Woman in Levi's

Eulalia Bourne

Chapter 2

Please Excuse the Pants

January nights are cold even in southern Arizona. Dashing along a Tucson street on the way to a drug store, I was comfortably wrapped, not modishly dressed. The Sunshine Climate Club would have hated me. On top of intimate garments I wore a two-piece red ski undershirt. Over that I had on a pair of Levi's, a man's cashmere shirt, a short woolen coat and a heavy GI pile-lined jacket much too large, belted around me in deep folds. My head was tied up in a red bandana and crowned with a snug-fitting western hat. Woolen socks and stout cowboy boots protected my feet. From a shoulder strap hung an overloaded leather bag.

When I turned the corner at a narrow side street, my swinging purse banged into a well-dressed fellow emerging from a cocktail lounge. Neither of us stopped. I gasped apologetically. He balanced himself, half-turned in stride, and snarled: "Why don't you go back East!"

Me, of all people.

I was still laughing to myself as I drove out of town continuing my hundred-mile night journey. (If a storm threatened, I drove down Sunday night, instead of early Monday morning.) Thinking over the incident to tell friends, all of a sudden it came to me that it wasn't so funny. How did they really feel about the way I dressed? Away from the range, my appearance must often embarrass my associates. Hoodlum calls of "Hi-yo-Silver" and "Yip-pee-E" I could take without notice and feel only the slight annoyance that goes with any encounter with passing rudeness. But well-dressed friends and companions might actually be ashamed to be seen in company of one so unconventionally garbed.

Faye, for instance. I thought: "As we walk down the street, she in her neat print dress, her bare head stylishly coiffed, and I in Levi's, boots, and Stetson, how does she feel when she meets friends and has to say: 'This is our teacher'? "

I spent the remainder of my journey driving back to school mentally drawing up a brief.

It was consolation to recollect that independent characters who dress for their personal comfort and convenience, rather than for the approval of the public, have been shocking the populace since the human race lost hirsute hides and simian appendages. I thought of the scandal caused by the "bloomer" girls. Farther back, the man who first divided his nether garment into twin cylinders to fit his bifurcated anatomy must have been lonely among the robed and toga-ed. But who likes to be lonely? One must have a good reason to risk being shunned. I appreciated with regret the fortitude and charity it took to be friends with a nonconformist like me, a woman in Levi's.

Actually the man I bumped had a right to be indignant at my bulk and awkwardness; but his judgment was hasty. It was downright poor. Whatever I am, the West produced me. And I was not trying to make a spectacle of myself. I had nothing but business on my mind. With trade as my purpose I was not dressed to pass inspection by style-conscious bystanders. I was dressed for a long night ride in an unheated pickup. Nevertheless, there I was under the bright lights, sticking out like a finger-splint, jostling evening strollers and shocking one into ill-founded criticism.

Whether you dress to be comfortable or to be attractive depends on how busy you are, where you work, and the chronological point of life to which you have attained. In early youth, I confess, I tried to look like other girls. To be in style I bared my calves and clavicles during the years I studied and taught in the city. For a glamorous decade I tried to keep up with the vogue: skimpy skirts, cobwebby hose, uncovered head. And I paid for this effort to put on style by constant illness during spells of bad weather. Then I moved into the country, and learned to be comfortable and the heck with fashion.

It was a blessing to find relief from the respiratory ailments-ear ache, sore throat, congested nose and sinuses, tonsilitis and bronchitis that had plagued me since childhood. I learned that adequate clothing protected my health, for I discovered-with the help of an astute young doctor, that I was subject to an allergy to cold-the temperature cold, opposite of heat. Whoever heard of such a thing? True it is, though, and it condemns me socially to a grasshopper existence-bright and gay only in fair weather. In the heat of Arizona summers I can gussie up in skirts and other feminine frills. If the occasion demands, I can cut off my jeans below the pockets and tan my legs as other women do. But even in summer I must avoid drafts, damp clothes, and high-voltage cooling systems. Comes frost. Br-r-r! My pants and boots. Real winter sets in. Br-r-r-r, fortissimo! My long-handles and pile-lined jacket. For worse than hurt vanity, embarrassed friends, and an outraged Mrs. Grundy is an aching head and the creeping upward curse of cold, cold feet.

