The Royal Teens had just one big hit song: Short Shorts. It hit #3 on Billboard’s chart way back in 1958. Personally, I have to admit that I first became familiar with the song when Nair began to use it in their television commercials back in 1975. The song was co-written by then 15-year-old Bob Gaudio, who would later find fame as the keyboardist and principal songwriter for The Four Seasons. Among the hits that he penned were Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man, Rag Doll, Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You, and December 1963 (Oh, What a Night).
But I have already detoured a bit off-topic. Today’s podcast is not about Bob Gaudio or Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons or about any of their hits. It’s about shorts. In particular, short shorts and the scandalous amount of skin that they reveal.
So, let’s zip back to June 16, 1935. Here we find William Slater, an alderman for the Ninth Ward of Yonkers, New York posted at the intersection of McLean Avenue and the former Croton Aqueduct just waiting to jump into action. He was accompanied by a professional photographer armed with a movie camera. Slater chose this particular spot because it was located just North by about 100-yards (100-meters) from the border between New York City and Yonkers. This just happened to be the starting point for thousands of hikers who wished to leave the heat of the big city behind. Many were headed for Tibbets Brook Park, which was a bit peculiar in the fact that the park owned by Westchester County, while all the land surrounding it was within the city of Yonkers.
And then it happened. First, one group of two girls and then another group of three, set foot in Yonkers while Alderman Slater had their actions recorded on film. It’s not what the girls were doing that was the problem. Instead, it was what they were wearing. They were all wearing shorts that were cut too high and some even had the nerve to wear revealing bandana halters that were knotted around their necks.
Once Slater was sure that he had captured the necessary evidence on film, he summonsed two patrolmen and ordered them to round up the girls, all between 18 and 25 years of age. They were supposedly in violation of a city ordinance that banned the appearance of any scantily-clad person on the streets of Yonkers. All five were issued summonses and ordered to appear before a city court judge the next day.
The Alderman’s actions were not without merit. He told reporters that he had received numerous complaints from residents who lived in the area surrounding Tibbett’s Brook Park about inadequately attired hikers who passed through their neighborhood nearly every Sunday during the warmer months.
Four of the five women appeared before Judge Martin Fay that Monday, but Alderman Slater decided not to make a formal complaint against the women, claiming that he did not “wish to embarrass the girls.” As a result, the judge let the girls go with the following warning, “All we desire you to do is just dress the way the women in Yonkers dress when upon our public streets.”
This did not mean that Slater was going to simply turn a blind eye to the filth that was now strolling down the streets of Yonkers. He promised that if it happened again, additional summonses would be issued and, if needed, more drastic legal action would be taken.
By now, the story had made national headlines and the operators of the Yonkers-Alpine ferry, which ran back and forth across the Hudson River to the Palisades Interstate Park in New Jersey, decided to use the publicity to their advantage. They opted to set up a free dressing room and check room in their Yonkers terminal for anyone who wished to use it. The idea was that girls would wear skirts and sweaters while passing through the streets of Yonkers. Once they arrived at the ferry station, they could remove these garments and leave them behind. That allowed them to spend the whole day hiking in the Palisades in their less bulky clothing. Upon return to the Yonkers’ side of the river, they could then put back on their skirts and wander the streets without fear of the law.
A New York Times editorial offered this advice, “Because shorts have conquered the tennis courts and are beginning to make their way in golf, it does not follow that a pair of very concise pants is an ideal costume for mountain climbing.” It continues, “Certainly the scarf that young women wear on the beach when doing nothing in the sun is not the thing to wear on a long hike in the woods, where you are apt to perspire and catch cold. A sweater is much better.”
Clearly, this person has never hiked on a hot day wearing a sweater…
The following weekend, the “shorts parade”, as Alderman Slater called it, continued. While some did take advantage of the free skirt check down at the ferry, others opted to do as they had previously done. They strolled to Tibbetts Brook Park in their shorts and halter tops. This time the police did nothing, but Slater decided to take matters into his own hands. He sponsored an ordinance that would forbid this type of offensive behavior from ever happening again.
On July 2nd, the Board of Alderman passed an ordinance that stated, “No person over 16 years of age shall be permitted to appear in bathing costume or in any other than customary street attire upon any public street or thoroughfare in the city of Yonkers.” The punishment for violation of this ordinance would be a fine not to exceed $150 and/or imprisonment for up to thirty days.
Initially, this appeared to work, even though the ordinance had still not been signed into law by the mayor. The July 4th holiday was just a couple of days later and police reported that not one single woman had been spotted in Yonkers wearing shorts. In addition, not a single person took advantage of the skirt and sweater check that the ferry service so generously offered.
But, as they say, be careful what you wish for. First, a group of models wearing shorts threatened to picket outside Alderman Slater’s home at 67 First Avenue, but, luckily for him, their protest failed to materialize. Then there were reports of young women who walked along a road that bordered Yonkers and New York City. They would button up their skirts while briefly walking through Yonkers. As the road crossed back into NYC territory, they ripped off their skirts and shook their shorts-covered bodies at the policemen. No arrests were made, but the officers probably enjoyed the show.
