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High School Girls

High School Girls

Wisconsin Historical Society Image ID: WHi-7034

Dress Code

Student dress codes have been controversial in Madison schools for at least 85 years. On March 25, 1920, the Capital Times reported on a meeting between parents and school officials.

“Rouged, powdered and penciled faces, ear muffs, silk stockings, high heels, georgette blouses, note writing, late parties, boy and girl relations, extravagances and courtesy were discussed by mothers of Madison boys and girls with Miss Carolyn Moseley, dean of girls at Madison High School.”

Mothers of boys thought girls should act responsibly, while mothers of girls thought boys should use common sense. “Say what you want about standards of morality – if a girl doesn’t demand them of a boy she won’t get them.”

Mothers believed the manners of both boys and girls should be corrected by their teachers. One said “a daughter often leaves home with the face nature gave her and appears in the classroom with brilliant cheeks.” They said teachers should send girls to the basement to wash off their painted faces before entering class.

Miss Moseley held up an envelope full of notes collected from different classrooms. “Read them! Read them!” clamored the mothers. “There are some here that I do not think I should read,” Miss Moseley replied, but then acquiesced and read one out loud: “Come tonight. Father and Mother will be out, and no one will be there to keep us from having a good time.”

Someone suggested that groups of mothers should get together, set limits on what their children were allowed to do, and then convey to all of the boys in high school a consistent message about those limits.

Meanwhile, in another room, Principal Volney Barnes was meeting with a group of fathers. The fathers were asking the school to set an end time for the upcoming school dance so they would know when to expect their children to return home. “Our children are out roaming the streets or riding in autos until 2 o’clock in the morning, and we should know about it,” said one parent. “The boys spend more money than is good for them, and the girls rouge, powder and dress to attract their attention.” Barnes told the fathers that “the stranglehold and cheek to cheek position” in modern dances are responsible for many temptations.

Perhaps the parents had cause to worry, based on the divorce proceedings of Emil and Leonora Sullivan, aged 23 and 17 respectively. As noted in the Capital Times on May 1, 1923: “Sullivan met the girl at a local dance hall. He introduced himself, took her to a chop suey shop, kissed her, and dated her the next night. Wednesday night they talked of marriage. Thursday morning they went to Illinois and married. Friday night they returned to Madison. Sunday night they separated. The next Sunday they went back to each other. Monday night the husband made the wife sleep on the floor while he chose the comforts of the bed. Once more they parted. This time it was for good.”

Judge Hoppmann ordered Sullivan from the courtroom after denying his divorce petition and delivering a lecture. “This man taking unto himself this woman who he had known only two nights and part of a day, got just what he deserved. This girl is just like too many other young girls of today who are too smart for their sisters, brothers and parents. They know it all. It is jazz, motor cars, and all night parties that lead to things like this.”

Mark Gajewski