In 1938, L.A. woman defied a judge's order and wore slacks in court, earning her a five-day jail sentence
Kindergarten teacher Helen Hulick made Los Angeles court history — and struck a blow for women's fashion — in 1938. Hulick arrived in downtown L.A. court to testify against two burglary suspects. But the courtroom drama immediately shifted to the slacks she was wearing.
Judge Arthur S. Guerin rescheduled her testimony and ordered her to wear a dress next time. Hulick was quoted in the Nov. 10, 1938, Los Angeles Times saying:
You tell the judge I will stand on my rights. If he orders me to change into a dress I won't do it. I like slacks. They're comfortable.
She returned to court five days later — in slacks — infuriating the judge. The Times reported: In a scathing denunciation of slacks — which he prosaically termed pants — as courtroom attire for women, Guerin yesterday again forbade Helen Hulick, 28, kindergarten teacher, to testify as a witness while dressed in a green and orange leisure attire.
The last time you were in this court dressed as you are now and reclining on your neck on the back of your chair, you drew more attention from spectators, prisoners and court attaches than the legal business at hand. You were requested to return in garb acceptable to courtroom procedure.
Today you come back dressed in pants and openly defying the court and its duties to conduct judicial proceedings in an orderly manner. It's time a decision was reached on this matter and on the power the court has to maintain what it considers orderly conduct.
The court hereby orders and directs you to return tomorrow in accepted dress. If you insist on wearing slacks again you will be prevented from testifying because that would hinder the administration of justice. But be prepared to be punished according to law for contempt of court.
Slack-shrouded Miss Hulick was accompanied by Attorney William Katz, who carried four heavy volumes of citations relative to his client's right to appear in court in whatever dress she chose. She said:
Listen. I've worn slacks since I was 15. I don't own a dress except a formal. If he wants me to appear in a formal gown that's okay with me. I'll come back in slacks and if he puts me in jail I hope it will help to free women forever of anti-slackism.
The next day, Hulick showed up in slacks. Judge Guerin held her in contempt. She was given a five-day sentence and sent to jail. "After being divested of her favorite garment by a jail matron and attired in a prison denim dress, Miss Hulick was released on her own recognizance after her attorney … obtained a writ of habeas corpus and declared he would carry the matter to the Appellate Court," The Times reported. Hundreds sent letters of protest to the courthouse. Guerin's contempt citation was overturned by the Appellate Division during a habeas corpus hearing. Hulick was free to wear slacks to court. A couple of months later, Hulick came back to court. Her point made, this time she wore a dress.On comment on this retrospective article at the Los Angeles Times noted that:
When I moved to western Michigan in 1973, women attorneys were not allowed to wear slacks, even tailored pant suits, in some judges courtrooms.Now, of course, in the era of "Orange is the New Black" women in jail or prison are rarely allowed to wear dresses or skirts even if they want to do so. And, about one in three women incarcerated in the world are incarcerated in the U.S. prison system, despite the fact that the U.S. has only about 5% of the world's population.
The direct contempt of court power under which Miss Hulick was incarcerated is essentially unchanged today from the way it was in 1938.