If you asked someone in the fashion industry, unisex was a fad that came and went in one year: 1968. For that brief moment, the fashion press hailed gender blending as the wave of the future, and department stores created special sections for unisex fashions. Most of these boutiques had closed by 1969. However, in the more mainstream realm of Sears, Roebuck catalogs and major sewing patterns, “his ‘n hers” clothing – mostly casual shirts, sweaters and outerwear – persisted through the late 1970s. The difference between avant-garde unisex and the later version is the distinction between boundary-defying designs, often modeled by androgynous-looking models, and a less-threatening variation, worn by attractive heterosexual couples.
Also: one more chapter to go! Huzzah!!!
I am still drafting the context chapter of the book, and thankfully, it is beginning to make sense. Or at least I think it is, so I'll post a bit here are see what y'all think. Don't be shy!
This comes after a paragraph about the inability of sex researchers to take into account their own culturally-induced biases. I use the familiar metaphor of the fish trying to understand water, which is often used to describe the difficulties encountered when we try to examine our own culture.
Reformers, advocates and activists working to expand civil rights were essentially trying to change the dimensions of the fishbowl. The Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States of America offer definitions of human rights that initially promised more than they delivered to many people living within our borders. The civil rights movements in our history have been efforts to include people who had been excluded from the promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit if happiness” offered in 1776 and the guarantee of “equal protection under the law” added in 1868. This may seem heady, serious stuff for a book on fashion, but it was the civil rights movement that made clothing and hair into national, contentious issues. Much of the fashion controversies centered on issues of gender expression and gender equality, which raised different questions for women and men, and for adults and children.
Many of the initial questions were seemingly trivial. Why can’t girls wear slacks to school? Why must men always wear ties, which seem to serve no practical purpose? Why do so many dresses button or zip up the back? Why can’t a boy wear his hair long just like the Beatles? Why do I have to wear white gloves and a hat just to go shopping downtown? Why is it cute to be a tomboy but not a sissy? If these sound like children’s questions, maybe it’s because at first they were. I remember puzzling over these and many other rules when I was growing up. The answers were even more puzzling – and annoying! “That’s just the way it is.” “Because I said so.” Culture, and the authority of grownups. In the 1960s, the Baby boom generation started to question more and push back harder, along with some allies in older generations. They were aided and abetted by a consumer culture that may have been more interested in their buying power than in cultural and political change.
The writing life ain't pretty. Four l-o-n-g chapters in and, four weeks to go before my deadline, someone asking for a headshot is lucky not to get this one -------->
It's Saturday (whatever that is) and my summer cold has moved from my throat to my chest. I dream about being at the computer, writing. No naked men, no magical creatures, just me and the laptop.
I'm looking forward to having this book done, mainly because I can't wait to see how I pull it off. Writing about history feels like a collaboration between the evidence and the storyteller (that's me). The challenge is that life -- the events that become "history" -- happens to millions of people at a time, and the storyteller must simplify it enough to be intelligible, but not so much that you lose the complexity that gives life its flavor.
My bio might say "dress historian", but clothing is just the way I learn about life. Pink and Blue was about the lives of parents and children, not about baby dresses and rompers. As someone who has been a kid and parent, it was about my life, but just a teensy bit, since it covered over a hundred years of history. Sex and Unisex is about the lives of people who experienced the 1960s and 1970s, so it totally intersects with my life. At the same time, I want it to connect with readers under 35, whose lives today are still buffeted by the turbulence of that era. So I write, and cough, and drink throat-soothing tea, and write some more, as the story unfolds in my head and on my screen. Wish me luck.
A. Blouses/skirts, sweaters/skirts, or sport type dresses shall be worn.1. Blouses, dresses, and sweaters must have armholes high enough to cover undergarments.
2. Extremely tight fitting clothing shall not be worn.
3. Skirts shall not be more than four inches (4") above the knee.
4. Midriffs, backless, shoulderless dresses are not acceptable. Spaghetti straps or tie straps are not to be worn. Blouses should be worn under low necked sweaters.
5. Blouses must be worn tucked in unless the blouse [**7] is designed to be worn outside the skirt as an over-blouse.
6. Play clothes, such as slacks, pedal pushers, shorts, Bermudas, leotards without a skirt, etc., are not acceptable wear unless specifically designated for special occasions.
A. Hair styles shall be neat, properly combed, appropriately arranged, and extreme styles avoided. Bangs are to be neat and short enough to show the eyebrows.1. Pincurls, clippies, rollers, or glitter may not be worn during school hours. Head scarves are not to be worn in classrooms.
A. Make-up shall be applied sparingly and not to the point of attracting undue attention.1. Excessive jewelry is not appropriate for school wear.
A. Shoes should be appropriate for school wear. Roman type sandals or boots are not acceptable. Hosiery, anklets, or peds are to be worn for good health practices.
Last week I was joking with a friend that the first longhair court case in 1965 was "the Fort Sumter of the Culture War". Maybe it wasn't such a joke, after all. A map of the states where school dress codes were upheld in the majority of court cases neatly overlays the maps of opinion on other cultural issues. At the extremes, the states within the jurisdiction of the Fifth Circuit (Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi) upheld the school's position in 12 of 13 cases. The Second Circuit (Vermont, Connecticut and New York) only had three dress code cases between 1965 and 1978, and ruled in favor of the students every time.
