I study gender and appearance, and not just for kids. Stick with me and enjoy!
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
I turned 13 in 1962. Before I graduated from high school, three books hit the bestseller lists, each offering a completely different, competing view of what sort of woman I should try to be. Let the authors speak for themselves:
When a man thinks of a married woman, no matter how lovely she is, he must inevitably picture her greeting her husband at the door with a martini or warmer welcome, fixing little children's lunches or scrubbing them down because they've fallen into a mudhole. She is somebody else's wife and somebody else's mother.
The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange starring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shop for groceries, match slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, she furred Cub Scouts and brownies, lay beside her husband at night–she was afraid to even ask herself the silent question–“ is this all?”
Never before in history has there been a generation of women so disillusioned, disappointed, and unhappy marriage is in our times. Many feel that married life does not offer what they had hoped and dreamed it would. Some feel neglected, unappreciated, and often unlocked. When they search for answers, they feel lost in a sea of darkness. Some are resigned to this condition, but others still hope and search for answers.
I hasten to say that although I didn't read any of them, the ideas each author advocated swirled around me throughout my high school and college years. (And they are all still in print fifty years later, which is telling.) Which woman should I be? Helen Gurley Brown's independent, sexy, young single girl? Betty Friedan’s liberated woman with a career and perhaps an equally liberated husband? Or Helen Andelin’s domestic goddess, realizing her power by cultivating her femininity?
When faced with a multiple choice test, the young women of the 60s and 70s tried to turn it into an essay exam.
I've been collecting dozens -- no, make that hundreds -- of images as part of my research and I want to share them with you all, because they are fun, thought-provoking and even astonishing.
They are all here on my new Tumblr, Gender Mystique. Enjoy!
The concept of age compression, or kids getting older younger (KGOY), has been controversial for years. I just caught an example of this from the Sears catalogs in the late 1960s and early 1970s. On the left, you see an image of the Junior section of their spring 1967 catalog, which features popular model Colleen Corby (born in1947) in an outfit that in style and sizing is aimed at young women in the high school-college age range. In short, for younger women about her age. In 1970 Sears introduced their young teens line called "The Lemon Frog Shop", sizes 6J to 18J, and described as perfect for girls from 11 to 14 years of age. Who do we see? Why, there's Colleen Corby at the far left, now in her early 20s. Colby was a popular model for girls about her age in the 1960s. What effect does her appearance have, when she is modeling clothing for girls 10 years younger?
Everyone who knows fashion has heard of Carnaby Street, the crucible of youth style during the "Youth Quake" of the 1960s. But how about King's Road in Chelsea, which Rodney Bennett-England dubbed "the perfect microcosm of contemporary British male fashion"?
In 1968, that bastion of American middle-brow style, debuted its King's Road collection for young men. It's not Chelsea, but it will do. The King's Road fashions are pretty much the high water mark of the flood of "peacock styles" in mainstream fashion. These examples of "total color harmony" are from the spring, 1970 catalog. More to come, I promise!
And here is a TV ad from 1973. Football stars wear them, so you know they are manly!
Need to get your own? There's Ebay.
Men's fashions of the late sixties are a fascinating mix of dandyism and exotic cultural appropriation. (Think of the Sgt. Pepper album cover.) How wonderful for posterity that fashion journalist Rodney Bennett-England decided to capture the moment in Dress Optional: The Revolution in Menswear (Dufour, 1968, now lamentably out of print). Sir Mark Palmer, who dropped out of the upper class to travel in a caravan with various pop stars and dress in Druid robes, offers a succinct explanation of the appeal of the hippie culture:
"It is not escapism leaving a bad scene to start a new one."
It strikes me that the vivid, revolutionary nature of men's clothing in this period is evidence that the time was ripe for a rejection of the "masculine mystique" along the same lines of second wave feminism. Instead, men got a brief escape into an alternate life before John T. Molloy rang the closing bell with Dress for Success in 1975. I think this parallels the short history of the "American costume" (aka the Bloomer costume) for women at the very beginning of the feminist movement. Which means there's always hope for men's liberation.