When I voided my teaching contract with the city by getting married, it was my good luck that the county school superintendent had a better opinion of conjugal status than her city counterpart. The latter, and the school board he influenced, never seemed to realize when marriage was banned for women teachers (men teachers of course were allowed to wed), that babies are what keep up tax-supported schools. This is not said in bitterness, for he did me a favor by his decree. Eventually it sent me to Redington, an environment made to order for persons such as I. There, while mentoring my "little cowpunchers," I found physical comfort by shielding my body against the climate. The great open country was alive with horses and cowboys, and pupils with extra mounts who wanted teacher to help "round up the pasture." Having to be ready at dismissal bell, I dared to teach the three R's while dressed in boots, Levi's and shirts with plenty of pockets. A side effect was the exorcising of my demons of affliction. No runny nose. No loss of voice. And with reasonable caution no migraine headaches. I had found my niche. I have never left it, patterning my life to the all-weather uniform of boots, sombrero, and what goes between.

It was never my purpose to start a fashion or even a fad when I made local history by wearing pants into the schoolroom. But for succeeding years, and in each different school, as soon as I put aside pretty dresses and came to school in Levi's, the girls in my classes followed suit. I don't remember that anything was ever said about it, but when frosty mornings arrived every leg in the room was covered with heavy dark-blue jeans. Apparently the mothers accepted the idea as good. And it certainly saved laundering, always a problem in a community such as Sierrita where there was a constant water shortage. It not only helped keep the girls warm but it gave them more freedom in such activity as playing baseball.

Every departure from the ordinary must be accompanied by complications and sacrifices. Some of my school patrons frowned on having a teacher who dressed "like a man" until they got used to me.

I dreaded shocking the school superintendent whose once-a-year visits were never scheduled so that none knew at what moment she might pop in. The late winter day she came I'm sure she was startled by my appearance (for which I made no apology or explanation), but my marvelous little cowpunchers put on such a good performance for her that she approved us all and said nothing about my overclad feet and legs. Later she met an itinerant maker of movie shorts and sent him out to make a newsreel of our little school and its projects. And she herself came again, this time for an overnight visit, and brought with her a woman feature writer for the Tucson morning paper. As we three sat before the open fire in my snug little teacherage, I entertained them-off the record, I thought-with accounts of road troubles I'd had on account of river floods, gully washouts, car breakdowns at night, and being stuck to the axles in mud.

To my chagrin, the Sunday paper, which eventually found its way (by the trice-weekly mail car coming down from Benson) over the mountains, contained a half-page yarn about the great pioneering work I was doing in the wilderness of the San Pedro River Valley. I was ashamed to show my face to the mothers, the true pioneers in the district. My closest neighbor and dear friend (mother of five-the youngest she'd had by herself during an isolating flood while her husband was away on the roundup) remarked, as I sneaked into her kitchen where she was ironing with sad irons by a kerosene lamp and getting supper for eight over a wood fire while minding the babies:

Don't we live in a terrible place and ain't you wonderful!"

The biggest problem of a trousered female teacher is a trip to the city. At teachers' meetings I conformed and suffered the consequences-such as a flat tire on the road; to change it I had to take off my skirt and hose. On Friday afternoon visits to the county library in the superintendent's office, there simply wasn't time to change into a dress. Looking straight ahead in a purposeful manner, I strode in, lugging a heavy box of books, and busied myself at the shelves selecting replenishments, speaking only to those with the courage to greet me first.

One afternoon years ago the assistant superintendent confronted me thusly: "Do you know you are breaking the law?"

Laughingly she showed me a volume of city ordinances, among them an old blue law making it illegal for a woman to appear on the streets of Tucson dressed in men's clothing. Laughing myself, I showed her that I happened on this occasion to be wearing women's denim riders one of the "daughters" had given me. Ordinarily I never use them because they have no hip pockets into which I can slip the metal case containing my reading glasses.

