The Great Slacks Showdown

By Nolan Moore on Saturday, April 25, 2015
ThinkstockPhotos-80282151
“Fashion is custom in the guise of departure from custom.” —Edward Sapir

In A Nutshell

Today, women wear pants all the time, but back in the 1930s, it wasn’t quite as common. Sure, movie stars like Marlene Dietrich were known to sport slacks, but some people still had pretty outdated ideas on the matter. That’s something Helen Hulick found out the hard way when she stepped into an LA courtroom and encountered an incredibly angry judge. Well, as any good person would, she fought for her right to wear what she pleased.

The Whole Bushel

Up until 1911, women’s clothing (at least in the West) was all about dresses, corsets, and lots and lots of petticoats. But in 1911, French designer Paul Poiret scandalized the world of female fashion with his jupe-culottes or “harem” trousers. Slowly but surely, pants for women began creeping into 20th-century wardrobes, and soon movie stars like Katharine Hepburn were rocking slacks everywhere they went.

Nevertheless, life was still pretty tough for women wearing trousers, something Helen Hulick found out the hard way. It was 1938, and Helen was supposed to testify against two burglars in an LA courtroom. Only instead of wearing a dress, the kindergarten teacher showed up in slacks. She wasn’t trying to rebel against the system. She just liked wearing pants.

However, the honorable Judge Arthur S. Guerin didn’t share Helen’s progressive views. When Ms. Hulick stepped into the courtroom, the judge kind of freaked out. He told Helen she wasn’t allowed to testify unless she was wearing a dress, and he ordered her to come back another day wearing the proper attire. Now, a lot of people would cower under the angry eye of a man with a gavel, but this 28-year-old wasn’t going to be pushed around.

When it was time for Helen’s testimony, she showed up wearing a pair of slacks. Now she really was sticking it to the man. But as you might expect, Judge Guerin wasn’t pleased. He launched into an angry tirade, blaming her for drawing “more attention from spectators, prisoners and court attaches than the legal business at hand.” Guerin rescheduled her testimony and ordered her to wear a dress, or he would hold her in contempt of court.

The next time Helen showed up, she was again wearing slacks.

She also showed up with a lawyer who was ready to defend her right to wear whatever she wanted, but once again, the judge didn’t want to listen. Instead, he sentenced the teacher to five days in jail where she was forced to put on a state-issued denim dress. Only she didn’t stay behind bars for long. Her lawyer sprung her out of jail with a writ of habeas corpus, and when he took the trial to the Appellate Court, it ruled in favor of Helen and slacks-wearing women everywhere.

Having proved her point, the next time Helen showed up for court, she was wearing a dress.

Show Me The Proof

FIDM Museum: Paul Poiret: King of Fashion
Stuff Your Mom Never Told You: When did women begin wearing pants?
LA Times: In 1938, L.A. woman went to jail for wearing slacks in courtroom