One of the main characters in my 1950s coming-of-age romance novella Tomboy, Jackie, goes against convention by wearing pants whenever she can get away with it—and for a lot of her childhood, she can’t get away with it. During that period in the United States, school dress codes crimped the style of their students, but especially of girls.
My mom’s high school in Northern California required skirts below the knee and close-toed shoes year-round. You can still get my mom going by asking her how it felt to walk home in low-heeled pumps during the sweltering afternoons of June. (Well, sweltering to my mom. I’ve been to the Bay Area in June and find it downright chilly—but that’s a story for another day.)
There were also regulations on hair. For boys, if it reached the collar it was too long; for girls, there might be bans on specific hairstyles or guidelines on how to wear it.
According to The New York Times:
In Des Moines, the school dress code was so strict in the 1950’s that students were sent home for not wearing belts. Now, a spokesman said, “we think there are more important things to do with our time and efforts than enforce a dress code.”
The Board of Education of Buffalo, New York, issued these injunctions in 1956 (x):
- Dress shirt and tie or conservative sport shirt and tie with suit jacket, jacket, sport coat, or sweater
- Standard trousers or khakis; clean and neatly pressed
- Shoes, clean and polished; white bucks acceptable
- Dungarees or soiled, unpressed khakis
- T-shirts,sweat shirts
- Extreme style of shoes, including hobnail or “motorcycle boots”
In many schools, these restrictive dress codes carried into the 1970s. So I wasn’t surprised when, during the editing process for Tomboy at NineStar Press, my editor expressed disbelief when, around her sophomore year of high school, Jackie starts to show up to school in pants without getting sent home every time she does it.
The thing is, ever generality has its exceptions—even in the cookie-cutter 1950s. While researching Tomboy, I talked with a lot of different women who grew up in the 1950s, and while the vast majority couldn’t imagine “getting away” with pants in high school, others told me of girls who did.
A relative from New Jersey who started school in the 1940s and graduated in the early 1950s told me she wore woolen slacks to school all through winter.
“And then you changed when you got there?” I asked.
Nope, she told me. She wore them all day—which made her 10-years-older sister fume with both jealousy and disapproval because she’d been required to bring a skirt with her to school and change in the bathroom before classes started.
I asked my relative if it had been a big deal that she wore pants. She didn’t remember it being one. But her walk to school was more than two miles long, so maybe that had something to do with it. Or that she lived on a farm and people expected farmgirls to be practical sorts. In any case, when spring came, she was back to wearing dresses and skirts again. No feathers got ruffled.
My mom didn’t own a single pair of pants when she arrived in Washington D.C. in the late 1950s to attend college. Her dormmates thought that was just precious. They all owned lots of them, and some claimed to even have worn them to school. Most of these ladies were from New York. Maybe there’s something in the water in the Northeast?
But I heard from other female New Yorkers that they couldn’t imagine wearing pants to school in the 1950s—or even the 1960s.
Still, here and there the odd story of girls wearing pants to school cropped up. I couldn’t find much rhyme or reason to when it was permitted and when it wasn’t, though. I couldn’t find definitive geographical trends, though maybe I would if I made a scientific survey of it. Sometimes it was attached to practicality, as in my relative’s case. Or in being seen as “different from other girls,” which my relative also hinted at. In other cases, it might be a matter of a loosely written dress code—it was simply expected that girls would wear skirts, just as it’s expected that the sun will rise each morning, so no one had thought to specify that in the guidelines. Once girls started wearing pants, the dress code might be revised to prohibit them, or it might be left as is.
And some kids were simply stubborn and/or highly principled. They might see breaking the dress code as worth the price of detentions and other penalties, so they persisted in wearing what they wanted.
One thing was for certain though: absolutely no blue jeans!
And now, enjoy a film to orient you to to the dress code of Hicksville High School, Long Island:
You can also check my Pinterest board on 1950s fashions and dress codes.
To learn more about the setting of Tomboy, check out my Tomboy History tag. I’ll be adding more posts over the next few weeks.
2 thoughts on “The history of Tomboy: Dress codes in the 1950s”
Oh, my, that’s quite something! Clearly the rebels won the day! Also is it me, or are both the ‘ill attired’ boys and the ‘properly dressed’ ones checking each other out? 🙂
Hey, they might just be really impressed with each other’s sartorial choices. Though I wouldn’t rule it out!
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