After a while, as with most eccentrics, people got used to me and I was kindly tolerated. Once there was a combined meeting of city and county teachers that I didn't know about ahead of time. Fortunately coats were long in those days. I buttoned mine, rolled my pants up above my knees, and sincerely hoped when I was greeted by my former principal that he didn't know I was not "dressed."

When the Cowboy became the head of my household there were other complications. He objected to my pants if worn anywhere off the ranch. That was long before capri pants and stretch pants and he certainly had precedent on his side. In usual circumstances, even yet, the ranks of women connected with the cattle business who wear pants in public are very thin indeed. Mary Kidder Rak, in her book Cowman's Wife, explains that ranch women are delighted at any chance to break the monotony by dressing up and looking feminine. True enough. They do not have my affliction. Besides, they are representing their husbands. A cowman, whatever he may think about others' frontier pants and cowgal rigging, wants his wife to have on the prettiest dress in town, and most of them can afford the best.

Man's authority to dictate-even legislate-what women wear extends back to Adam who doubtless designed Eve's girdle of figleaves. There are good reasons for this. What woman does not like to give her man pleasure at the sight of her?

Before marriage, the man of the outfit said: "You look nice in any old rag." After marriage he said: "Why don't you look like other women?"

There were three great big reasons. Money was the first. We were trying to exist as well as build up the place-watering holes, fences, saddlehorses, bulls, materials and supplies-on approximately $2400 a year. My health was the second. Even a short trip in the unheated rattletrap car sans pants and boots, and I was sick. My habit of feeling at-the-ready only in work clothes was the third. This habit developed because emergencies are the rule once you get out of sight of civilization. The car lights went out one night and I walked two miles up the canyon bed with nothing between me and the scratching, crawling sand and a possibly-lurking rattlesnake, but high-heeled white sandals. One moonlight night I lost half of my load of hay on a quick turn and ruined my best hose heaving it back on the little truck. The blue dress capped the climax.

I had been on a business trip to the land department and was arrayed in my sheer blue dress that made my eyes look blue. It was sprigged with figures in two shades of darker blue and had bows and a belt of the darkest blue. My big hat of fine soft straw was trimmed with velvet ribbons of the same three lovely shades. I even wore gloves-dark blue to match my pumps. Returning late that afternoon, I ran into a crisis at Mesquite Corral, two miles down the canyon from headquarters. The Cowboy had been working cattle alone all day, an exasperating job if ever there was one, and was now locked in battle with a big steer he had tied down and was attempting to dehorn by trimming off a corner of each side of the victim's skull with a little saw he carried tied to his saddle. Fool-like, I stopped the car, shed my gloves, and went over to see if I could maybe hold a rope or hand him something. His sweaty face was red with passion. His shirt was red with blood.

"Get on his neck!" he cried without a glance at me.

"But my dress," I faltered.

"Get on his neck, damn it!" he shouted.

I got on his neck, damn it. A fountain of blood splattered the sheer blue dress that made my eyes look blue. In the scuffle my pretty hat with the blue ribbons was knocked off my head and landed in a splash of soft green manure.

The slow bitter turning of the years brought changes. To him-the right to identify himself with a woman who looks smart in that special meaning of the word: "stylish, spruce, showy, up-to-date." To me-the independence to dress as my purse, my person, and my work direct and no sham pretenses involved.

Once a year I am right in style. That is during February in Tucson's prerodeo days when all on the streets are required to wear cowboy rigging or suffer durance vile at the hands of the vigilante committee (Junior Chamber of Commerce).

One Saturday morning I happened to pass two teenagers loitering in front of a movie theater apparently killing time while waiting for it to open its doors, by remarking about the girls and women dressed in rodeo style who happened to pass by. Evidently I didn't rate much. As I came abreast I heard the older boy say thoughtully, "No, but I'll bet she has a horse!"

Copyright © 1967. The Arizona Board of Regents.

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The University of Arizona Press, 2/2/97 2:05PM