1919 February 7

Society Women Oppose “Indecent” Evening Gowns


The Federation of Women’s Clubs in New York City on this day approved a resolution opposing “indecent” evening gowns. The resolution accused fashion designers of taking gown styles “to the extreme limit of indecency,” and that this was having “a most demoralizing effect upon the youth of the country.”

The battle over the control of  women’s dress was one part of the history of the women’s movement in the twentieth century, along with the fight against government censorship of information about birth control and sexuality. On July 28, 1920, for example, the police chief in Long Beach, New York, on Long Island, announced that women would be allowed to wear one-piece swimsuits without stockings or shoes. At the Rockaways, also on Long Island, a local magistrate ruled that neither women nor men could “promenade” through town or ride in automobiles in swimsuits. And on January 8, 1969, girls at Washington Irving High School in New York City were for the first time allowed to wear pants to school.

Attempts to control dress, hair styles, and music is one of the long-running battles over personal freedom of expression in the history of civil liberties.

Attempts to ban long hair among male high school students was one of the battles over personal freedom of expression in the 1960s. On December 21, 1970, a law suit challenged a pattern of harassment of young men with long hair by the New Jersey State Police.

The New York City Federation of Women’s Clubs was not a totally frivolous organization in 1919, however. At the same meeting on this day it passed resolutions support U.S. membership in the League of Nations and condemning lynching. (Three months later, the first-ever national conference against lynching would be held in New York City, on May 5, 1919.)

Learn more about the history of women, sexuality, and civil liberties:  Leigh Ann Wheeler, How Sex Became a Civil Liberty (2013)

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