I came across some interesting thoughts on unisex fashion in "Looking Good", published in 1976. The author, Clara Pierre, was writing from the perspective of an industry insider observing what she expected to be permanent changes in fashion. In chapter 10 "From bralessness to unisex", she explains the connection between sexual liberation and unisex clothing as a process of increasing comfort various aspects of sexual identity and expression:
"for whatever reason, we began to feel more comfortable first with sex pure and simple, then with homosexuality and now with androgyny"
That was then and this is now, as they say. Clearly, some people thought that the culture wars over sex was over, even as it was just beginning. So, I wonder: what happened?
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:
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.
I just acquired a 1962 Fall/Winter Sears catalog from a new friend, and have been enjoying the trip down memory lane.
So many of the play clothes, like those on the left, were neutral -- plain, solid color styles that could be worn by either boys or girls and handed down to younger siblings.
I'd forgotten that pink used to be pretty much a spring color. Fall clothes meant fall colors: more saturated hues, fewer pastels, heavier fabrics.
There were four pages of "school dresses" like these, and not a pink dress among them.
These blanket sleepers came in three colors: blue, yellow and a "nursery print" of pink and blue animals on a white background.