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Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America

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Jo B. Paoletti’s journey through the history of children’s clothing began when she posed the question, "When did we start dressing girls in pink and boys in blue?" To uncover the answer, she looks at advertising, catalogs, dolls, baby books, mommy blogs and discussion forums, and other popular media to examine the surprising shifts in attitudes toward color as a mark of gender in American children’s clothing. She chronicles the decline of the white dress for both boys and girls, the introduction of rompers in the early 20th century, the gendering of pink and blue, the resurgence of unisex fashions, and the origins of today’s highly gender-specific baby and toddler clothing.

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1. Understanding Children’s Clothing

ePub

1 UNDERSTANDING CHILDREN’S CLOTHING

What is the purpose of cultural patterns such as gender conventions in clothing? How do we explain their existence? Do they simply arise out of a need in an earlier time and then continue through mindless transmission? Do they stem from societal structures and conflicts, manifested as material objects and patterns of their use? Or are they responses to those social structures—the way we change them over time to suit our changing environment? Or can our material world be reduced to the embodiment of neural impulses, evolutionary biology, or unconscious fears and desires? Unlike older children, babies and toddlers have little choice in their clothing, which reflects the attitudes and beliefs of adults. Since children are known to acquire sex role stereotypes and begin to fit their own identities to these cultural norms during these first years of life, this is a particularly useful way to understand how gender norms are negotiated, expressed, learned, and changed. It is important that we understand that these supposed “traditions” are of recent vintage and that they represent the culmination of just over a century of dramatic change in what has been considered appropriate dress for infants and small children.

 

2. Dresses Are for Girls and Boys

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2 DRESSES ARE FOR GIRLS AND BOYS

Understanding the process of gendering requires not only excavating the process of assigning gender to colors, motifs, and other garment details but focusing on the “white space” between gender markers. The question “What can be worn by either a boy or a girl?” is answered differently throughout this period. For centuries, styles for babies and small children were based on adult women’s dress. In the twentieth century, these styles became less and less acceptable, through a process that is as complicated as the clothes themselves are simple.

In order for a child’s garment to be gendered, there must be a lexicon of visual cues or patterns of use that are widely understood to be unambiguously masculine or feminine. Without those cues or patterns, the objects are interpreted as neutral, meaning acceptable for both boys and girls. For example, a plain white T-shirt in the 1940s was a masculine garment, based on patterns of use, not its design. At the time, T-shirts were undergarments worn nearly exclusively by men and boys. The same shirt in 2010 is neutral because patterns of use have changed to make T-shirts a staple wardrobe item for women and girls as well. Modifying the shirt with visual cues can assign it a gender—adding cap sleeves and floral appliqué makes it “feminine,” for example—but an unadorned white T-shirt is a gender-neutral garment.

 

3. Pants Are for Boys and Girls

ePub

3 PANTS ARE FOR BOYS AND GIRLS

From the end of the fourteenth century on, the most obvious difference between men’s and women’s clothing in Europe was that men’s legs were visible—encased in stockings, breeches, or trousers—and women’s were covered by skirts. European images of Muslim and Chinese women were made more exotic by their wearing trousers. (Thus the old expression “wearing the pants in the family,” referring to family authority.) When, in the 1850s, early feminists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Amelia Bloomer adopted full Turkish-inspired trousers worn under calf-length dresses, it ignited a culture war. The history of the gender significance of trousers, breeches, and other bifurcated forms of dress is complicated and would take us too far astray, so here is the condensed version.

Long ago, whether one wore a skirt or trousers was a matter of culture or class, not sex. In her groundbreaking 1973 exhibit catalog, Cut My Cote, Dorothy Burnham demonstrated that the choice of shaped (trousers) or draped (skirts) garments was initially technological, stemming from the desire to create body coverings from the most available materials with a minimum of waste. For societies whose most abundant materials were animal hides, the shape of those skins lent themselves to garments with fitted arms and legs. Agricultural societies developed fibers such as wool, silk, and linen along with the technologies (spinning, weaving) for turning them into cloth, resulting in garments based on rectangles. These basic forms were eventually retained even as the available materials expanded to include both skins and cloth. In 1000 CE, both women and men in Persia and Mongolia wore trousers and coats or jackets with fitted sleeves, and both men and women in Constantinople wore long robes.

 

4. A Boy Is Not a Girl

ePub

4 A BOY IS NOT A GIRL

What are little boys made of, made of?
What are little boys made of?
Snips and snails and puppy dogs tails;
And such are little boys made of.

What are little girls made of, made of?
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice and everything nice;
That’s what little girls are made of.

