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  • Some Wore Bobby Sox: The Emergence of Teenage Girls’ Culture, 1920–1945
  • Jessie B. Ramey
Some Wore Bobby Sox: The Emergence of Teenage Girls’ Culture, 1920–1945. By Kelly Schrum ( New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. xii plus 209 pp. $29.95).

While many historians have discussed teenagers and the formation of teen culture in the post-WWII era, Kelly Schrum pushes the periodization back and adds a distinct gender dimension to the literature in Some Wore Bobby Sox: The Emergence of Teenage Girls' Culture, 1920-1945. In fact, Schrum argues, girls were the original "teenagers" as the concept developed in the interwar period, [End Page 489] linked closely to their role as consumers. Schrum also links "teenager" with "high-schooler": just as experts and society at large came to view adolescence as a distinct time between childhood and adulthood, high school attendance increased dramatically, providing the opportunity for girls to fashion their own identity away from adult interference. Schrum examines the fashion and beauty industries, as well as popular music, dance, and movies to find the ways in which high school girls integrated products and messages in specifically "teen" ways, creating in the process, she argues, a new national teenaged girls' culture.

Schrum's important contribution is in identifying girls' agency in the creation of this teen identity through their consumer demands and creative appropriation of material aimed at adults. Here she wades into the middle of the chicken-and-egg debate of consumer culture (which came first, consumer demand or marketers eager to push products and create demand where none existed before?), suggesting that girls in this period wielded considerable influence in shaping the emerging teen culture. At the same time, producers both knowingly and unknowingly contributed to the new culture while also profiting from it. For instance, although the fashion industry was one of the first to identify teen girls as a separate market niche, its efforts to cater to girls' interests were sporadic, and Schrum finds that teens' own fads helped shape the industry, ultimately creating a new casual teen look (represented by the "bobby sox" of the title). The commercial beauty industry was slower to recognize the teen market, but girls snapped up products designed for older women, sometimes using them in friendship rituals and as visual markers of group identity.

As girls shaped their new group identity, Schrum argues that they played with the boundaries of acceptable gender and age expectations. For example, they occasionally wore men's clothing and used music and movies to assert their own sexuality and autonomy. She rightfully points out, however, that this never amounted to a radical challenge to gender roles: girls accepted the dominant "societal messages about femininity, heterosexuality, consumerism, and commercial beauty." [174]

We might add race and class to Schrum's list of unchallenged social tenets. The girls of Schrum's study are largely white, middle class high school students. While she includes evidence from several African American and working class high school yearbooks, the majority of her sources (from diaries, interviews, magazines and contemporary longitudinal studies) reveal an emerging teen identity designed by the white middle class. Schrum suggests that the themes of the new teen culture cut across race and class lines, but her focus on high school itself as the locus of this culture may skew her findings. Undoubtedly, the high school experience is central to understanding the development of the teen identity she has described, but the proportion of teens not attending school was significant in the period she is discussing. By her own count, it was not until 1930 that half of all 14-to 17-year-olds were even enrolled in high school (and less than a third of those students actually graduated), and in 1940 when her study ends, thirty percent of this age group was still not attending high school (and less than half that did stayed in school through graduation). African Americans comprised only three percent of the high school population in 1930—double what it had been a decade earlier, but still a vast under-representation at a time when they were ten percent of the total U.S. population. [12-13] Schrum's...


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pp. 489-491
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