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Bobby Soxers

Bobby Soxers


By the mid-1940s, ankle socks and saddle shoes symbolized teenage girls. Neither teenage girls as a fashion group nor the socks and shoes were new, though. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, media, manufacturers, and marketers made uneven attempts to understand teenage girls as a separate group with unique demands and interests. The story of bobby soxers provides a window into these attempts to follow girls' trends and to shape their emerging identity.

In the late 1920s, female tennis players first adopted a "stockingless mode," wearing only socks. This created an uproar culminating in efforts to ban women from wearing socks at Wimbledon in 1929. Despite opposition, the spread of socks was unstoppable. Teenage girls abandoned stockings for socks as the teenage fashion market emerged, bare legs gained acceptance, and high school fashions shifted from dresses to more informal skirts and sweaters.

Most girls wore stockings to high school in the 1920s and early 1930s, prompting yearbook complaints of "runs" and other inconveniences. Socks first appeared in yearbooks with athletic uniforms, worn over tights. By 1935, ankle socks appeared throughout yearbooks, outside of the gym, with saddle shoes or loafers. National marketers, such as the Sears catalog, demonstrated some awareness of this trend, although with continued uncertainty. Sears advertised ankle socks for ages four to forty in 1934, but by 1936 were marketing them only to children. By 1938, Sears was targeting girls aged ten to sixteen.

Fashion historians often credit stocking shortages during World War II with the rise of ankle socks, but by the late 1930s the practice was already widely accepted. Adapted from a college trend, bobby socks and saddle shoes soon distinguished teenage girls from other age groups. While college interest waned, high school yearbooks and girls' writings confirmed that the trend spread quickly among high school students. Saddle shoes and anklets pleased parents because of their comfort, durability, and low heels. But they also provided a perfect palette for expressions of teenage culture. Girls wore socks in bold or plain colors; folded, pulled up, or pushed down; decorated with gadgets and charms; over stockings; or held up with boys' garters. They decorated saddle shoes with everything from flowers to friends' names to favorite songs, creatively using nail polish, shoe polish, or paint.

While high school yearbooks pictured girls in ankle socks with saddle shoes or loafers almost exclusively by the 1940s and the term sox appeared frequently, the media, not girls themselves, largely used the phrase bobby soxer. Many girls rejected the nickname and the associated stereotypes. Major national publications, such as Time and the New York Times, described bobby soxers as mindless worshipers of Frank Sinatra or crazed followers of adolescent fads. While many followers of Benny Goodman or Frank Sinatra did wear bobby socks, others did not. The term bobby soxer did not accurately represent high school girls or pop music fans, but the linkage among these was perhaps an effort to grapple with public displays of sexual energy from an emerging social group, especially one increasingly recognized as a viable, even powerful consumer market.

The rise of ankle socks and saddle shoes were linked more to the establishment of casual clothing as high school fashion than to musical taste. And ankle socks and saddle shoes proved a platform for creative expression and differentiation among girls at least as much as they served to unify or identify.

See also: Adolescence and Youth; Flappers; Media, Childhood and; Rock and Roll; Teenagers; Youth Culture.

bibliography

Kahn, E. J., Jr. 1946. "Profiles Phenomenon: II. The Fave, the Fans, and the Fiends." The New Yorker November 2: 35-48.

Palladino, Grace. 1996. Teenagers: An American History. New York: Basic.

"What Is a Bobby Sock?" 1994. The New York Times Magazine March 5: 23.

Kelly Schrum

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