If you can wear slacks to court, thank a kindergarten teacher

A vintage ad reflects a time when only men wore the pants in America. This ad ran with the headline: “What a chance.”

I wrote about school dress codes the other day, tied to a petition by young women at an Atlanta high school who felt they were the victims of  heavy-handed and sexist enforcement of the rules.

That led me to spend some time reading about dress code challenges, including a wonderful Los Angeles Times story about a spunky 28-year-old who pioneered women wearing slacks to court.

Kindergarten teacher Helen Hulick in the slacks that landed her in jail. (LA Times Archives.)

Helen Hulick was a kindergarten teacher in 1938.  She was also a witness in a trial against two burglaries, but ended going to jail herself for showing up twice in pants, which infuriated the judge.

Here is an except from a 2014 story by the LA Times about this improbable rebel:


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 still in her slacks. The Times reported the angry judge told her:

“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…Today you come back dressed in pants and openly defying the court and its duties to conduct judicial proceedings in an orderly manner…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.”

“Listen,” said the young woman, “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.”

Held in contempt when she came back in slacks, Hulick was given a five-day jail sentence. A higher court overturned the contempt citation, clearing the way for women’s slacks in courts of law.

And that, is the rest of the story, or at least part of it. I am sure there are many other unsung heroines, including kindergarten and pre-k teachers right here in Georgia who have told me about fending off  “no athletic shoe” policies, noting their jobs require a lot of running after kids, kneeling down and physical play.



Reader Comments 0


From the Habitat for Humanity volunteer site:

Dress Code: Please dress appropriately for an office environment. No clothing with offensive images or language. Please wear long pants or knee length shorts or skirt. No clothing with rips or holes.


Maureen, when I read this blogpost, I was curious about why the municipal court judge was so upset about Helen Hulick's slacks.  They look fine to me, even by 1938 standards.  So I did a little online research.  I found that that the appellate court speedily overturned Judge Guerin's order and made clear that witnesses can wear what they wish to testify.   In fact, the law was already pretty well-settled on that point.   No breaking news there. 

Judge Guerin had no legally valid objection to Ms. Hulick's attire and he probably knew it.  His temper simply overrode his judgment.  I doubt Ms. Hulick's slacks were the real object of his wrath.  Several articles indicated that what really incensed Judge Guerin was this:  Ms. Hulick's demeanor and facial expressions.   The  judge claimed she "smirked" in his courtroom. 

Maybe Judge Guerin thought he could wipe the grin off Hulick's face by sending her home to change clothes like a child who violated a school dress code.  But when Hulick returned, she was wearing slacks again.    (She persisted.)   Judge Guerin didn't back down.   A media circus ensued.  Newspapers nationwide had a good time with the story.  

What happened to the accused burglars?  I don't know.  According to 2 newspaper articles, the burglary happened at Ms. Hulick's home.   No further details.   I'm guessing the trial was a bench trial (no jury, just the judge), but couldn't confirm.

Normally I provide links to my sources.  But not this time. The articles I found contain more photos of Ms. Hulick.  Better not tempt Lee_CPA2 & his x-ray vision.


Looking at the photo, young Ms Hulick apparently was also adverse to wearing a bra.  No mention in the article whether or not her antics resulted in the perpetrators of the burglaries going free.

It is not always about "you".  I'm sure most everyone associated with the burglary case would have much preferred she show up to court dressed appropriately following the established decorum, give her five minute testimony, and then go about the business at hand.  Instead, she turns the case into a three ring circus.

Tell you what, look back to some of the old pictures from the 30's, 40's, 50's and even  the 60's.  Then google "people of Walmart".  You tell me which you would prefer.


And so this means, I take it, that there should be never be any prohibitions regarding dress. Have you visited a courtroom lately and noticed the way the attorneys dress? I haven't seen too many in gym shorts, tank tops and flip-flops.



Astute observation and 100% true.Attorneys are smart enough to know that their dress and deportment are important in such a setting.

Also,you won't see shorts,wife- beater T-shirts and flip flops on defendants or witnesses in my old circuits courtrooms either.Judges may have lost the slacks battle (the tighter the better ladies,if you have the figure-that's my motto),but any visible writing or the aforementioned "trailer wear" will deny you entrance to most courtrooms in Georgia. Judges do have lots of say-so in how you appear before them.Usually,at the metal detectors in the lobby,the sheriffs security people enforce the dress code and they are pretty firm.


@redweather @DrProudBlackMan                                                                                              

straw man[strô man]NOUNstrawman (noun)
  1. an intentionally misrepresented proposition that is set up because it is easier to defeat than an opponent's real argument: "her familiar procedure of creating a straw man by exaggerating their approach" · [more]"you are constructing a straw man argument"


@DrProudBlackMan @redweather Au contraire, bro. The article is about a woman who attended a court session wearing pants and was eventually found in contempt for her attire. Based on this and other articles on this topic, Ms. Downing appears to have never met a "dress code" she didn't find objectionable. And yet the courtrooms of today, now almost eighty years after Helen Hulick's experience, are public venues where a "dress code" is certainly observed by attorneys and even many litigants. (We'll have to excuse the guys and gals in orange jumpsuits.)