Summer eventually came to a close and one would have thought that would have been the end of this story. At best, it was a story that should have been in the news for just a few days.
Fast-forward to the spring of 1936. Once again, stories regarding the Yonkers’ shorts ban started to appear in the press. At first, everything was cool and calm. Ten policemen were assigned to the anti-shorts patrol over the Memorial Day holiday weekend. Alderman Slater announced that signs would be erected on streets bordering New York City warning the young women of the consequences for wearing revealing clothing on their streets.
And then it finally happened. On Sunday, June 21, 1936, 26-year-old Rose O’Gorman of Elmhurst, Long Island and 25-year-old William Matthias of Brooklyn took a cab to the corner of McLean Avenue and Lawton Street in Yonkers. When both emerged from the taxi at 2:25 PM, they were wearing – you guessed it – shorts. They immediately went up to patrolmen Arthur Rowland and John O’Hare and demanded that they be arrested for violation of the anti-shorts ordinance. It was soon learned that both worked for the New York Daily News and they were there to test the validity of this new law. The Daily News bailed both of them out.
The two appeared before Judge Charles W. Boote the next day and each was found guilty and fined $10 (about $172 dollars today) and then released.
The verdict was immediately appealed in court on the grounds that the ordinance banning anything “other than customary street attire” was just too vague. Could one get arrested for wearing a wedding dress, a tuxedo, a Boy Scout uniform, or a Halloween costume? That was something for the courts to decide.
On January 6, 1937, Westchester County Judge Gerald Nolan denied the appeal on the grounds that the full language of the law, not a snippet of it, made clear what the intent of the law really was.
An appeal was immediately filed to the Court of Appeals in Albany, NY. By a unanimous vote on May 25th, they invalidated the anti-shorts law. Chief Judge Frederick E. Crane wrote that ordinance was “so vague and meaningless as to reach many harmless and insipid foibles.” He continued, “The purpose of the ordinance is to prevent indecent exposure such as an appearance on the streets as shocks the moral sensibilities of our communities. The ordinance to be legal should so state or else describe the costume or lack of which is prohibited.”
In response to his ordinance being thrown out by the courts, Alderman Slater said, “I will have to wait for a copy of the decision before I know the next step.” He added, “It depends entirely upon the grounds it was thrown out, whether I’ll offer a revised ordinance on street attire.”
Summer was just around the corner and now Yonkers had nothing on the books preventing people from walking on their streets with excess flesh exposed. In what can only be described as Donald Trumpesque move, four Yonkers supervisors appealed to the Westchester County Park Commission to wall off Tibbets Brook Park by erecting a giant fence to keep those undesirable New York City residents out of their park. The idea was that the fence would totally encircle the park, excluding one main entrance on Yonkers Avenue at its north end. Since New York City was located to the far south, it would be far too inconvenient for them to travel all the way around the park to gain entrance. Residents of Westchester County would receive free admission cards, while non-residents would have to pay an admission fee.
Supervisor Jefferson Armstrong stated this about their unwanted New York City visitors: “They are displaying themselves in the most ungodly and indecent manner. Many are getting off the train in Bronxville and walking across Palmer Avenue to the park, stopping on the way to sun themselves.” He added, “My wife and I have often come across great masses of humanity reclining on the ground in the most disgusting clothing.”
Needless to say, this particular fence was never built. Instead, on August 17th, a new “modesty ordinance” was signed into law by Mayor Joseph F. Loehr. It stated, “No person shall wear upon a public street or thoroughfare in the city of Yonkers a bathing suit, shorts, halter or any costume or clothing which indecently exposes or reveals any part of the wearer’s person.”
Almost immediately, others started to question the validity of this law. Was it also too vague? Would those running in the annual Yonkers marathon have to wear long pants? Would children be exempted?
Yet, no one challenged the new ordinance in court. This was partly because Alderman Slater was now out of office, the fact that the city tired of enforcing the law and all of the bad publicity it created, and, probably most importantly, the times they were a changin’. By 1940, the city stopped assigning patrolmen to seek out those wearing shorts. In July of 1942, then Mayor Benjamin F. Barnes told the press that he would seek to have the ordinance repealed. Yet, I was able to locate newspaper articles from both 1950 and 1960 that stated that the ordinance was still on the books, but was no longer enforced.
If you’re curious as to what the rules are today, Article 73-1 of the Yonkers City Code states, “A female is guilty of exposure when, in a public place, she appears clothed or costumed in such a manner that the portion of her breast below the top of the areola is not covered with a fully opaque covering.” The penalty for violation of this ordinance can be as much as $5000 and up to 15 days in jail. This regulation was adopted on September 22, 1970, but I doubt that it would hold up in court today since it is legal in New York State for a woman to dress just as a man does. Wherever a man can go shirtless, so can a woman.
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.