Kids those days!
December 26, 2013 9:25 AM   Subscribe

A few of Ernie Bushmiller's WW2-era Nancy comics mention a subculture called "Jitterbug" (as in "a jitterbug") that has its own fashion that I've never seen depicted anywhere else: Example 1, Example 2. Was this an actual thing?

In the Nancy strips I've only ever seen women depicted as jitterbugs and based on the examples and a few other comics this is what I've put together:

-Berets or kerchiefs as headwear
-Oversized sweaters/smocks worn over clothing
-Names written on shirts/pants
-Rolled-up pants and "unfeminine" shoes (Bushmiller generally depicts grown women wearing heels, and Nancy is definitely wearing different shoes than her regular pair when dressed up as a jitterbug.)

There was also a few comics where Nancy has a friend her age named Jenny the Jitterbug who speaks in rhyming, beatnik-esque slang. However, she's not dressed in this way.
posted by griphus to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Here is a pair of vintage jitterbug pants, with writing all over them. Here's a discussion of how "jitterbug" derived from alcoholic tremors, then came to be associated with uncontrolled swing dancing, especially lower socio-economic white dancers. (I read several articles in a row, apologies if I've mixed and matched when pasting in the urls.) So, at a guess, the fashion was associated with lower socio economic groups of women, who dressed up that way to swing dance? I'm really intrigued now, to hear from people with more direct knowledge than I gleaned.
posted by instamatic at 9:49 AM on December 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Jitterbug and Jive are both styles of dance, popular in the 1940s, and sub-genres of swing dancing. Here's a video from the era, and it's a shame that the preview mark is over the feet in so many places. Note that the woman in the first couple is dressed differently from the slow motion couple. This may be an accident (I don't have anyone to ask) but I suspect it's not.

Women often wear flatter shoes for social swing dancing (because heels may pose a danger to other dancers if you kick them, and also yourself, should you land precariously). Putting Nancy in heels for this association would not work unless she was already a very very good swing dancer.

Among white people in the US, these styles of dancing were associated with lower class women/not having money.

If I had to guess, I'd surmise this has something to do with having fun/not wanting to fit the mold that is expected/coming to terms with the possibility of a broader range of available roles, or the lack of breadth in roles that are actually available. Nancy is being told what she will be, even though she sees other women who get to be something else. Something more relaxed, energetic, and adventurous.

That said, I'm not familiar with the comic strip, so I won't make any actual assertions about what thematic implications there are to her being dressed this way.
posted by bilabial at 10:06 AM on December 26, 2013

I think the big sweaters are what were called "sloppy joe" sweaters. There's a photo of some girls wearing them here. They don't really look that baggy now, but they were much baggier than previous fashion and the comic is probably just exaggerating how baggy they were.
posted by interplanetjanet at 10:16 AM on December 26, 2013

This blog post has a bunch of photos of 1940s teenage girls wearing big sweaters and rolled up pants. I'm still looking for pants with names on them. Photos of sloppy joe sweaters are surprisingly hard to google!
posted by interplanetjanet at 10:28 AM on December 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

And the headscarves were called "babushkas."

1943: "After all, when a girl who's been wearing saddle shoes and Sloppy Joes and babushkas and those three-quarter length gabardine topcoats starts asking you for high heels and nylon stockings and a hat with a veil, you just know that something is awfully, awfully wrong."

1948: "From the best authority I could locate, the present habit -- it is much more than a fad -- of wearing babushkas was started by bobby soxers during the war. They came in at the same time as dirty saddle shoes"

I think Bushmiller is using "jitterbugs" exactly as a "kids these days" sort of shorthand. Looking for images of styles like this, "bobby soxer" seems to be a better search term.
posted by neroli at 10:30 AM on December 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

I got all librarian-y on this and checked the Oxford English Dictionary. There's nothing too surprising there -- the definitions and examples confirm that this seems to be of the "kids these days" genre.

Definition 2:
A jazz musician; a devotee of jazz; a person who dances the jitterbug.


1938 Manch. Guardian Weekly 2 Sept. 188/3 A ‘jitterbug’ is a person keen on swing.
1939 Times 27 Jan. 7/5, I am told that in the U.S.A. there is a class of people who sit listening in hysterical excitement to what is called ‘hot-music’ and waiting for the final crash. Americans in their forcible language call them the ‘Jitter-bugs’. There are many people in Europe to-day who seem to be behaving in much the same way.

For more on World War II era fashion:
Laura Olds, "World War II and Fashion: The Birth of a New Look," Constructing the Past.
Doesn't speak to jitterbugs, but has an overview, images from magazines from the era, and lots of citations.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:44 AM on December 26, 2013

Here's an ad for a jitterbug doll in a sloppy joe sweater!

The baggy sweaters, cropped or rolled-up jeans, loafers or saddle shoes and babushkas all seems to have gone together -- it was a high-school and college look and exaggeratedly casual and careless. The more scuffed your saddle shoes were, the better. I can't find much about the writing on the clothing, though -- how interesting!
posted by ostro at 10:52 AM on December 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Great answers so far!

I am the most interested in the writing on the clothing part; especially as it seems to be male names! I mean most likely it's some sort of swing enthusiast/bobby soxer fad, but it'd be great to find out what the names meant -- I suspect dance partners -- and so on.
posted by griphus at 10:57 AM on December 26, 2013

The pants linked in instamatic's first link are covered in the first names of various Jazz/Swing musicians and singers. Don't know if that would be standard, but as our one real data point, that's that one.
posted by brainmouse at 11:07 AM on December 26, 2013

Definitely some sort of "swing enthusiast/bobby soxer fad" -- I'll ask my parents and get back with some more details.

