Ever hear of Amelia Bloomer
? She was the American writer and activist who attempted to reform women's fashions in the 1850s by advocating -- and wearing -- knee-length dresses with full matching trousers underneath. She and other dress reformers called it "the American costume", to differentiate it from French-influences fashions, but the popular name "bloomers" stuck. The idea of women wearing any form of trousers was ridiculed and roundly rejected, but bloomers became acceptable for athletic costume, as long as they were worn in public. Fast forward to the 1890s, when bicycles were the latest craze, and young women traded flowing dresses for divided skirts, bloomers and even their brothers' knickers in order to enjoy the new pastime.
Once again, the cartoonists and editorial writers had a field day, but this time practicality won out.
creeping apron, 1908
At the same time, a quiet revolution was taking place in children's clothing. Some unknown enterprising person -- probably a mother -- had the brilliant idea of sewing up the hem of her baby's dress, leaving only two holes for the legs. The resulting "creeping apron" (later shortened to "creeper") was initially worn over another dress, like a pinafore, but by the 1910s was worn by itself.
A more fitted version, the romper, was introduced for toddlers. Physicians and advice manual writers praised these outfits as being ideal for both boys and girls.
In contrast to the reception of trousers for women, the idea of putting little girls in creepers and rompers met with apparently universal approval. There were no anti-romper cartoons, no editorials decrying the masculinization of girls. According to the baby books and paper dolls I have seen, rompers replaced white dresses as the preferred neutral option for toddlers very swiftly, between 1910 and 1920. I say "neutral" because until the 1930s, gender-specific version of either garments were very rare. (Yes, boys wore pink rompers
McCall Magazine illustration of a romper and a creeper, 1920.
I had a great email exchange yesterday with French-born Agnès Loncke of Bruges, Belgium, who had seen an article about my work. She wrote:Well, when my sister and I got our boys in the late 60's and 70's, I was surprised we got pink clothes. In Belgium it was pink for the boys and light blue for the girls, also for the sugar 'dragées'. In France it was the opposite, though, pink for the girls...Pink is not a boy's colour but the colour of life and good for babies of both sexes. There is however no problem dressing boys in light blue.Of course, that was forty years ago, and even in the United States there were still localities where pink was the color for boys, or at least acceptable in multicolored stripes or polka dots. Judging from today's websites and catalogs from Belgium, pink is more often used for girls and less for boys. What is different from the U.S. is the much larger availability of colors other than pink for girls,
and of neutral designs. Take a look at the Prémaman catalog
and you'll see. I like their maternity clothes, too. Notice the overwhelming preponderance of neutral styles for car seats, strollers, baby carriers and other accessories. Except for the First Years potties, available in two Disney-themed option: cars and princess.
While an ad featuring a boy who liked pink was making media waves
in the United States, a different pink story was going on elsewhere. Anti-bullying organizations in Canada
and New Zealand
observed "Pink Day", encouraging everyone to wear pink in a gesture of solidarity with kids would are bullied. I am of two minds:1) bullying is bad, anti-bullying work is important.2) the more pink is used to represent femaleness, femininity, queerness etc., the harder it is to bust
stereotypes about gender.My idea of a pink day would be more like a sustained pink-busting explosion. Flash mobs of people wearing pink happening randomly all over for weeks and weeks. When asked why you are wearing pink, answer
with one of these:1) I like pink2) I look good in pinkBut maybe I am being curmudgeonly. Sometimes I experience serious pink fatigue.
David Shepherd and Travis Price, from Nova Scotia, Canada. (http://www.kidzworld.com)
One of the reasons I wrote this book is simple and selfish. I got tired of telling people over and over again that boys used to wear pink. After finding the Infants Department quote about boys wearing pink about 25 years ago, I wrote articles, gave talks and worked on exhibits in major museums (beginning with the Smithsonian) that used that information. No cocktail party or online discussion forum was safe from me. Now and then I would be pleased when a total stranger would tell me that boys used to wear pink, having seen it "somewhere". But being asked the same question for most of my professional life was like being stuck in the academic version of Groundhog Day. I was in the first day of class in an introductory course forever; the conversation always started with boys wearing pink and seldom moved past that initial bit of information. I am hoping the book will at least establish the history of gender symbolism enough so we can talk about what it says about our culture.
The wildfire reaction to Toemageddon 2011 (h/t The Daily Show) has made me consider even more deeply the importance of history and historians in our civic culture. You could say that the history of fashion is trivial, but if more people understood how recent our "traditions" are and how they continually change, I have to believe it would help diffuse the culture wars.
Less trivial examples of our need for historians include the widespread misbeliefs that the American Revolution was about taxation, not representation, that the Founding Father were not only Christian, but had beliefs that were in any way similar to modern conservative Christians, and that the Civil War was not about slavery.
