From Hemline to Refine: Evolution of Women’s Dress Code at LSU from 1900s-1970s
Jack Eroche, Alexander Lord, Hope Passman, Nekivia Sledge
The attire of female students at LSU from their college admission in 1906 through the 1970s undergoes drastic change in order to adapt to the dynamic environment. Two of the components that affected women’s dress during this time period were the social and physical environments. Women’s cravings for femininity, desirability, and popularity were important factors in the social environment that changed their attire. As for the physical environment, the need for better mobility affected the unofficial “dress code” for women. Finally, the relationship between the social expectations of women and their roles throughout the decades aided in the evolution of female fashion, specifically hemline length.
The changes in women’s dress may be a result of the slow-growing leniency regarding women’s social status and stature. Femininity and the that which was considered properly feminine also helped to shape women’s fashion. For example, in the earliest decade of the twentieth century, the predominantly matriarchal American society did not see women’s legs as tools of mobility, but as objects which held a strong sexual connotation. During this time, the bifurcation movement was characterized by a woman not recognizing that she has legs. In order to avoid being viewed with a lack of respect and morals, women would wear a long skirt that often times touched the floor (Femininity 10). In the 1920’s, women’s skirts began to shorten, as opposed to their previous floor-dragging “dress code.” Though shorter skirts became more prevalent at this time, men continued to see women’s legs as seductive body parts. In the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood changed the name of the game of women in skirts by depicting a nice, sophisticated woman wearing slacks (Femininity 11). As a result, a large portion of women shifted to wearing pants, as popularity of the trend slightly changed the “status quo,” which proved to be an important factor of the social environment. When the 1950s and and 1960s rolled around, some women reverted back to wearing skirts for reassurance of their femininity. Skirts were shortened most notably during this decade, as the hemline was elevated from ankle-length to right above the knee. This is demonstrated in Figure 1 below as all of the women have their skirts slightly above their knees.
An example of women’s shortening skirts is the “bloomer” costume, which resembled a short-length dress. The arrival of these shorter skirts was sparked due to the actions of a woman named Elizabeth Miller, who made herself a knee-length skirt to minimize the mess on her clothing and to maximize her mobility as she worked in her garden. She displayed her newfound “freedom” by broadcasting how easy it was to walk up and down stairs (Femininity 10). By 1969, the “dress code” at LSU had been officially abolished, and the 1970’s consisted of bell-bottom jeans and mini-skirts, as shown in Figures 2 and 3.
Not only did the social environment have a large effect on women’s dress, but the physical environment did as well. Women’s bottoms changed drastically over time to permit proper mobility. Susan Brown Miller summarizes the idea of early women’s hemlines affecting women’s movements by saying, “Inhibition is a matter of exposure” (Femininity 10). Essentially, in the early 1900s, women could barely partake in physical activity around the campus because of the restricting length of their skirts. The simple act of ascending and descending the stairs without tripping was a concern for women at this time. Technological advancements, like the bicycle, also called for shorter hemlines. Therefore, as women began to partake in more physical activity on campus, the need for shorter uniforms to allow more physical freedom arose. In the early 1900s, women started to play organized sports and also began to participate in activities outside of the homes, such as professional occupations. As their need for mobility increased, as did the hemline height. In the early 1920s, skirts for women widened for comfortability, and in the latter part of the decade, women’s skirts experienced the greatest amount of change throughout all the decades (Relationship of Fashion, pgs. 160-161). Around the 1930s and 40s, when pants grew in popularity, women incorporated feminine slacks into their daily attire for countless activities. Miller addresses this movement towards pants as more “boring” and less “sexy,” but clearly allowed for more movement. Additionally, she says, “Trousers are practical. They cover the lower half of the body without nonsense and permit the freest of natural movements. And therin lies their unfeminine danger.” (Femininity 10). An article on the early sports fashion for women in the 1900s discussed how women either wore “functional slacks” or a knee-length skirt as their “sport uniforms” (Early Sports Fashion 2014). As the 60’s approached, women wore shorter skirts and pants interchangeably, and women on LSU’s campus dressed freely after the abolishment of the dress code in 1969. Though the physical aspect had a great impact women’s clothing, societal viewpoints of women were just as strong of an influence.
The way in which people idealize women in the community affected how they dressed. There was a strong correlation between the restriction of women’s dress and the restriction of women’s roles in society. In the earliest decade of the twenty-first century, women were expected to work around the house, and very few received a formal education. Their dress in this time period, as mentioned earlier, was very limiting and modest. When the first women were admitted to attend LSU in 1906, their roles were to be sponsors to the cadets. As world War I began, the women joined knitting clubs to make socks, gloves, and many more accessories for the soldiers (History of LSU). In the early 1940s, during the Second World War, women were expected to wear uniforms, as shown in Figure 4. The uniforms consisted of a masculine top-half with a jacket, collar, and shoulder pads. The bottom-half was a knee-length skirt, which was effective in recognizing and maintaining a sense of femininity. Women’s roles during this war was industrial and war work.
Later in the 1940s, women’s post-war attire changed considerably. They wore longer skirts and more material to symbolize a mindset of freedom and prosperity as demonstrated in Figure 5. (Relationship of Fashion pg. 186).
Another example of the relationship between the social and physical changes is chronicled when pants increased in popularity. As pants grew in popularity for mobility and comfort, social pressures still had effects on whether or not some women would wear them. Some women were reluctant because of their lack of curves (resulting in their resemblance of a man from behind) or their abundance of curves (in cases where some women were too wide-legged for form-fitting pants). Both of these inhibitions manifested themselves because women cared about being viewed with some sex appeal. Additionally, as women integrated into the business world, they were expected to dress in a suit jacket (masculine) and a knee-length skirt (feminine) (Femininity 13). Therefore, one can see that the dynamic changes in the environment, along with the changing expectations for women, all contributed to the evolutionary “dress code” and the female hemline that was closely related.
Today, skirts and pants are interchangeable, as opposed to the past where women were not only expected, but required to wear limiting, floor-length dresses and skirts. The reformed dress code for women today is due to their dynamic socioeconomic standards and placement in society. The way women dress, the way people view them, and their roles in the community are all determined simultaneously. The evolution of women’s attire has moved from complete conservatism to a freedom of dress which allows full mobility and creativity.
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