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by Julia Sneden

Welcome to the big news of the day, as covered by the press: Michelle Obama, she of the long, beautiful legs, is wearing — gasp! — shorts on her vacation trip to the Grand Canyon. We are apparently supposed to be scandalized by pictures of the lovely First Lady looking like what she is: an American woman on vacation with her family, checking out an amazing view on a hot Arizona day. The Today Show eagerly reported media polls that register the publics judgment of her taste (or lack thereof), with one poll showing slightly over two-thirds of the respondents firmly stating that her shorts are fine by them. Almost a quarter of the people canvassed, however, registered distinct disapproval.

Id love to know what the other tourists were wearing on that day. From what I can remember of the crowds visiting the Grand Canyon, a pair of neat, clean shorts would register as not only acceptable, but as a smart move on a blistering day.

First ladies have always been fair game, but I dont remember polls being taken to evaluate Eleanor Roosevelts wardrobe: the press simply declared her dowdy. And when Nancy Reagan out-thinned and out-spent the rest of us, did anyone take a national poll?

The strictures of fashion were decidedly codified back then, and that being so, why ever would one bother to poll the public — the implication being a snooty What on earth would they know?

But times have changed as they always do, and this time, at least, it seems to me that its for the better, because the polls indicate that the Great American Public supports the First Ladys right to choose what she wears.

Mrs. Obamas dedication to comfort (witness her flat shoes for walking in parades) strikes me as sensible and laudatory. Women of my generation remember all too well the tyranny of girdles and garters and high heels no matter what the occasion, along with all those rules of what to wear over them.

In the 1940s, for instance, the big fashion news was that young women were now allowed to wear tasteful (read: loose-fitting) slacks for casual wear or when working in defense factories. Never mind that Dietrich and Hepburn (Katharine, that is — Audrey hadnt yet been discovered) had been wearing slacks for quite awhile, giving new glamour to the whole idea of women in pants.

By the early 50s, girls still wore skirts to school, at least until Bermuda shorts became a fashion statement in the prestigious seven sisters (read womens) colleges. Bermudas were a distinctly unflattering trend that gave way to the ubiquitous jeans of the 60s.

In the 70s, even elderly schoolmarms began to wear decorous slacks to the classroom — but there were still iron-clad rules about them. The year that I started teaching (1973), I remember complimenting a very chic, 70-year-old teacher on her with-it look. She had on stylish, white trousers. She smiled and replied: I figured I need to wear them all this week, because Labor Day is Monday, and of course one doesnt wear white after Labor Day.

Oh, those seasonal rules: no suede shoes after Good Friday or before Columbus Day; no white shoes until after Memorial Day; no patent leather after Labor Day; white gloves and shoes only in the summer, black or brown or navy shoes and gloves (always matching the shoes and gloves) in the winter; felt hats in winter only; straw hats in summer only, etc. ad nauseam.

And then, there were the rules for sports clothing. Our high school gym uniforms were blouse and shorts, but for a real game on the tennis court, a little skirt or tennis dress was the rule. In college, when I took a bowling class to fulfill my gym requirement, the teacher announced that we must wear skirts to class. We were not allowed to wear pants, because the position of the bodys slide as one released the ball was very unflattering (and that was when we still had slender young backsides). Apparently it didnt matter that our skirts might hitch up to reveal more than was considered acceptable.

There are times when Ive actually missed the old strictures. Its hard to figure out whats appropriate to wear to a 6 p.m., under-the-tent wedding (the brides mother wore an elegant silk dress: the grooms mother wore a dressy tank top and flowing gauze pants, and both looked lovely). Its tricky to know about a brunch/shower at a restaurant, never mind a reception for the governor when its held in a college cafeteria.

The upshot, of course, is that there really arent hard-and-fast rules for appropriate dress anymore. Neat and clean is probably all that matters. Gone are things like my grandmothers warning about a slip peeping out from below ones hemline (Its snowing down South!) or her criticism of too low a neckline (She exposed rather too much of the Continental Shelf!).

My only problem with Mrs. Obamas shorts is envy. Having been born with what my other grandmother referred to as a fatal shortness of thigh, its hard not to feel a jealous twinge when I see those beautiful, long legs. (Never mind the ravages of veins and barnacles related to my being over 70).

I do wonder why the press doesnt make note of the Presidents garb when he appears in shorts and a polo shirt, despite the fact that his legs arent half as attractive as hers.

The press coverage of the First Ladys shorts has run the gamut (pun intended) from pretentious to just plain silly. Lets give those who would stir up a hornets nest over her wardrobe short shrift.

©2009 Julia Sneden for


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