This old English nursery rhyme, dating to around 1820, is a reminder that, even as babies were believed to lack masculinity and femininity, slightly older boys and girls were perceived as gendered beings with very different character traits. The mystery to their parents (and the puzzle to historians) is how a tiny, ungendered cherub came to prefer “snips and snails” to “sugar and spice.” The decline of white baby dresses and the introduction of rompers are the first two parts of the puzzle, altering established patterns of children’s clothing and challenging existing notions of how and when children acquire gender identity. The third transformation took place in parallel with those changes, but focused just on boys and the apparently sudden urgency of distinguishing them from girls earlier and earlier.

 

5. Pink Is for Boys

ePub

5 PINK IS FOR BOYS

When I first encountered the words below nearly thirty years ago, I stopped and reread them several times:

 

Pink or Blue? Which is intended for boys and which for girls? This question comes from one of our readers this month, and the discussion may be of interest to others. There has been a great diversity of opinion on this subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.1

I was following up a minor sideline in a small project on babies’ clothing during the Progressive Era—the seemingly trivial question, “When were pink and blue introduced as gendered colors?” At that point, the white rabbit darted into its hole, and I dove in after it. Years later, I am back to tell the very complicated tale of how American baby and toddler clothing went from being completely devoid of sexual hints to almost completely separated into “his” and “hers” camps. And, for me, it all started with pink and blue.

 

6. Unisex Child Rearing and Gender-Free Fashion

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6 UNISEX CHILD REA AND GENDER-FREE FASHION

The history of the last 125 years in American children’s clothing is a tale of progressively and increasingly genderized fashions, particularly for babies and toddlers. Since the 1880s, pink and blue color coding has replaced traditional white infant clothing, and pants have supplanted dresses for toddler boys. Ungendered fashions—either designed for both boys and girls, or boys’ styles acceptable for girls’ play clothes—played an increasingly small but still important role in children’s wardrobes in the twentieth century. Then came the mid-1960s, when gender-bending or androgynous fashion took center stage under the label “unisex.”1 Flourishing for about twenty years, unisex clothing stands out as a significant pause in the overall trend toward more gendered children’s clothing. Between 1965 and 1985, boys sported long hair and wore boldly patterned shirts and pants; girls wore pants, even for school. Sears, Roebuck & Co. carried no toddler clothing in pink from 1976 to 1978. For a while, it appeared that gendered clothing was a thing of the past and that children were, in the words of a popular song, “Free to Be You and Me.” But as swiftly as it had appeared, the unisex trend faded. Neutral styles for infants were reduced to a very small part of the market in the mid-1980s, and by the mid-1990s styles for toddlers and young children were more gender specific than they had been in the 1950s. In this chapter, I suggest that understanding unisex clothing requires us to consider this brief but significant period not only in opposition to gendered clothing but also as part of the longer story of neutral fashions. It is also an opportunity to examine children’s clothing trends through a developmental lens and from a generational perspective.

 

7. Gendered and Neutral Clothing since 1985

ePub

In the generation since the end of the unisex child rearing experiment, infants’ and toddlers’ clothing has changed from a market where neutral options were plentiful and even gendered clothing came in a wide range of colors to a consumerscape that is largely gender binary. So narrow are the choices that parents who wish to avoid gender stereotypes cannot shop in most mass-market retailers, whose neutral offerings are limited to newborn sizes. This shift occurred rapidly, beginning with the transformation in baby clothing around 1985. Suddenly, overalls, pants, and knitted tops, once staple neutral wardrobe items, were embellished with flowers or trucks. The infants’ departments in large stores were more sharply divided into “boys” and “girls” sections, with less space devoted to neutral styles.

The continued influence of parental anxiety about gender and sexuality is no doubt a factor in this change, since there is no evidence that it had ever disappeared. If anything, emotions stirred up by both the women’s liberation movement and the gay rights movement had raised the stakes for parents wanting to do the right thing. What “the right thing” might be was no clearer after a decade or so of sex role research and inhome experiments, and the battle lines were drawn between liberal and conservative parents in the modern culture wars. Conservative parents, as might be expected, argued in support of traditional, heteronormative masculinity and femininity, and they preferred clothing that reflected those values. Liberal parents were less predictable; some continued to seek out and purchase unisex clothing and reject strongly masculine and feminine styles. Others, especially those who had been children themselves during the 1970s, were less doctrinaire about the matter, letting their children be the final arbiters as they entered toddlerhood. Between conservative and liberal parents, of course, there were millions of parents who had no strong opinions on the matter at all.

 

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