FARGO — For all of those students today complaining about school dress codes — getting sent home for wearing a hat, low-slung jeans or showing too much shoulder through a spaghetti strap — just remember, you don’t have it that bad.
Some of your mothers and grandmothers had it worse, not being allowed to wear pants to school. (Your fathers and grandfathers had rules, too, like having to wear belts, no jeans and no long hair. But today we’re talking about the girls.)
Recently, Forum Communications asked readers on Facebook to share their memories and experiences with the “no pants” rules for girls. We received more than 100 replies representing experiences at schools all over the region and the country. Some commonalities started to surface amongst the respondents who agreed to let us use their stories.
Snowbanks and skirts
Girls in the northern United States bore the brunt of the “no pants” rule, freezing their knees when the mercury dropped below zero.
“Before they changed the policy, we would always wear long pants to walk to school and to stay warm. When we got to our lockers and pulled our pants off, we just prayed that we didn’t pull our underwear down, too.” — Beth Bouley, Grand Forks.
“My mom picked me up from Clara Barton (Elementary School) in a blizzard and was wearing a miniskirt and pantyhose, as she had come straight from NDSU, where she was taking classes toward her Master’s. She froze!” — Dick Lunde, Fargo native, now living on the East Coast.
“My mom would sew a skirt or dress and matching pants that we wore on the walk to and from school. We took the pants off once we were at school. Crazy!” — Jennifer Daul, Fargo native, now living in the Twin Cities.
“We had to be mindful of bringing pants to wear for gym class under our dresses. One fateful winter’s day, I forgot to bring pants and it was relay race day. Since I had to walk four blocks to school, all I had was my nylon bulky snow pants. I can distinctly hear my snow pants giving this ‘zoop, zoop, zoop’ sound that still resounds in my ear as we ran the length of the gym. Even worse was those funny little scooters, about 15 inch square, rounded edges, wheels about two inches off of the ground. It was all foot power. My snow pants kept catching under the wheels and throwing me off the scooter." — Deb McShane, Fargo.
"My family moved from New Rockford, N.D., to Hazen, N.D., in 1972, and the big incentive to the girls in my family was that we could wear pants to school in Hazen. We still would have had to wear dresses in elementary school in New Rockford. Pants under the dresses to keep legs warm in winter." — Dawn Rye Streifel, Fargo.
Not too short or long
Girls in school back then had to play Goldilocks. Their skirts had to be "just right."
Not too short.
"You had to kneel, and if the skirt didn't touch the floor, it was too short." — Cathi Chial, Fargo.
Or too long.
"My sisters got suspended for wearing 'granny dresses' during a time in which any 'weird clothing' was considered taboo." — Mark Covey, Moorhead, Minn.
The proper length by most accounts was knee to mid-calf.
Skirts, skorts, culottes and gauchos
Girls tired of wearing skirts to school tried to work the system a little by wearing skirt alternatives, including skorts (a pair of shorts with a fabric panel resembling a skirt covering the front) or culottes or gauchos (mid-length pants, that because of their fullness, resemble a skirt).
"I remember those days. In 1974, I was 13 and wearing a skort. Two young doormen wouldn't allow me into a gathering because it may look like a skirt, but because there were shorts built in, I was in violation of the dress code and denied entry." — Diana Hall, Fargo.
"It was very controversial whether culottes and skorts were classified as a skirt or shorts. Loved the culottes!" — Colleen Riley Nakamura, Fargo native now living in Seattle.
"My sister was sent home from Agassiz (Junior High) for wearing culottes. I think she was in eighth grade, which would have made it 1971." — Marsha Woodward Johansen, Fargo.
The issue started to boil over in the '60s
Like today, the amount of tolerance for violating the dress code varied among those enforcing it. But clearly by the 1960s, a huge generation gap was emerging as evidenced by this particularly (unintentionally) amusing story from the Fort Worth Star Telegram dated Dec. 3, 1965. The Associated Press reporter clearly had an agenda right from the first sentence.
"The perennial contest between the nation's free-wheeling school kids and the teachers who think pupils should look like people was in full swing Thursday."
