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Lady Godiva, science give weight to lighter fashions

When schoolgirls in Pinellas County balk at wearing bulky skirts, blouses and sweaters, they are not just being difficult. They're doing what comes naturally, the experts say. And the battle to shed cumbersome clothing in 80- to 90-degree weather isn't new. It began in this country way back in 1907, when scientists came to the defense of "maidens" who were trying even then to be allowed to wear shorts _ legally! In fact, Lady Godiva, who rode through Coventry on a piebald mare clad only in her flowing locks, and the young women of today clamoring to wear abbreviated school attire, are sisters under the skin (if you'll pardon the pun!). What's more, Lady G. is considered the first real scientist in the makeup of women's attire, and her skin-sister of today is merely following in her horse's footsteps.

Any student of the effect of heat on the death rate, such as the late Dr. Ellsworth Huntington of Yale University would have told you so _ even if you'd asked 83 years ago.

That gallant scientist, backed by a legion of physiologists and their allied brethren, proved without a shadow of doubt why women must wear fewer clothes! This august body reiterated a long-forgotten fact; that nature has provided every woman a layer of fat beneath the skin. In winter it acts as an insulator, which means that women can run around in silk or nylon hosiery while men have to resort to flannels, wool socks and high boots. But in the summer _ well, the shorts, the skimpy bathing suit and other scantinesses are absolute physical necessities. And it's the approved scientific way of combating heat to wear them!

So it's not shameless lack of modesty or a desire to lure those wicked men, or anything of the sort. It's a woman's way of aiding nature to keep her blood cool and her temperature down.

No less a scientist than Marie Curie, co-discoverer of radium, not only held to this theory but practiced what she preached. To be sure, she had to wear a light muslin blouse around her dirty old laboratory in the Latin Quarter of Paris, but once at her seaside home at Larcouest-par Ploubaslanec in Brittany she sported a one-piece bathing suit that ended well above her learned knees, and lived in it all day.

Only a visit from some old savant, who, being French, would insist on wearing a double-breasted frock coat, striped trousers, gaiters, a celluloid dickey and a top hat in the middle of summer, ever induced her to don a skirt and blouse until it was time to go back to the university in the autumn. This practice was kept up until she was well into her 60s.

Had she lived to today, the gallant old lady would doubtless have hailed the great advances made in sensible stripping during the past 50 or so torrid seasons, and testified for the defense of young women being taken to task because of their desire to wear shorts. Likewise, she probably would have been a champion for women tennis stars who went to court in 1932 to force tournament officials to permit them to wear shorts.

Research on the shorts controversy also disclosed facts of a 1936 Yonkers, N.Y., incident when several young women were arrested for attempting to hike to the Palisades clad in shorts. For some reason, records show attorneys in the case failed to call on physiologists who might have offered convincing testimony in support of abbreviated fashions for women.

But the fight begun by Annette Kellerman in 1907 resulted in an overwhelming victory for the women. At the 91st meeting of the American Chemical Society, researchers were presented with a dress of rayon cloth that weighed only 2 ounces and could be crumpled up in one dainty fist and stuck into a vanity case. This, they were told, was just the thing for women to wear _ "for health's sake."

"Even more startling in weight of women's garments are promises from cellulose wood pulp material in the near future," one ACS participant predicted.

Already, in 1907, some New Orleans merchants had produced a material so lightweight that a man's suit, complete with coat, vest and trousers, tipped the scales at a mere 22 ounces! Dividing that by four, as seemed equitable, a woman's dress and shorts would weigh well under 6 ounces.

Break out the scientific facts, girls!

- Our columnist is a librarian at the James Weldon Johnson branch of the St. Petersburg Public Library.