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Why Was Wearing Slacks to Court So Controversial in 1938?

In 1938, slacks were a symbol of women's defiance against rigid dress codes, challenging societal norms that dictated femininity. Wearing them to court was an act of rebellion, questioning gender roles and the legal system's conservatism. How did this fashion choice echo through history, and what does it tell us about today's dress codes? Join the conversation and share your thoughts.
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman

In November 1938, Helen Hulick came to court as a witness, but she left in custody – all because of her choice of wardrobe.

The 28-year-old kindergarten teacher wore slacks during her court appearance in Los Angeles, where she was testifying as a witness about a burglary. However, the actual crime became an afterthought to the courtroom drama that unfolded. Judge Arthur S. Guerin halted the trial, demanding that Hulick wear a dress on the rescheduled court date. Apparently, her choice to wear pants – unusual for women at the time – was distracting from the court proceedings. She refused and appeared in slacks again the next time, and the time after that.

At a 1938 burglary trial, witness Helen Hulick was jailed for refusing to wear a dress, rather than her beloved slacks, to court.
At a 1938 burglary trial, witness Helen Hulick was jailed for refusing to wear a dress, rather than her beloved slacks, to court.

On her third trouser-clad court appearance, Guerin made good on his warning to jail her, citing disorderly behavior and contempt of court. She was sentenced to five days in jail – where she was forced to wear a denim dress, though she was released later the same day. A visit to the Appellate Court – supported by hundreds of pro-slacks letters – overturned Guerin’s ruling, allowing Hulick to wear whatever she wanted. Having made her point and cleared the way for future generations of women to make their own wardrobe choices, Hulick chose a formal evening dress and high heels for her next visit to the courtroom, as the burglary trial finally went ahead.

“If he puts me in jail I hope it will help to free women forever of anti-slackism”:

  • “You tell the judge I will stand on my rights. If he orders me to change into a dress I won’t do it. I like slacks. They’re comfortable,” Hulick told the Los Angeles Times.

  • Following her principled stand for equality in clothing choices, Helen Hulick (later known by her married name, Helen Beebe) became a pioneer in deaf education and speech therapy, specifically auditory-verbal therapy, which utilizes residual hearing to help with speech development.

  • Beebe founded a speech and hearing center that she directed for over 40 years, and was active in many groups and organizations, such as the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf, the Foundation for Children’s Hearing, Education, and Research, and Auditory-Verbal International (AVI).

Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for WiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education. Learn more...
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman
Margaret Lipman is a teacher and blogger who frequently writes for WiseGEEK about topics related to personal finance, parenting, health, nutrition, and education. Learn more...

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    • At a 1938 burglary trial, witness Helen Hulick was jailed for refusing to wear a dress, rather than her beloved slacks, to court.
      At a 1938 burglary trial, witness Helen Hulick was jailed for refusing to wear a dress, rather than her beloved slacks, to court.