Wouldn't it be nice if all the networks would replace a few of their "former political strategists" with bonafide historical scholars? (And please, don't call Newt Gingrich a scholar. He's not.) We have great historians in colleges and museums all over the country - social historians, political historians, cultural historians, business historians. We also plenty of independent historians -- I am currently reading and relishing Sarah Vowell's history of our annexation of Hawaii, "Unfamiliar Fish".
Oh, and it also would be nice if the History Channel would produce a news show that brought in historians to put the news in context. I'm available!
I thought my research went viral last Friday with the interview
I did with Smithsonian Magazine online's Jean Maglaty. Clearly, I don't know viral. Used to toil away in the obscurity of my ivory tower (actually a windowless office in the basement of a crumbling brick building), I thought that having a bunch of friends (and THEIR friends) pass the article along on Twitter and Facebook was pretty exciting. Then Fox News decided to interview me for an item on a J.Crew mailer that featured this picture:
...and all hell broke loose. Since then, I have made my first live TV appearance
and been contacted for a phone interview with Laura Ingraham. I even made a cameo appearance
on the Huffington Post as an unnamed "lefty author". Don't think that's going to happen, though; I am alternating these days between Grading Hell and Office Hours Limbo. (I am mayor of both of these locations on Foursquare.)
I have email alerts set for for various phrases to help me with the "Pinkboys and Tomgirls" paper for the Popular Culture Association meeting, and it's delivering news items and blog posts like the conveyor belt threw chocolates at Ethel and Lucy. The news items are pretty repetitive, and the blog posts aren't much better -- most just quote the Fox News item, in part or the whole thing. But the comments, dear reader, the comments! There's enough material in those comments for a dissertation-sized research project. Conservatives who are sure this is the sign of moral rot. Conservatives who say they don't see what the fuss is about. Former pink boys who grew up gay; former pink boys who have transitioned to women; former pink boys who grew up straight (lots of them). Former tomboy moms. Lesbian moms, Grandmothers. Psychiatrists who say WTF.
Everybody's talking about pink and boys and gender. I never thought I would say it, but
Thank you, Fox News!
UPDATE: This just in from The Daily Show on Twitter:
"Tonight: A mom paints her son's toenails pink, yet he manages to NOT turn into a little girl. Miracles DO happen!"
Whew! A few months ago I was interviewed by Jeanne Maglaty of Smithsonian Magazine online. It promptly fell off my radar (I'm a professor! It happens all the time.) and suddenly it was online
last Friday. I posted it to me friends on Facebook and Twitter, who posted it to their friends, who posted it to their friends and suddenly it's everywhere I look. Exciting and scary. Many of the bloggers who have picked it up have made insightful comments and rather than sprinkle the answers all over the 'net, I thought I would try to respond here. If you have additional questions, post or email them. I am in the final month of the semester -- AKA Grading Hell - but I will try to answer as many as possible.UNC Sociologist Philip Cohen asks the $64,000 question:
"So, what would a gay 5-year-old in 1884 have done?"
That's a great question, and one that I was only able to raise -- and not to answer definitively -- in the book. My guess is:
- gay children still felt "different" as they gained awareness of cultural norms and expectations
- this sense of difference was mitigated and probably delayed because early childhood culture was less gender binary than it is today. In the baby books I examined, baby dolls were common gifts for both boys and girls at their first Christmas or birthday.
- the transition to boy clothing and the first haircut might have been more jarring for boys who were comfortable in feminized "baby"styles.
I am hoping this first serious foray into the topic will inspire others to examine this question. I am dying to see what historical clinical literature might reveal, for example.
Now that the manuscript is out of my hands, I an eagerly turning to my next project. On April 22, I'll be in San Antonio, Texas to give a paper at the Popular Culture Association conference. The title is "Pink Boys and Tomgirls: Raising Gender Variant Boys in the Twenty-first Century", and it's giving me a chance to delve more deeply into a phenomenon that is emerging so fast I couldn't cover it adequately in the book. here's the abstract, for starters (sorry, it's a tad jargon-y):For the last twenty-five years, parents who prefer neutral or androgynous styles for their children have had very few options in the retail market. How do these gender rules effect children who do not conform to dominant gender expectations, including not only the 1 child in 100 who is born intersex, or the 2-10% (depending on your sources) who will be sexually attracted to partners of their own sex, but all the girls who dislike pink and the boys who want to play princess? My own research strongly argues that clothing does not “make the man” when it comes to babies and toddlers; there is no evidence whatsoever that homosexuality is any more or less prevalent now than it was when boys wore dresses until they were five, or that lesbianism spiked among the first generation of girls to wear pants. But that does not mean that children between one and six may not use clothing to help explore and express what their biological sex in the cultural landscape into which they were born. In this presentation I will offer an overview of this emerging trend and discuss its connection to the current system of gender binaries in children’s clothing, in the context of contemporary psychological thought. I will place special emphasis on the appearance of blogs and organizations that provide support to parents with “gender non-conforming” or “gender variant” boys.
I have collected some resources in my Zotero library
, and will be working through the presentation here. Stay tuned!