Now that I am about a month away from submitting the full draft of my next book to Indiana University Press, this blog is getting a long-overdue re-naming. When it was just a wee blogettekin, it was all about kids clothing, because that's was "Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America" was all about. But regular readers have no doubt noticed that about two years ago the grown-ups started moving into the spotlight. I will be making other changes on the site later, but this new name kind of says what my research has been about all along.
I study gender and appearance, and not just for kids. Stick with me and enjoy!
Reporter Heather Brown from WCCO-TV, the CBS affiliate in Minneapolis, snagged me for a quick Skype interview yesterday to ask me about why all the blue celebrating the littlest royal. She did a great job in reporting what turned out to be a very complex answer to a simple question. One tiny quibble: it didn't used to be exactly the opposite (pink for boys, blue for girls) because when boys wore pink it wasn't a moral imperative, just a fun regional custom or a fashion.
Beginning in 1964, newspapers reported numerous instances of boys – some as young as 9 – being barred from school for having long hair. Most of these confrontations ended with a quick trim. In a parochial school in New Hampshire, the administrator loaded 18 students on a school bus and delivered them to a local barber. The first legal case involving hair was Leonard v. School Committee of Attleboro (Massachusetts), which began with the first day of classes on September 9, 1964 and went all the way to the state Supreme Court, which in December 1965 upheld the school’s right to dictate the appearance of students. Leonard, already a professional musician performing under the name Georgie Porgie, had argued that the school did not have a written dress code and that his long hair was vital to his career, but the court ruled that the principal had the authority to tell Leonard to get a haircut and to expel him when he refused. When he attended an Attleboro High School all-class reunion in 2013, he was greeted as a celebrity; to his classmates and the younger students at the school, he had been a hero. To some fans of freedom of expression, he still is; his entry at the Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame website, claims, "every kid who sports long hair, pink hair or a shaved head, or wears a nose ring, a tattoo or makeup, owes his right to do so to” the Pawtucket-born Leonard.
Georgie Porgie and his band appeared at least once with the Cape Cod garage band The Barbarians, who recorded the 1965 hit "Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl", the unofficial anthem of the Great Hairy Cause.
I've noticed a shift in the mid-1960s away from something I will call “personality dressing”, which is the common women’s magazine trope that asks, “What kind of woman are you?” and then offers style and grooming advice based on the responses. For example, in 1965 Seventeen featured “Personality types and the clothes that go with them” using the categories “dainty vs sturdy”, “dramatic vs demure”, and “dignified vs vivacious for three pairs of outfits. A fragrance ad in 1968 offers a short quiz and three choices, “romantic”, “modern”, and “feminine”. I've seen other writers describe what replaced personality dressing as “event dressing”, but I feel that the “moment dressing” is more descriptive. In the late 1960s and 1970s, there were many choices (minis, midis, maxis, pant suits, jeans, menswear, peasant, vintage...) and plenty of women opted for an extremely varied wardrobe
Which outfit came out of the closet depended not only on the event or occasion, but the woman’s mood at the moment as well. The significance of this is that mood dressing was a rejection of an essentialist view that women came in a few, easily categorized varieties. Like the W-O-M-A-N in the Enjoli perfume commercial who can “bring home the bacon, cook it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man”, the woman of the 1970s could do anything, or least dress for anything.
That's my take, anyway. What's yours?
I'm about to ask some messy questions. Writing about gender can get that way. In 1967, cultural critic Russell Lynes observed that the gender-bending styles of the young had a curious effect. in his opinion, the new fashion of women dressing more like boys or men helped homely girls look more attractive. Lynes gives the example of Barbra Streisand, but his comment reminds me of the recent viral video of the Dustin Hoffman interview about his cross-dressing experience in "Tootsie". Nearly 40 years later, Hoffman is reduced to tears with the recollection that the make-up people had made them as pretty as they could, and he couldn't measure up to his own standards of a woman worth spending time on.
Then I am reminded of a recent conversation with a colleague who knows a bit about the subject -- she's taught a course on the history of drag -- where she mused about the relative "success" of male-to-female gender performance, compared to women attempting to pass as men. Here's the question: Do men find otherwise plain or unattractive women look more attractive -- as women -- when they wear masculine clothing? Is feminized men's clothing more threatening than mannish styles for women in our culture because it is a challenge to the existing power structure, or because the artifice involved in performing femininity -- make-up, body shaping and elaborate hair modification -- is exposed as the trickery it really is when a man does it? What are the limits of beauty culture, and how do girls and women negotiate their own sense of self worth within those limits? Do we experience a Tootsie moment when we know we look our best and know deep in our souls that it isn't "enough"? What does it feel like?
Personally, it feels like my own personal cloak of invisibility. I can look quite presentable when I try, and I do still enjoy the effort. But I can also choose, when I feel like it, to pull on something comfortable, skip the makeup and enjoy the sensation. Oddly enough, androgynous clothing helps me do that.
P.S. Getting dragulated by RuPaul is still on my bucket list