When it comes to the beauty standards women in the 1940s were held to, there is only response: “Oh, brother.”
This clip from a mental hygiene film—the line of educational videos made in the 20th century to teach America’s youngsters how to act—was created in 1948 and titled “Body Care and Grooming”. In the years after the end of World War II, young people in the U.S. were solidifying into a brand new social group, that of the teenager. With the rise of car culture, greater freedom for teens, and a society that was bending towards the conservative gender structures of the Leave It to Beaver 1950s, parents were clearly becoming worried about making sure their kids behaved in a prim and proper fashion.
So, adults did what was only natural. The Committee on Medical Motion Pictures and the American College of Surgeons were called in to help produce this midcentury gem to teach their sons and daughters all about personal hygiene and cleanliness standards. This, of course, included defining the rules for how women should dress and the beauty standards they should conform to in order to catch the eye—and calm the frazzled school nerves—of the gents. Like we said, “Oh, brother.”
Beware the Bobby-Socks Brigade
By today’s sartorial standards, the transformed star of this video is positively conservative in her dress. She is praised—after she pulls herself together—for her perfectly pressed knee skirt, the tucked-in shirt that shows off her slender waist and her tidy little bobby socks. This last element may have been the proverbial bow on the proper coed's outfit, but in the early 1940s, it had an entirely different connotation. There was something of a bobby-sock scare afoot.
As WWII dragged on, the U.S. morality watchdogs became concerned about a new problem at home: victory girls. These were young girls, who were often characterized as teenagers but who also included young married women, who used their new-found freedom as their parents went to work and to war to roam the streets and pick-up servicemen. They acted sometimes out of boredom, sometimes out of a sense of patriotic duty and sometimes to exercise their new freedom. For this behavior, these young women were labeled “khaki wackies, cuddle bunnies, round-heels, patriotutes, chippies, good-time Janes, [and] Victory girls.”
As if fighting this moral crisis wasn’t difficult enough, the authorities suddenly began hearing about a newfangled piece of clothing: the bobby sock. “Everybody’s talking about bobby socks and the bobby-socks brigade. The police are ‘taking steps’ and sociologists and defenders of the home are calling meetings, but no one seems to know exactly what a bobby sock is and where it gets it’s name,” The New York Times reported on March 5, 1944. But everybody needed to calm down, the Times explained. The bobby sock was just an ankle sock by a different name and marketed to a younger customer.
The ankle sock became popular during WWII because women changed into pants and work uniforms and needed something to wear with their practical new work shoes. Plus, hose was impossibly hard to come by during the lean war years. After the conflict ended, "anklets" continued to be popular, but now among women of all ages. When moms bought these short socks at the store, they were labeled anklets; when their teenage daughters did the same, they were snapping up the latest craze—bobby socks.
By the mid-1940s, bobby socks had moved from a moral concern to a permanent fixture in the teenage wardrobe. They were now synonymous with saddle oxfords and crazed young girls screaming in the crowds at Frank Sinatra concerts. The bobby-sock crisis had been averted.
First Comes Sexist Beauty Standards, Then Comes Title IX
During World War II, women were code breakers and spies and the laborers propping up production both for the home front and the frontlines. They made ammunition, bombs and airplanes, dutifully and proudly clocking in to often dangerous jobs in factories across the country.
But when the war ended and soldiers began returning in need of jobs and a renewed sense of normalcy, women were encouraged to return to their traditional roles in the home. In the 1950s, the average age of first marriage had creeped down to 23 for men and 20 for women. With cultural norms becoming increasingly gendered, it’s not hard to imagine the sexist outcome of an instructional video set on a college campus that was intended to teach the country's kids about "Body Care and Grooming." It's all about beauty for women and brains for men.
But that all changed in 1972 with the passing of Title IX, which banned any university that received federal funding from discriminating based on sex in any educational program or school activity. With that one section of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, the sexism and gender discrimination prevalent in the American educational system began to change. Today, there is still a gender gap in education, although this time the problem has gone in the other direction. As of 2015, 72.5 percent of recent high school graduates who are women are enrolled in two-year or four-year college programs compared to only 65.8 percent of men.