In the late 50s for a brief time it was against the law to wear shorts in Cowansville, Quebec. Having an extremely dusty memory these days I don’t recall if the surrounding villages and towns had the same law. I don’t think I ever wore shorts that much except to go on a picnic, and of course there were those Cowansville High School bloomer gym suits that were not only modest, they were also downright medieval.
Memories of walking by the Ritz’s five and dime on Main street and seeing a handwritten sign in the window that said “No shorts allowed!” seems like yesterday. Honestly, I had never really thought about it until I saw a newspaper clipping this week that pants and shorts on women should not be worn in public places during that time. Gossip says the law began in in my small town when the powers to be rushed through a policy in case some shapely females appeared in such attire on the street. Oh the horrors! The media reported that it was a popular vote, but I’m wondering with whom, because I remember my Mother saying a lot of women called the town hall every day to put a stop to it.
In May 1959, the Associated Press noted that the city council of Plattsburgh, N.Y., had voted to ban the wearing of shorts by anyone over 16 years-old on city streets. Violators were liable to receive a $25 fine or 25 days in jail. An alarmed woman wrote to the local newspaper saying it was “an advertisement for adultery when a lady wore shorts.” The writer also added she was a “decent person” who resented having to look at the “ugly legs” of men and women in shorts. Exposed gams, she added, were a “disgrace to humanity.” Sherbrooke even charged a ballet teacher with indecent exposure, while making her way to emergency at the Sherbrooke Hospital. She had broken her wrist in a fall and was in her dance leotard!
When I went to school we had to wear those awful navy blue tunics with a white blouse all the time. My kneecaps were frost bitten several times walking back and forth to school in the winter. We were allowed to wear pants, but they had to be taken off once we got to school. Because, back in the day, everyone knew only “easy” girls wore pants to school.
During one of my Grandmother’s ‘porch talks” she told me the real problem stemmed from the male youths that stood on the street corners and whistled at the girls. She herself had seen it many times sitting on her veranda on South Street and women had to be protected from annoyance and molestation. The word molestation was over my head in those days but I did know about the ‘street corner loafers’ as my Grandfather called them hanging out by the bus stop near the train station. The line had to be drawn somewhere they both said or we would be watching young women walking down the street in their bathing suits.
Nobody objected to women wearing shorts on the tennis court or to get a good suntan in their backyard, as apparently we were informed that the sun shone just as brightly in your garden as on the street. But shorts had their place in those days, and there was great public sympathy for the local troubled councils who had to reconcile their duty to the women of their community with feminine perversity in their attire.
I don’t know how long the law lasted as I had other things to think about. Now everything is a go, and women would never let their local towns and cities set the standards in a dress code. After all times have changed, and when a woman says “What?” about something– it’s not because she didn’t hear you. She is just giving you a chance to change what you said. My how times have changed!
Linda Nilson-Rogers My former ballet instructress was charged with indecent exposure, while making her way to emergency in Sherbrooke, Quebec, in the mid 50’s! She had broken her wrist in a fall…and was in her leotard!