highly preferable to the alternative, where “scarcity is suggestive and this is where the damage comes in.”
Ms. Carl urged the girls at Burlington High School to receive “strong direction from the right channels” in the matter of acceptable dress and there was a lot of that direction coming.
That year the National Congress of Mothers, meeting in Washington, DC, declared that high school girls should use “no lipstick or powder, no silk stockings, no high heels, no tight skirts.” Others have called for even more restrictions and the Missouri Chapter of Mothers argues that the human knee should never be exposed.
The Burlington Hawk Eye, always alert to the possibility of a juicy local scandal, has decided to have some fun with the controversy. The newspaper hired reporter Dorothy Kremlin to find a typical high school student and gauge her reaction to the dictates of draconian fashion and parental restrictions.
The publisher’s directions to the Kremlin reporter were very specific: “Take a typical 1921 girl in her half-tights and Ben Hur skirt, her make-up box and her cigarette case. Have her pose for a photo to illustrate your story. You probably won’t be able to find a costume of a demure Miss from ten years ago, so we’ll have the artist draw one from memory.
The Kremlin, with little idea of the storm it was about to unleash, began its search for Burlington’s version of the flapper girl. She began her research by approaching high school girls to shop along Jefferson Street. There he asked the girls if they would be the subject of a story about young people’s need for self-expression and freedom in fashion.
The reporter was quickly discouraged as none of the female students she met would participate in her investigation. Where were the wild and unbridled Burlington High School students flying in front of public standards? Where were the girls dancing, smoking, and wearing provocative dresses that the lecturer Carl had warned about?
The Kremlin argued that no potential “libertine” would be able to get his mother’s permission before going out as a “vampire”. The frustrated writer then went straight to the school to speak to the school administrator, Miss Ester Jacobs, to ask why the Burlington girls weren’t on the cutting edge of fashion.
Miss Jacobs explained that high school approached the problem of “fashion extremes” in several ways. One method employed was to carefully dictate the type of clothing that would be created in the compulsory home economics class.
“Under Miss Lamb’s direction,” said Jacobs, “girls are learning how to make their own clothes, make them sense and become. This is bound to be a good influence. Sure, some may step over the boundaries and go to extremes. “, he added ominously. “But it’s nothing we can’t deal with.”
Another weapon wielded by school administrators in their battle against the moral handkerchief was in the gym class. Starting that year, all girls had to wear their gym “middy” blouses to school and it was virtually impossible for a high school girl to be alluring, or even trendy, wearing a top the size and cut of a curtain. as a puppy.
Journalist Kerlin’s investigation revealed that pressure from parents and the school was managing to keep the young women of the city on track. The reporter was able to write that high school girls would do well to follow certain behavioral rules if they wanted to avoid censorship.
“Refrain from indecent clothing, stop smoking and dancing improperly, stop painting your face, avoid suggestive films, exclude obscene literature and immoral comedies and stop riding with joy.”
Those rules made it easy to stick to Kerlin’s latest suggestion: “get enough sleep.”