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Gallup Vault: Men Cleared for Topless Swimming in 1939

Heading into July 4th weekend in 1939, Gallup released a poll that revealed lopsided cultural norms about men's and women's casual summer attire. Specifically, nearly two-thirds of Americans said it was "indecent" for women to wear shorts in public, but only a third declared men wearing topless bathing suits for swimming to be indecent.

1939: Americans' Views on Summer Clothing
Yes, indecent No, not indecent
% %
Indecent for women to wear shorts for street wear? 63 37
Indecent for men to wear topless bathing suits for swimming? 33 67
Gallup, June 9-14, 1939

The poll found similar answers when posing the questions slightly differently to half of respondents. Rather than ask if these clothing choices were "indecent," Gallup asked this group if it was "all right" for men to wear topless bathing suits for swimming and women to wear shorts on the street. Only 32% opposed the topless bathing suit trend for men, versus 68% who opposed women wearing shorts.

No attempt at summarizing the original news release can do justice to the insights that come not just from the 1939 data, but from the way Gallup discussed it at the time. In celebration of Americans' freedoms in 2017, here is Gallup's original take on how Americans reacted to showing skin in 1939:

"John Public's Verdict: Topless Swimming Suits NOT Indecent for Men This Year

"New York, July 2. -- Now that summer is officially here and millions of Americans are flocking to beaches and lakes and playgrounds, many an American community is having a renewal of the great summer debate -- Is it all right for women to wear shorts on the sidewalks? Should men be allowed to remove the tops of their bathing suits?

"… Most Americans think it's all right for men to take off the tops of their bathing suits.

"But most of them think it's not all right for women to parade the streets in shorts.

"Their verdict is just about as simple as that. Women are much more conservative than men on the subject of shorts for women, and a great many Southerners object to topless bathing suits for men. But the country over, the folkways for 1939 seem to be nearly the same. In its excursion into such sociological matters, the Institute asked a cross-section of men and women in every state: 'Do you think it is indecent for women to wear shorts for street wear?'

"… Here and there someone added that he didn't think shorts were actually indecent but that 'a lot depends on how the woman looks.' Others said they would give their approval 'as long as they're still young.'

"The difference in outlook between men and women is shown in the following figures:

Shorts Indecent for Women?

"Most conservative were Southerners, who proved 79% against women wearing shorts for street wear, while Western voters were 53% against it.

"On the question of topless swimming suits for men, the vote divided 2-to-1 in favor of masculine comfort."

These data can be found in Gallup Analytics.

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