I had a lovely interview with Slate.com's Brian Palmer yesterday about gender-specific children's clothing. We had a great talk talking about the history of it all, especially the pinkification of girls' -- well, everything. There are signs of change in recent years, with the coming-of –age of the children of the mid-1980s. The evidence is emerging from many directions. There playful reinterpretations of “traditional” feminine styling such as punk baby girl outfits in pink and black, and other colors – purple, turquoise, green -- are sharing rack place. Even more telling, older boys and men are reclaiming pink. Pink dress shirts and ties have enjoyed a revival, beginning around 2004. My son’s college Ultimate team’s colors are pink and black; until they actually ordered team shirts in 2008, they wore women’s pink t-shirts, hoodies and warm-up pants found in thrift stores. Hearing about this book, a colleague passed along her son’s favorite t-shirt from third grade, purchased in 2007 at a local J.C. Penny – a light pink shirt with these words:
...if she was a Chinese-American girl living in San Francisco in the early 1900s. When did Chinese-American girls start wearing dresses? Did Chinese-American boys ever wear them? This could be someone else's dissertation or book. I'll only be able to skim the surface of ethnic differences in this book, alas!
In 1927, Time published these results of a survey of infants' departments in major cities. Their question: What are the sex-appropriate colors for boys and girls clothing? My question: "Time? Really?" This must have been a bigger issue than I thought!
The selection of pink or blue for an individual child at the turn of the century was often based on becomingness, according to nineteenth century rules of taste. Light shades were considered more flattering to the pale complexions of Caucasian babies, and eye color was an important factor in selecting the correct hue. A portrait of twin infants (sex unknown), both in white dresses found at the Strong Museum of Play illustrates the usual rule. The brunette twin wears pink booties; the blue-eyed blonde wears blue ones. The Winterthur Museum and Library has a set of companion paper dolls that also follows this rule: one doll, cut from a magazine, has brown hair, blue eyes and blue trim on her white undergarments. The original owner made a hand-drawn copy with blonde hair, brown eyes and pink trim. The few baby books I found that included locks of hair or descriptions of hair or eye color also support this pattern. Of the three locks of brown hair preserved in the books (two boys and a girl), all were tied with pink ribbons. Four of the six blonde locks (four girls and two boys) had blue ribbons (one of the boys and three of the girls). The other blonde boy and girl both had pink ribbons.
Eventually, the old rules of “becomingness” were loosened and discarded.The creator of twin sister paper dolls, Madeleine and Gladys (1920) provided this commentary on their wardrobes: “Mad (brunette) wears yellow, blue and green. Glad (blonde) wears green, purple and pink. Some people think blondes ought not to wear pink but that's because they don’t know how becoming pink is to a really true blonde."
One of the most vexing aspects of the book as been how to raise the question of sexuality. I'm not just talking about the way that gendered clothing can tend to slide into sexualized clothing (think Toddlers and Tiaras and the Huggies Denim Diaper ad). The gender binary pink and blue world reflects a heteronormative -- and homophobic -- construct of children's sexualities.The writings of G. Stanley Hall and other early psychologists were very clear in their view of male homosexuality as deviant, dangerous and preventable, but usually the sexual messages in children's clothing fly under the radar.
Another aspect of this issue is how gendered clothing -- particularly the strongly binary landscape we've bee in since the late 1980s -- is experienced by those children who do not conform to traditional gender constructs. Tomboys, girlish boys, intersex children -- what does pink and blue mean to them?
My Find of the Day in my Google alert of "neutral clothing" was Aly Windsor's post "Parenting outside the gender binary". Windsor and her partner are raising their son Avie to be as "unrestrained by gender as possible", and it's an interesting and thought-provoking post for anyone who thinks pink and blue clothing (and a serious lack of neutral options) is just harmless fashion.
"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 poy and blue for the girls. the reason is that pink being a more decided and stringer color, is more suitable for the boy' while blue, which is more delicate and dainty is prettier for the girl”
Infants’ Department, June 1918The first time I encountered these words, paging through a heavy, bound issue of Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department, nearly thirty years ago, I stopped and re-read it several times, at least once under my breath. I was following up a minor sideline in a 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 completely devoid of sexual hints to almost completely separated into “his” and hers” camps.
boy's button-on suit, 1920s
Pink and blue symbolism is so firmly embedded in American popular culture that it’s hard to believe that their gender associations are relatively new, and have changed with each generation. Before 1900, babies in the United States wore white clothing that signified their age but not their sex, consistent with cultural norms. Toddler clothing (up to age 4) was more colorful, but hues were assigned according to complexion, season or fashion, not sex.In the 1920s and 1930s pink was the preferred color for little boys in many parts of the United States.
We were halfway through the massive undertaking of inventorying and weeding out our costume collection, and had gotten as far as the cabinet of dainty white baby things. Other institutions no doubt have them, too – long white dresses, short white dresses, petticoats of various descriptions. With luck, they are all well documented by the donors. We were not lucky. We were confronted with a cabinet full of infants’ clothing of uncertain origin, uncertain date, uncertain purpose and an uncertain role in our collection.
The secondary sources on children’s clothing really do not go into enough detail on infants’ clothing to be helpful. So we decided to delve into the most promising form of primary literature on the subject: Sears, Roebuck mail-order catalogs. Sears catalogs are by no means the only source – mothers’ manuals and women’s magazines often contained advice on outfitting babies. But Sears catalogs did offer the greatest amount of detailed information, including materials and prices, as well as illustrations of every garment. This guide presents the results of that research, which hopefully will provide some guidance to others in the same predicament.