The Bermuda Shorts Affair

A proposed dress code for students ignited protest — and the activist spirit — on the Barnard campus in 1960

By Rona Wilk ’91

women in bermuda shorts, illustration
Illustration by Fabien Gilbert

New Yorkers woke up on April 28, 1960, to find the headline “Ban on Shorts Threatens Classic Barnard Couture” gracing the front page of The New York Times. Elsa Solender ’61, the Barnard press correspondent for the Times, captured the contentious debate erupting on campus over a newly enforced dress code barring women from wearing the then-popular Bermuda shorts, as well as slacks.

Barnard president Millicent McIntosh had been set to issue a statement later that day to the student body, supporting Columbia University president Grayson Kirk’s concern about sartorial impropriety on campus and his request that “women in the university wear skirts to class and off campus.” Despite the headline’s levity, the ban struck a chord. Many Barnard students felt the college acting in loco parentis had overstepped its bounds, and they saw the administration’s decision as an infringement on their personal freedoms — an infuriating attempt to police women’s bodies.

The following day, students sprang into action, showing up to school defiantly baring their legs in Bermuda shorts that soon became, as described in a follow-up article in the Times, the “campus badges of independence.” As the Bermuda shorts affair unfolded — covered at length in newspapers and on television — parents, alumnae, and even the editorial board of The New York Times felt entitled to weigh in on just what it meant for young women to dress as they pleased.

Petitions popped up in every elevator; astonished professors found spring-feverish students bent over their chairs in intensive scribbling. Four hundred indignant Barnardites were reported to have signed protests-in-advance.

The New York Times, April 28, 1960
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Student on campus in bermuda shorts 1960
The day after news spread of Barnard’s controversial dress code, two first-year students, Wendy Supovitz [Reilly] ’63, left, and Martha Kostyra [Stewart] ’63, right, paid no mind to the proposed rules, wearing Bermuda shorts to accompany Japanese guest Takako Hayashi around campus.  AP Photo/Anthony Camerano

Barnard’s peculiar position as a private space in the middle of the city made the administration particularly concerned with the public presentation of its students, who were considered not just private individuals but representatives of the institution. One alarmed alum wrote to Mrs. McIntosh to chide that such informal attire seemed “ill-suited to the needs of students … attending an urban college of high standing.”

Letters to Mrs. McIntosh and the administration both supported and opposed the ban. Those in favor often focused on the sloppy look of the shorts, which they felt were undignified given Barnard’s esteemed reputation. Others fixated on the inflammatory effect of abbreviated attire on men, leading to trouble that was, of course, the woman’s fault. One concerned woman — a self-described “70-year-old writer of love stories” — exhorted, “Desire is roused in any male who views the delectable sight. ... Give the New York male a break!” Another woman starchily suggested that shorts and slacks, plus excessive makeup, offered quite an “education” for young boys.

Those who spoke out against the ban emphasized the connection between freedom of choice and a thriving democracy, especially in the wake of McCarthyism and the growing civil rights and anti-nuclear arms movements. One alum cited “the freedom in all spheres of life and learning” that she felt Barnard represented as reason to strike down the sanctions. Another correspondent cheered the students’ protests: “This momentous struggle fits the tradition of free, liberal, democratic, choice education.” Even the president of a sportswear company wrote to voice his support of the student protestors by suggesting that Barnard was “entrusted with the very ideals of personal freedom on which our country is founded.” (He added that students could also concentrate better in shorts, without the worry of adjusting their skirts all the time for propriety.)

One student objection to the new restrictions was that the prestige of the University should not depend on what others think of the appearance of the students but on their leadership and scholastic abilities.

Barnard Bulletin, April 28, 1960
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Students on campus 1960
In an article, “The Long and the Short of It,” appearing in Barnard Magazine’s Summer 1960 issue, students are shown donning Bermuda shorts on campus. “The resolutions passed by the students showed a real sense of responsibility for solving our dress problem,” President Millicent C. McIntosh told the magazine. Photo courtesy of Barnard’s Digital Archives

The members of the Class of 1963 remember their own positions well. “I was fully supportive, especially for wearing slacks in the winter when the commute was pure agony on snowy winter days,” recalls Marlene Ruthen, a commuter student. According to dorm student Sheila Gordon: “We felt strongly. I remember wearing my Bermudas and protesting … and being angry that we could only wear them on campus and not ‘across the street.’”

Mrs. McIntosh had, herself, been increasingly concerned about the informal dress of students and the reputation of the college. But as a Quaker, she also believed in consensus, and that attitude meant she was open to the students’ suggestions. In a letter to student council president Ruth Cowan ’61, Mrs. McIntosh wrote: “I think you all know there is no one who respects the rights of students as much as I do.”

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Bermuda shorts illustration
Illustration by Fabien Gilbert

And so, a compromise was reached. The students would police themselves. On Columbia’s campus, it was skirts only, unless the student was just passing through, in which case a long coat could be worn to cover up shorts or slacks. On Barnard’s campus, Bermuda shorts could be worn, but they had to be no more than two inches above the knee and of a dignified nature “suitable to the academic institution,” which meant no gaudy colors or loud patterns, like the “orange, pink, and yellow” ones that Francine Stein ’63 laughingly remembers owning. The rules were published that fall in the 1960-61 student handbook.

As Cowan recalls: The rules went into effect, they worked, and that was that.

 

Said one very determined young lady, ‘Kneecaps are at stake here, as well as such minor issues as personal liberties.’... The babble of voices rose. ‘Let’s MARCH!’ ... ‘They didn’t say anything about the rest of our apparel; we’ll wear burlap bags.’

Barnard Bulletin, April 28, 1960
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Collage news articles

The protests of 1968 have received more attention over the years, but these early pushbacks against authority at the start of the decade can be seen as an opening salvo presaging the social and cultural changes to come. (And if Grayson Kirk had known what was in store for him eight years later, he might have considered Bermuda shorts the least of his problems.) Were there plenty of political issues to protest at the time? Of course. Cowan recalls a sit-in at a local Woolworth’s to protest racial segregation, and there was a protest in May 1960 on College Walk against “duck and cover” and the nuclear arms race. But the Bermuda shorts affair offers a glimpse of where society was heading, the rumblings of protest and change, and the ongoing conversations around women’s bodies that we are still having today.

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