Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Evolution Of Levis And The Mini Skirt

March Is Womens History Month
By Shirley Morris
©2011 All Rights Reserved

I landed my first 'real' job in 1966 as a senior in high school. I needed clothes and a surfboard desperately and the only way I would obtain these perceived treasures was to become employed and earn enough money to buy them.

It was a Mod Go-Go kind-of Christmas in 1966
My friend, Peggy called one evening and in her usual excited bubbly, smiling voice told me she had discovered a job posting in our local newspaper. At that time if you wanted a job you would look in the Daily Breeze under the correct heading, "Help Wanted Female". Many times the jobs would be the same as they were when posted under the heading, "Help Wanted Male" but the requirements and compensation for employment were not the same. Wardrobe requirements usually were white shirts and ties for men, while women (girls) were expected to wear skirts and dresses.

Now, anyone with a modicum of fashion sense would not be caught dead without the accompanying accoutrements consisting of the correct shoes (heels), jewelry, make up and pocket book.  Monetary compensation separating the two headings for men and women (girls) would usually add up to more than $100.00 per month and that was a lot of dough in the mid sixties.

As bubbly, shinny faced high school girls, we never questioned the practicality of the wardrobe requirements or the inequity of the wage differences - We were gratefully ecstatic to apply for and get  jobs as photo inspectors at the new Polaroid facility in El Segundo. I mean $4.25 per hour was almost twice what you would earn as a candy girl at the Fox Theatre. It was great fun, three good friends working together.... Peggy and I as photo inspectors and Jim, who hired on as a developer trainee at $4.75 per hour. This job was posted only under the heading, "Help Wanted Male".

Four hours of fun and aching feet! The heels, little one inch pumps, would start their torcherous assault about 45 minutes into our shift standing on a concrete floor. Jim wore sneakers or loafers and told us to quit bellyachin'! I must say, we bucked up pretty good.

A few short years later we became part of, lived through, embraced, repelled, celebrated, survived, Womens Liberation. As with anything that swings a pendulum either to it's most easternly or westernly point, there was good and bad. To this day, for the life of me, I do not understand why any woman would want to burn her bra.

For the life of me, I cannot understand any reasoning behind paying a woman less than a man for the same job. Nothing, other than they could get away with it. So, Womens Lib in all its radical glory was a good thing for the most part, but it certainly was not a new thing. Still, I did not own a pair of Levi's until I was twenty two years old.

Back in the late 1800's, Evelyn Cameron was accustomed to living a luxurious life and born to a wealthy British family. She would marry a Montana naturalist and move to eastern Montana where she would become the first female frontier photographer. Over the next thirty years, Evelyn chronicled western history and the lives of it's inhabitants by taking thousands of photographs. At the same time, she took care of most of the chores and duties necessary of one living on an early western ranch.

It was forbidden and unlawful for women to dress in a lude and unfeminine way. This meant Evelyn and her female friends were bound by law to wear long skirts and dresses with petticoats. Women were not permitted to wear pants, boots, overalls.... all proper and practical for ranching men but unlawful for women to wear.

Mrs. Wilder, winner 1910 Relay
Pendleton Round-Up
Evelyn witnessed her best friend and neighbor get her long, flowing skirt caught up in her saddle. Unable to free herself, the horse trampled and killed her. Evelyn vowed never to wear "unsuitable" clothing again and designed a costume that consisted of a split skirt. She said, "Although my costume was so full as to look like an ordinary walking dress when the wearer was on foot, it created a small sensation. So great at first was the prejudice against any divided garment in Montana that a warning was given me to abstain from riding on the streets of Miles City lest I might be arrested!

Mamie Stroud, Champion Trick Rider
Later, those full-looking costumes would find their way into the rodeo arena, evolved into a safer-but-uglier-than-dirt practical trick riding costume known as bloomers. Even in the rodeo arena, competing sometimes against their cowboy counterparts, cowgirls were expected to look and act like the ladies of their time. Quite a trick when you are trying to stay stuck to the hurricane deck of the same bronc that just a few moments earlier, hurled a cowboy friend clean across the arena, ending his bid for day money and glory.

Champion Cowgirl, Vera McGinnis nearly suffered the same fate as Evelyn Cameron's friend when the corset beneath her skirt became entangled on the saddle horn of her bronc. Vera was so angry she removed the corset while still in the arena and flung it over her shoulder vowing never again would she wear such a monstrocity!
Cowgirls of Irwin Bros. Wild West sporting pants and woolies

Vera is credited with wearing the first pants specifically designed for women while performing in rodeo events. Her idea came from a pair of mens pants with the zipper in front. She thought that was too masculine, removed the zipper and placed it to the side for a more feminine look. Soon, all the women performers and competitors were wearing feminine pants with the zipper to the side, thanks to Vera.

