One of the most iconic works of the unisex era is Lois Gould's short story, "X: a fabulous child's story", a tale of an "Xperiment" in gender-free child-raising. It first appeared in Ms
. in 1972, and was expanded into an illustrated children's book in 1978. (The Gender Centre in Australia has the story online
Here's a quick summary:
A baby is born to two parents who have agreed to keep its sex a secret, as part of a huge, very expensive scientific experiment. They are given a thick handbook to help them navigate future problems, from how to play with X to dealing with boys' and girls' bathrooms at school.
While other adults react with hostility, X's schoolmates eventually start imitating its freedom in dress and play. Finally, the PTA demands that X be examined, physically and mentally, by a team of experts.
If X's test showed it was a boy, it would have to start obeying all the boys'rules. If it proved to be a girl, X would have to obey all the girls' rules.
And if X turned out to be some kind of mixed-up misfit, then X must be Xpelled from school. Immediately! And a new rule must be passed, so that no little Xes would ever come to school again.
Of course, X turns out to be the "least mixed up child" ever examined by the experts. X knows what it is, and "By the time it matters which sex X is, it won't be a secret any more". Happy ending.
Ah, the 70s! Between this story, Harry Nilsson's "The Point" and "Free to be You and Me", the future looked so clear and bright. What happened? I will be taking a close look at the vision in each over the next week and discussing here, but would love to hear your memories and reactions.
Fact: rompers were invented so kids could play in the dirt. The earliest patent I've found for these loose-fitting, unisex jumpsuits dates to the 1880s. Apparently a female inventor (mom?) had the brilliant idea that boys and girls needed to worry less about their clothes and focus on fun. Sandboxes were new-fangled equipment, and laundry was still a huge burden, so she designed a coverall that fit over toddler's dresses (back then they all wore dresses).
By the 1920s, rompers were no longer overgarments, but simply popped on over underwear. The version on the right, also called a creeper, was for children still in diapers.
One of the patterns I am noticing in the evolution of unisex clothing is the dressier the outfift, the more gendered the design. Play clothes were not only washable and usually in darker colors, but also identical for both boys and girls. At least that's how it used to be.
Playclothes, 1962. Blue, red and brown were popular colors.
My current questions:
- What was happening with outdoor play when play clothes become more gendered?
- What is the relationship between highly feminized play clothes and girls' freedom to romp and get dirty? Pastel colors, which show the dirt more, would seem to limit such activities, even if there's a modern washing machine in the home. There is also the issue of fit -- skinny for girls, loose for boys.
Examples:Girls' Playtime Favorites, 1-5 years
(GAP)Boys' Playtime Favorites, 1-5 years
For an interesting perspective on children and dirt, see "for the love of dirt
". You can also enjoy Mariana's colorful, comfy gardening outfit. I found this blog post via the awesome Princess Free Zone
. If you have a kid in your life, you should check out PFZ.
I am currently caught between two books. "Pink and Blue" is out in the world, and that means interviews and conversations about gender differences in children's clothing. But I am also working on the proposal for my next book, which will be about unisex clothing (roughly 1965-1985). In terms of historical description, it looks like it will be pretty straightforward. Women and girls started wearing pants, even to work and school. Men enjoyed a brief "peacock revolution", when bold colors and pattern returned to their wardrobes. Legal battles were fought over hair (hair!): soldier's hair, students' hair, firefighters' hair. It was hard to tell the boys from the girls, under the age of ten. Designers from Paris to Hollywood imagined a future of equality and androgyny -- within the limits of their own world views, of course.
Explaining it all is where it gets complicated. Unisex clothing was a reaction to most of the gender binaries in fashion: long hair/short hair, skirts/pants and yes, pink/blue. But what alternative was posed, and why? For the most part, unisex meant more masculine clothing for girls and women. Attempts to feminize men's appearance turned out to be short-lived fads, not permanent changes. The underlying argument in favor of rejecting gender binaries turns out to have been another binary: a forced decision between gender identities being a product of nature or nurture. For a while, the "nurture" side was winning. Gender roles were social constructed, learned patterns of behavior and therefore subject to review and revision. Unisex fashions were one front in the culture wars of the late 60s and 70s -- a war between people who believed that biology is destiny and those who believed that human agency can override our DNA.
Thanks for listening/reading to my ponderings. Comments most welcome!
