How far would you go for fashion? In 1938, Helen Hulick - a 28-year-old kindergarten teacher - arrived at court to testify as a witness against two burglary suspects who had allegedly robbed her home.
However, upon entering the downtown L.A. court, she found the judge took greater offence to what she was wearing, not to what she had to say. It would later end up leading to her spending time in jail instead.
Dressed in orange-and-green slacks, Hulick had arrived at the courtroom to give evidence. However, almost immediately, the attention shifted to what she was wearing. The judge, Arthur S. Guerin, had taken particular distaste to her leisurely slacks – or what he kept referring to as her ‘pants’ - and forbade her to give her statement, instead rescheduling her testimony with an order for her to wear a dress when she returned.
On 10 November 1938, the feisty Hulick was quoted as saying to the Los Angeles Times, “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.”
From 9 to 10 November, while this entire incident was playing out for Hulick, Germans were enduring Kristallnacht – also known as the “Night of Broken Glass” – whereby the Nazis had, in a catastrophic and calculated display of anti-semitism, vandalised Jewish homes, schools, and businesses, torched synagogues, and killed close to 100 Jews. In the days following, approximately 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to Nazi concentration camps and conditions in Germany for Jews became significantly worse.
Meanwhile, however, back in Los Angeles, Hulick was to return to court five days later, once again wearing slacks. Judge Guerin was infuriated. As reported by The Times, he responded, saying: “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.”
He continued: “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.”
Once again, Judge Guerin tried to enforce his strict regulations: “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.”
Hulick was not backing down easily though and had already seen to it that her attorney, William Katz, had begun his defence. On this day in question, he was noted as carrying four thick volumes of citations that related to Hulick’s right to appear in court wearing whatever type of clothing she wanted.
Speaking to The Times after the second court date, Hulick was reported as saying, “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.” True to her word, Hulick showed up at court the next day wearing slacks once again. And, just as he had assured her, Judge Guerin held her in contempt of court.
She was handed a five-day sentence and sent to jail, upon which she was also forced to wear a standard-issue prison denim dress, worn by all female inmates at the time. The ruling led to the sending of hundreds of protest letters in support of Hulick.
Hulick’s attorney, Katz, obtained a writ of habeas corpus, which allows an arrested individual to be brought before a judge or into court in order to secure their release, unless lawful grounds have been shown for their detention. Hulick agreed to undertake a recognizance, which is a bond taken by a person before a court in which they will observe some condition, particularly to appear on request when summoned.
Katz declared he would be taking the matter to the Appellate Court, where Judge Guerin’s ruling of contempt of the law was to be later overturned during a hearing of the writ, and Hulick was given permission to continue wearing slacks to court. On her next date in front of a judge, however, a few months later, she was – point made and free from anti-slackism – to return wearing a dress.
Words: Grace Carter
Photography: Andrew H. Arnott