It was necessary for women to embrace and accentuate their femininity, especially when competing and performing rodeo stunts. Newspaper editorials screamed the need for men to "reign in their women" They continued warning "Men, your women will become muscle bound if we allow them to participate in masculine sport."
Dolly Eskew as the Prairie Rose

For rodeo and wild west show promoters like C. B. Irwin, it was necessary to portray cowgirls as feminine and beautiful. We embraced the beauty of Mabel Strickland and fooled the crowds with ringers for the great cowgirl Prairie Rose Henderson. Henderson, a gifted athlete could ride broncs slick and with the best of them but unfortunately for her, she did not possess the physical feminine attributes needed to showcase her skills. Irwin, the master showman had the idea to allow her to ride but when the time came to introduce her to the press, he used more feminine characters - ringers who would appease the public need for a more feminine cowgirl.

Dolly Eskew appeared as one of the feminine Prairie Roses and designed elaborate costumes of Maribou feathers, mink, sequins, beautiful velvet piping and told the crowds and press, "Riding a bronc is good for your health and keeps one in good physical condition."

A Cowgirl Is A Cowgirl, Is A Cowgirl....
Mabel Strickland, Texas Guinan, Dorothy Page, Marlena Dietrich all went on to glorify the cowgirl of the west in western movies. Oddly, the entire country became more comfortable with the needed changes in clothing attributed to the physical nature of the job, when it was portrayed by a feminine beauty on the big screen.

Thank you, girls! I will be forever grateful not to a wear corseted, long, heavy skirt if I ever decide to climb aboard a snortin', twistin', reach for the stars, sunfishin' bronc.

A feminine woman is immensely powerful.  I have never believed we would find our place or fulfill our worth emulating cowboys or any other man. The differences between yin and yang, even in the saddle are blatent. Maybe, if we can recall our history and the women who walked before us, it won't be necessary to take the proverbial two steps back and one step forward when the subject of femininity and equal rights raises it's twisted little head again. Just ask Mabel Strickland, Bonnie McCarroll, Prairie Rose, Bertha Blancett as well as a host of hundreds of unnamed ranch women and female homesteaders. As Bertha said, "I always behaved as a lady and the men always treated me as such." Few question that Bertha Blancett could ride broncs with the cowboy's best. Prairie Rose could design and sew a costume as well as ride a bronc, and stately mannered Mabel Strickland could rope and tie a steer better than most of her cowboy counterparts. So well that one cowboy asked Mabel's husband, Hugh to keep her away from the cowboy competitions because she made them look bad!

Maybe this time we will revel in our femininity with complete abandon; Wear Levis to work, a sequined gown to dinner, silk and satin to bed and finally, smash the archaic remnants of that glass ceiling in one last, swift blow! Knowing it is our adeptly feminine right to do so. Cowgirl!

1 comment:

Tim McMullen said...

Great story. I like the juxtaposition of surfer girls in the mid-1960's and cowgirls in the late 1800's. I, too, was a surfing senior in '66 although I spent my time further south in Huntington and Newport.

Although I am male, I have always been an unapologetic feminist, from the playground in grade school through high school, college, and forty years of teaching, and now in retirement.

One of the most important points in your story, though you do not emphasize it, is the fact that these discriminatory practices must be codified into law in order to be maintained. As has always been the case, and as the feminist pioneers (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Margaret Fuller, Sojourner Truth, Lucretia Mott, Ernestine Rose, the Grimke Sisters, Susan B. Anthony) affirmed, the plight of women and the plight of slaves were analogous.

The claim was made that blacks were too ignorant to learn to read, and therefore it was forbidden (one of the most flagrant hypocrisies imaginable, yet used perpetually) in the same way that women were denied education, property rights, voting rights on the grounds that a woman was not "fit for such things."

The legal clothing restrictions that you site are not much different than the absurdly sexist restrictions placed on women in modern theocracies.

Your message is gentle, but I trust that it came through loud and clear: Women deserve the opportunity to define themselves and to push through the artificial barriers that have been used to subjugate them through discrimination in wages, education, clothing, employment, religion and any other arena (including the rodeo arena) that has tried to hold them back.