Meanwhile, regarding the sweaters, I recently re-read a 1941 novel called Onion Head* in which the college girls were all wearing their cardigans back-to-front -- maybe this is also Jitterbug Style?

Also, there's the cut Jitterbug sequence from The Wizard of Oz.

* the link's to the bad Andy Griffith film, best I could do
posted by Rash at 11:11 AM on December 26, 2013

Remember, too, that Bushmiller (like a lot of his contemporaries) used overblown stereotypes to get his point across. This particular description is definitely an overdone, negative "kids these days" image. In the 60's and 70's, Bushmiller would sometimes use the image of a slouchy, dirty-looking guy with long hair covering his eyes (and sometimes carrying a protest sign) as his "kids these days" image. Also negative.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:20 AM on December 26, 2013

What a fun question. Yeah, the names on the pants are references to Benny Goodman, Harry James, Jimmy Dorsey, Lena Horne, Dinah Shore (who sang with both Benny and the Dorsey brothers), Bing Crosby, maybe Eddie Duchin (forgotten today but big in the 30s).

Zoot suit fashion would be relevant here too, no? As one of the sources girls like "Jivey Jenny" would have been drawing from? I've been meaning to read this book for a couple years now (jitterbug pants show up in the index), and you may have just pushed me over the edge. The book has lots of info about draped and oversize fashion, attempts to limit it as wasteful during the war, and race and the famous 1943 zoot suit riots in LA. The association of "jive" fashion with African-American and Hispanic people from the wrong side of the tracks - or with outright criminality - was a fairly mainstream thing to do. No surprise it would turn up in a newspaper comic. In fact, Al Capp ran a Li'l Abner series on zoot suiters that's often discussed as part of the run-up to the 1943 riots.
posted by mediareport at 11:25 AM on December 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Oh, the Ginny on those pants is probably Ginny Simms. I don't know much about bobby soxers, but those pants are jive/swing/big band fashion.
posted by mediareport at 11:28 AM on December 26, 2013

This link (note that I can only find a good link for a page that also wants you to print the page, which you just have to cancel the print request and then you can read the info.) gives some background/history on the dancing, though only tangentially on the clothing. Still may be of interest.
posted by gudrun at 11:30 AM on December 26, 2013

Don't know how I missed the Dick in the pants. Dick Jurgens, maybe?
posted by mediareport at 11:44 AM on December 26, 2013

Many jitterbug dancers were black. The man would throw the woman through his legs, over his shoulders - very athletic. You can see a lot of those movements in pairs ice skating.
posted by Cranberry at 12:16 PM on December 26, 2013

Are you thinking that the names on the clothes are literal representations of the clothes? I suspect it's as mediareport suggests: this doesn't mean that the clothes themselves had words on them, but it's Bushmiller writing down names that were significant at the time to represent what those girls were into.
posted by bluedaisy at 12:46 PM on December 26, 2013

No, I think there literally were names on the clothes. The link I pasted upthread was actual vintage, and here's a blog post on women and girls' fashions in the forties, which explicitly says that the loose, rolled up jeans frequently were embellished with paints and drawing.
posted by instamatic at 12:51 PM on December 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Dick Jurgens, maybe?

Oh, no -- my guess is Dick Haymes.
posted by Rash at 3:50 PM on December 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

The confusing thing, for me, is that the term we'd use for this look today is "bobbysoxer." Yes, bobbysoxers danced the jitterbug, but we don't call 'em "jitterbugs" today - that's period jargon and I don't think would ever be a self-identifier. The look is pure bobbysoxer.

The jitterbug is a subset of swing dance, which ruled youth culture from the late 20s 'til the domination of rock-n-roll in the '50s. It was considered highly sexualized and even degenerate by the conservative adult white culture of the time. A clip from the 1941 dance movie Hellzapoppin' can illustrate some of the reasons why.
posted by Miko at 8:31 PM on December 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

During the war years, rationing of silk and nylon prohibited women from wearing their stockings, so the Brits made a short ankle sock to be worn instead. American women preferred to go barelegged or to paint their legs with a ‘suntan’ color of stockings (complete with back seam painted on), so young girls were left to adopt the short sock for themselves. They called it the ‘bobby’ sock, after the British slang for police officers, and any girl wearing white ankle socks and going nuts over the new music became dubbed a ‘bobby soxer.’

The things you learn. I'd always associated bobby soxers with 50s rock, not Sinatra and swing, but looks like it started earlier.
posted by mediareport at 7:58 AM on December 27, 2013

These girls in 1947 Iowa don't have anything written on their clothes, but otherwise their outfits are pretty close.
posted by MsMolly at 8:15 AM on December 28, 2013

This is the only thing about writing I've been able to find. In this memoir, the author mentions her older cousin giving her sloppy joe sweaters and a canvas coat, which her friends wrote their names on with a ballpoint pen.

It's a bit vague on dates but she says ballpoint pens were new, so probably late 1940s - early 1950s.

I have to say people were still writing on their jackets in the 1970s, when I was a teenager. Usually the names of heavy metal bands.
posted by interplanetjanet at 10:34 AM on December 29, 2013

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