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Girls in skimpy costumes set off Burnaby school scandal – 94 years ago

'Ratepayers do not pay to have their girls taught to throw their legs about,' said one trustee about a 1928 Burnaby South High School concert that featured two girls dancing in 'Hawaiian' outfits they'd made.

Just as Ottawa's Béatrice-Desloges Catholic High School was cracking down on spaghetti straps and short skirts last week, I stumbled on a story about two teenage girls whose exposed arms and legs sparked the censure of the Burnaby school board and unleashed a similar media firestorm nearly 100 years ago.

‘Hawaiian undress’

In 1928, “Billie” Stokvis and Mabel Porter took to the stage at the old municipal hall in Edmonds for a dance number during a Burnaby South High School concert.

They wore sleeveless dresses with grass skirts they’d made at the school's Needlecraft club.

The concert itself didn’t get a lot of press, but, seven weeks later, the girls became front page news thanks to school board chair Herbert Stanley.

At an April 4, 1928 committee meeting, Stanley took aim at Burnaby South principal Clifton G. Brown for allowing the girls to appear at a school concert in what Stanley described as a state of “Hawaiian undress.”

The chair said he was prepared to ask for Brown’s resignation for allowing the display and forced through a motion to compel the principal to come before the board and explain himself.

Trustee Charles Harper seconded motion.

“Ratepayers do not pay to have their girls taught to throw their legs about,” he’s quoted as saying in an April 19, 1928 Vancouver Sun article.

‘Indignation meeting’

Stanley’s phrase – “Hawaiian undress” – was first reported by The Province on April 5, 1928 under the salacious headline ‘Undress’ of Girls Causes School Row.

Soon it was everywhere.

And, like the recent dress-code blitz in Ottawa, the trustees’ comments sparked outrage.

At an “indignation meeting” on April 17, 1928 attended by more than 300 parents and ratepayers, citizens demanded Stanley and Harper retract their statements.

Some called for them to resign.

“I cannot see that there is anything immoral in these young girls dressing as two young women of a friendly foreign nation,” Rev. W. J. Beamish is quoted as saying in an April 18, 1928 Province article. “I think Mr. Stanley should be asked to remove the blot on the reputation of these two girls.”

Reeve A. K. McLean agreed, noting the damage the school board chair’s comment was having on Burnaby’s reputation.

“Such scandals as this do no good to our municipality,” he said. “Reports of this matter are being carried throughout Canada on the press wires.”

'We will see at the next election'

One night earlier, however, Stanley had insisted he'd never meant to besmirch the girls’ reputation, and the committee expressed “deep regret” his words had been “wrongly interpreted by a certain section of the press.”

At an April 16, 1928 meeting, the all-male committee had scrutinized a press photo of the girls in costume, and, when challenged, Stanley had said the outfits were “very clever, very pretty” but not proper for a high school concert, according a Province article published the next day.  

A majority of the committee then doubled-down and pushed through a resolution:

“In the opinion of the board, the presence of two girls in exotic dancing costumes, to wit, Hawaiian, and performing Hawaiian dances, is, in the committee’s opinion, not a fit presentation for a school concert.”

Before the vote, trustee George Grant had said a “large majority” of the audience had been “perfectly satisfied and saw nothing of an offensive nature” in the school concert, according to a Vancouver Sun story about the meeting.

But Stanley shot back, saying they’d find out how the majority really felt come election time.

“We will see at the next election whether the ratepayers desire to support a man who wishes to draw a line at the exposure of feminine charms,” he said.

Stanley lost his seat in the election eight months later.

Grant went on to serve as chair.

And Brown continued as principal of Burnaby South for another seven years before becoming a school inspector.

In the early 1960s, the city named a swimming pool after him.

Follow Cornelia Naylor on Twitter @CorNaylor