Threatening Style: Clothing Laws and Enforcement from 1880-1930

Threatening Style: Clothing Laws and Enforcement from 1880-1930

This month’s post follows suit from last month’s The Hat-Pin: Fashionably Dangerous. Below are laws and arrests as related to the hat-pin and other fashion items considered morally corrupt, impeding, or dangerous to society….

1 Shorten and Cap those Hat-Pins

Kantluze Hat Pin, “Cannot Injure Scalp, Ornamental Tops,” From @nypl digital collections.

As the hat-pin became a formidable preventionary tactic from lecherous men, some long hat-pins became worrisome to the public for the potential damage they could inflict. Cities began enacting laws that would regulate the size of the hat-pins to prevent more serious damage. Check out some of the laws that were passed, most of which are noted in the book, The Hatpin Menace[1]:

  • March 1910 – Chicago passed a law that banned any hat-pin longer than 9 inches.[2]
  • April 3, 1913 – A New Jersey law stated that any hatpin which could inflict a laceration upon another person needed to be covered with a protective tip. Any violators would be fined between $5-$25.
  • April 12, 1913 – In Massachusetts, a law went into effect that made it illegal to wear a hat-pin that extended ½” beyond the hat being worn, unless the end of the hat-pin was covered with a protective tip
Photographed in Tallahassee, Florida between 1885 and 1910, Alvan S. Harper (1847-1911), No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

British Postcard of Billie Burke, 1912, Philco Series Postcard, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

2 Anti-Hat Theater Laws

Can you imagine watching a show from behind these hats? In the 1890s, ladies’ hats had reached enormous proportions. For those attending the theater to watch a performance, this could be a problem if their view was blocked. In fact, this became such an issue that many cities began passing laws that prevented women from wearing large hats to the theater! Here are some of many examples, again as found in the book, The Hatpin Menace[3]:     

  • 1892 – Boston theater managers urged ladies to wear a small bonnet or to remove their large hats during the performance
  • January 19, 1897 – a bill was introduced and later passed in Missouri that would fine any theater managers that permitted large hats, and required police officers to arrest anyone entering the theater who was wearing a large hat
  • February 26, 1897 – the Louisville, KY City Council passed an anti-hat theater bill which prevented ladies from wearing large hats to the theater
  • March 15, 1897 – San Francisco passed a law that would fine and imprison anyone wearing a large hat to the theater

3. Think Twice Before Wearing Pants

Female racing cyclist, Marie Tual, wears cycling bloomer pants in this photo, 1896-1897, Jules Beau, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

For women who wanted to wear pants in this period, it was a serious matter. The biking craze of the 1890s presented a legitimate need for bifurcated apparel, and helped spur the use of pants by women, but they needed to tread cautiously. Many laws prohibited cross-dressing and this issue tiptoed up to the legal line.

  • 1848 – 1900 – as noted in Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco, 34 cities and 21 states passed laws that prevented a person from “wearing a dress not belonging to his or her sex” or “wearing the apparel of the other sex.”[5] Pants were considered to belong to men and dresses to women.
  • 1892 & 1909 – A law in France, initially enacted in 1799, prohibited women from wearing pants but was amended during in 1892 and 1909 to allow for women in pants if they were “holding a bicycle handlebar or the reins of a horse.” [the law was only revoked in 2013, although it had largely been ignored for years by that time][4]
  • 1913 – in one example of an actual arrest, Elizabeth Trondle of Brooklyn received a 3-year prison sentence for wearing men’s clothing.[6] She was believed to be morally corrupt for the act.  

4. Beware of a Bathing Suit Scandal

1922, National Photo Company Collection., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Recreational bathing was a newer pastime in 1880, especially for women, and bathing costumes largely resembled women’s daywear. This was cumbersome for the water, and as the years progressed, women’s bathing suits began to resemble the more linear, less-layered men’s bathing suits. This meant more skin might show, and some felt that this exposure was indecent.

  • 1907 – famous female swimmer, Annette Kellerman, was arrested in Boston for her bathing suit, which resembled the men’s fitted suits of the period. As a competitive swimmer, she had worn this for years in her native Australia and in England, but this was not yet accepted in the U.S. A judge ultimately decided that she could wear the suit, but had to cover it with a robe until she entered the water.[7]
  • 1908 – in Australia, a new ordinance that aimed to promote decency required additional clothing to be worn over bathing suits, which reached from the neck to the knees, while on the sand. Beach kimonos, which had become popular as a cover-up, were not considered sufficient. [8]
  • 1922 – a woman was arrested in Chicago for “rebelling against a Chicago edict against ‘abbreviated’ or ‘brief’ bathing suits on beaches.”[9]
  • 1922 – Colonel Sherrill, the Superintendent of Public Buildings and Grounds in Washington, D.C. passed a law that bathing suits cannot be higher than 6 inches above the knee. In the photo above, policeman, Bill Norton, literally measures the length of the bathing suits at Tidal Basin Bathing Beach.

These laws reflect a more conservative era in Western fashion history, but our perceptions of what is considered acceptable or stylish continually change. Who knows what we will look back on in 20 years and find unusual that we wear today? Hopefully nothing wound-inflicting like an extremely large hat-pin.

La Belle Otero, ca. 1910, Jean Reutlinger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to the sources under References below for excellent information on fashionable laws and related arrests in history!

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like:

The Australian Mermaid: Annette Kellerman

Cycling with Style

What Will She Do in a Skirt?


[1] Kerry Segrave, The Hatpin Menace: American Women Armed and Fashionable, 1887-1920, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, 2016.

[2] Karen Abbott. “The Hatpin Peril” Terrorized Men Who Couldn’t Handle the 20th-Century Woman

[3] Kerry Segrave, The Hatpin Menace: American Women Armed and Fashionable, 1887-1920, Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co, 2016.

[4] BBC News, “Paris women finally allowed to wear trousers,” February 4, 2013.

[5] Clare Sears, Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco, New York: Duke University Press, 2015

[6] Kevin Leo Yabut Nadal, Queering Law and Order: LGBTQ Communities and the Criminal Justice System, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2020. p. 24.

[7] Emily Gibson and Barbara Firth, The Original Million Dollar Mermaid: The Annette Kellerman Story, Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2005.

[8] Douglas Booth, Australian Beach Cultures: The History of Sun, Sand and Surf, New York: Routledge, 2001.

[9] Hannah Militano, “The Strangest Fashion Laws Throughout History,” July 8, 2020,


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