The ball-of-fun reporter goes on to write that the teachers "as usual" had the best arguments against "funny" haircuts (AKA The Beatles mop top) and "exotic" or "unorthodox" clothing. He or she writes that "two minxes named Ruth Ann Skinner and Lana Simms flummoxed" authorities at their school in Missouri by switching things up in the skirt length department.
"Instead of wearing them thigh length, Ruth Ann, 15 and Lana, 16, sauntered into class in grandmotherly demureness clear down to their ankles," wrote the reporter.
Take note: within less than 100 words and two paragraphs, the two girls were called both "minxes" and "grandmotherly."
Pardon me, Miss Steinem, Ruth Ann and Lana from Missouri are on the phone for you.
Rules relaxed around 1970
While every school district is different with dress codes sometimes imposed by administrators or school boards, it appears the “no pants-wearing” rule for girls started to change around 1970. It was not a coincidence the women’s liberation movement was going full steam. Australian pop star Helen Reddy recorded the soon-to-be megahit “I Am Woman” the next year.
In many cases, the dress code was changed after students signed petitions or rebelled.
"Yes! We held a little 'protest' in sixth grade at Horace Mann (1970-71) and were finally allowed to wear pants. Before that we could only wear them under skirts for walking to school in the winter." — Rose Dunn, Moorhead.
“I revolutionized the dress code for the city of Fargo public schools when, in 1969, as a fifth grader at Horace Mann Elementary, I wore my little green corduroy pants to school. I had the backing of my mom, who told me that if I was sent home from school, that was fine with her. My fifth grade teacher, Miss Varlow, sent me to the principal's office. The principal, Dennis Holmgren (to borrow a Joe Bidenism, ‘God love him’) sent me back to class. By the next year, all girls and women (including Miss Varlow) were wearing pants to school." — Jill Fahrlander, Fargo native now living in Madison, WI.
"I remember that my friend Pat Caraway Dobier and I were rabble-rousers. My father was the principal at South High across town and of course that meant that I had to prove myself independent! Apparently we went into the principal or Miss Gladys Carney’s office (girls counselor) to show that we had frost bitten knees from walking to school on a cold day. I do recall arguments about inequality between the boys and the girls (which I’m sure probably fell on deaf ears), but they did see the frozen knees as a health problem." — Ruth Hansten, Fargo native now living in California.
"I went to the junior high principal to advocate for the wearing of 'hot pants.' That, of course. lead to a lifetime of activism." — Laurie Winterfeldt, Moorhead.
OK, but still no jeans
Even as districts started to relax the "no pants' rule, many held firm to the no jeans policy, often for both boys and girls. In some cases, jeans were only allowed on Fridays, "game days" or other special days.
"I graduated in 1972 from Clifford-Galesburg High School. We had to wear dresses until 1970. At that time, we could start wearing pantsuits, which consisted of pants with a matching tunic, usually made of a polyester fabric. Everyone was always neat as a pin! No holes or stains. Boys had to wear pants with their shirts tucked in, and a belt. 'Leave it to Beaver' days!" — Kathy Haakenson, Horace, N.D.
"I grew up in Minneapolis, and we could wear polyester pant suits in about 1970. One of mine was royal blue. The first time we could wear jeans to school was on the first Earth Day in 1970 because we were outside picking up garbage." — Barb Chamberlain, Moorhead.
It wasn't just high school
"My mom attended NDSU around 1964-66, and she was required to wear a dress if she stepped foot into the Home Ec building. She said even if they were only walking through. She went back in 1975 to finish her degree, and she no longer had that requirement." — Jillain Veil-Ehnert, Horace.
"I remember a friend who attended the College of St. Benedict in 1964-68, and she told stories of the 'Bennies' being required to wear a hat, hose and gloves if they ever went off the campus, including on the bus to St. Joe's or St. Cloud." — Terri Trickle, Moorhead.
The times they are a-changin'
Even after the rules relaxed some, "old school" teachers weren’t ready to embrace the change. But the girls were.
Kathy Vitalis Hoffman, originally from Fargo but now a pastor in Maryland, says she remembers the day the dress code changed in 1970.
“We were told about it at school when we arrived. Our teacher, however, told us that we should continue to wear dresses because that is what nice girls did. Most of us went home for lunch, and we returned to school with pants on.”