Her Sinful Slacks

Her Sinful Slacks

Evelyn Bross, 19 years old, 2754 Jackson Boulevard, charged with violating a city ordinance by appearing publically in men’s clothing, was placed under psychiatric supervision until July 15 at a hearing before J. M. Braude in Women’s court yesterday. Judge Braude explained that there could be no objection to women wearing slacks as long as the garb wasn’t used for impersonation purposes.

Chicago Tribune, January 16, 1943

Nineteen-year-old Evelyn “Jackie” Bross was part of the war effort on the home front — she worked as a machinist at a defense plant in Chicago. In her line of work it was practical to wear pants — blue flannel trousers were what she preferred — along with sturdy oxford-style shoes. In fact Jackie hadn’t worn a dress or even a skirt since 1937 when she was 13 years old. As for her short hair, well, it was comfortable and she thought it looked good combed back with a little hair oil. She’d never worn make-up and she wasn’t about to start now.

Bross goes to court in pants. Amendment offered. Pic. - NewspapeWhy should other people get to tell a girl what to put on in the morning and how to style her hair? Wasn’t the war effort all about keeping America a free country and helping other countries become free too? Questions like these burned in Jackie’s mind when the police hauled her in to the Women’s court for violating the “Public Peace and Morals” ordinance, a municipal code that “prohibited persons from wearing the clothes of the opposite sex in public.”

Jackie, who lived with her parents, Walter and Helen Bross, and  ten siblings in an apartment on Jackson Boulevard, vehemently denied the accusation that she was trying to impersonate a male. “If I dress like a girl I’ll look like a boy and I’ll be picked up more often for impersonating a girl,” she commented matter-of-factly.

Judge Braude was not unsympathetic to Jackie’s plight. “I think the fact that girls wear slacks should not be held against them when they are not deliberately impersonating men,” he said. “Styles are changing.”

Change was afoot in more than just fashion. With the majority of men fighting in World War II, women were indispensible workers in munitions factories.

RosieTheRiveter_RosieJust three months after Jackie was arrested, on May 23, 1943, the Saturday Evening Post published Norman Rockwell’s iconic illustration “Rosie the Riveter.” Rockwell depicted a muscular, Michelangelo-inspired woman taking a quick break from her factory work to munch on a sandwich. She has massive arms, a huge neck and sits gloriously atop a wooden post, dressed in (pause for sudden intake of breath) a pair of overalls! She looks entirely comfortable in her body and not the least bit feminine, though no one would mistake her for a man. But there was no outcry of protest about the fact that Rosie was depicted in pants when the illustration appeared. In fact the image was so popular that the magazine loaned it to the Treasury Department for use in war bond drives.

Judge Braude pointed out that another young woman, who was arrested for wearing pants at the same time as Jackie, looked “feminine” thanks to the cut of her pants and the styling of her hair. He let her go without a penalty. Jackie, however, was released on $25 bond and ordered be placed under the “psychiatric supervision” of Dr. David B. Rotman for six months. The judge also instructed her to cover up her short hair with a headscarf.

Americans from coast to coast supported Jackie’s cause. In her hometown, Alderman William J. Cowhey agreed that she shouldn’t be penalized for wearing pants. He offered an amendment to the municipal code, stipulating that wearing clothing of the opposite sex was illegal only if the person did so “with the intent to conceal his or her sex.” The city council immediately approved it.

In July 1943, Judge Braude put Jackie and a friend, Catherine Barcz, who lived in the Bross home, on probation on a “morals” charge. The women had met each other at the defense factory where they both worked as drill press operators. At the court hearing their boss testified that both were exceptionally fine workers. Regardless of their work ethic, Catherine was married and Judge Braude ordered her to move out of the Bross abode and return to her husband.

The morals charge was likely the result of Dr. Rotman’s “psychiatric supervision.” The implication was that the two women were lovers, so the court stepped in to separate and penalize them. The court’s interest in controlling what Jackie wore had evolved into exerting control over her sex life. Perhaps this was the purpose of the “Public Peace and Morals” ordinance from its inception.

Bross tells of her favorite film - Newspapers.comFast-forward 33 years to 1976. By then Jackie had moved to Elgin, a northwest suburb of Chicago. A news reporter interviewed her for a light piece about favorite films. Jackie said she liked Ingmar Bergman movies, with her favorite being the Swedish director’s latest film, “Face to Face.” The film, about a psychiatrist driven to the brink of insanity by unpleasant memories from her childhood, was an interesting choice given the court-imposed psychiatric supervision and penalty that Jackie endured in 1943.

By 1976 no one in America looked twice at a woman wearing slacks or pants of any type. Headscarves had become popular too. Decriminalization of homosexuality was still a ways off in the future.

Jackie Bross died in 2004 in Manteno, Illinois.

Featured photo: Acme Newspictures photo of Jackie Bross at the Women’s Court in Chicago, taken January 8, 1943. Collection of the author.