Israeli fashion writer Dafna Lustig has debuted a very nifty blog featuring online selections that meet her standards for dressing toddlers: well-made, good value and -- if possible -- favoring unisex over stereotyped designs. In an interview with Haaretz.com
, Lustig explains her philosophy, including anticipating her daughter's future demand for the shiny and sparkly. It pains me to see this desire accepted so readily as innate and inevitable. True, most children go through a stage of preferring highly stereotyped clothing in other to feel more secure in their assigned gender (usually around 4 or 5). But the exact nature of those stereotypes is culturally and socially constructed, and one of our responsibilities as parents is to help children move through each developmental stage to the next.
How have you successfully negotiated a comfortable balance between the 4-year-olds' fixation on the extreme poles of feminine-masculine child culture and the reality of a world where mommies use power tools and daddies wear pink shirts?
Dafna's blog, http://babyfashion.co.il/
is in Hebrew, but the pictures are lovely and Google translate is your friend. My favorite part: the cure little ice cream cone links to "not recommended", "recommended" and "very recommended".
Yesterday, February 12, would have been my mother's 90th birthday. In her memory, I decided take a close look at children's fashion in the year of her birth. As the third child born to a young German Lutheran minister and his wife in rural Canada, I doubt if she ever wore any of the fancier styles shown here, but family photos certainly confirm the rules of appropriate clothing for children under 7.
Babies from birth to around 6 months: long white gowns, ranging from minimally embellished to elaborately trimmed with lace and embroidery.
Babies from six months to a year or slightly older: short white dresses and one-piece rompers. Again, these could be plain or fancy, depending on the occasion and the family's budget and needlework talents.
Gender differences were introduced between one and two years, with little boys exchanging dresses for short trousers, often attached to their shirts or blouses with buttons at the waistline. Little girls stayed in dresses, but in an array of colors.
Here's a video I created for the occasion:
Personal finance site LearnVest passes along 15 Ways to Save Money on Your Family
(originally appeared in Parents and Parents.com). Tip # 2:Buy Unisex Clothing. If you plan to have more than one child, stay away from stereotypical pink or blue outfits, suggests Jonathan Pond, author of “Grow Your Money.” Many t-shirts, shorts and pants can be worn by both boys and girls through preschool, so it makes financial sense to maximize your hand-me-down potential.
My forays into the children's departments of stores suggests that this may be harder than it sounds, unless you are ready to stretch the clothing industry's notion of what constitutes "unisex". Truly designed-to-be-neutral clothing disappears above the smallest infant sizes, and dressing a toddler in unisex styles usually means foraging in the boys' section for the plainest options. Or am I wrong? Where do you find neutral styles in 2T-4T and 4-6 sizes?
I am absolutely tickled with this interview
published in the University of Maryland alumni magazine. Love, love, love the artwork. Do you think the baby is a boy or a girl? Does it bother you that you can't tell?
As you can see, I was a bald baby. A bald baby named Jo, no less. In this picture I am wearing a white batiste dress, which makes me look at least a little feminine, unless you consider that it was a hand-me-down from my brother. (Yes, in the late 1940s, some baby boys still wore little white dresses.)
If my mother had really cared that my sex was clearly discernable by strangers, she would have stuck a ribbon on my head, or made a frilly headband out of lace-covered elastic. Bad Mommy!
Today's little girls are so lucky! Not only do they have entire pink, girlie wardrobes and high heels
just for them, but now they don't have to suffer the indignity of baldness.Because everyone knows that REAL girls have long hair.
(The pink tutu isn't a big enough hint?)
In the last few years, there's been a growing trend for pink clothing for men. For far, it hasn't affected the diaper demographic, but it's encouraging. This article from India suggests that color reversal promises to be big news there this year.
Oh, the horror! won't the children be confused?
I spent some time this week looking over more baby and toddler clothing in Sears catalogs*, and have confirmed one of my theses about the patterns of gendering. The dressier the occasion, the more gendered the clothing. This is clear in these images from the 1983 spring catalog. The play clothes include a page each of fairly girlie and definitely boyish outfits, plus a page that are pretty much neutral. The dressy clothes are pull-out-the-stops feminine and masculine. compared with the 2000's, there was much less pink in the play clothes options.
This aligns with what many adults do: more neutral styles for leisure, more gendered for special occasions. The sharpening of the gender binary for some situations, while it is ok to blur them in others, is part of what I am mulling over as I develop my next book.
*Sears catalogs are among my favorite resources for studying mass-market fashions. If you live near a Sears store that is over thirty years old, your local public library might have a complete run of the "big books" on microfilm. If not, the best source is now Ancestry.com
, which includes online access to Sears catalogs as part of their basic membership. I wish Sears had donated them to a museum or library that could allow free public access, but alas, they are struggling financially and I guess this was the best they could do.