I am tempted to post this without comment, but decided against it. This was my world as a young woman. Not just for secretaries, but for just about any woman seeking employment. The author, Ruth Millett, was not particularly conservative; she made her reputation early in her career as an advocate for working mothers during World War II. The advice she dispenses here was what we heard from our mothers, teachers, and mentors, because it was just the way things were.
I have no doubt that Hillary Clinton heard this advice at least as much as I did. Keep this in mind the next time you hear someone complain about "her voice, her clothes, her smile".
I'd hoped to find a cache of student handbooks to help me trace dress codes at the local high school, but it turns out they "don't keep those", so I am turning to the historian's best friend, microfilm. Yes, not everything is digitized and available online. I am focusing on the September issues of the daily paper, the Telegraph-Bulletin, since back in the day that's when back-to-school and back-to-school fashions were in the news. My main interest is the 1960s, when dress code conflict really took off (long hair, short skirts, etc.) but for personal interest I started with September, 1957. That's the month I left North Platte, and it was great fun to check out the TV listings and reminisce.
But I also found this, the Wednesday night, Sept. 11, paper, announcing the reveal of the display windows of all the clothing stores downtown as a special event, complete with a parade by the Senior High School band.
Of course I remember Christmas windows -- as late as the early 1990s, they were still a Big Deal in most cities. (They were also a BD in our household, since my husband worked for the display department at one of the big DC stores.)
I dimly recall going downtown to "window shop" in the evening, and I wonder if it was for this sort of event. At any rate, it's a fascinating look into fashion promotion in a place far from 7th Avenue.
There was also an article, which gave more detail and -- BONUS JACKPOT! -- a list of all the participating merchants.
Day three of my research trip was a real eye-opener. I am still settling in and feeling my way around, so what I learned was pretty random, but still interesting.
For the next few weeks, I will be visiting my old home town, North Platte, Nebraska, in search of answers to a long (and growing) list of questions. Some of the questions are personal, and I will be blogging those elsewhere. But they intersect with questions related to my current book project about women, fashion, and identity across the life course. Those questions -- and whatever answers I find -- will be posted here.
Intersectionality -- defined as "the complex, cumulative manner in which the effects of different forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect" -- has played an increasingly important part in my research. Decades ago, it was sufficient to focus on gender and sexism, but the realities of discrimination and have led scholars to also incorporate racism, classism, and other oppressive ideologies into their work. My interest is in how ageism works in these mixtures.
At the same time, I am fearful of trying to take on too much -- too many variables. So this trip reduces the complexity to the intersectional life courses of white women of my own age, but with whom I share a common origin. I lived in Nebraska for the first eight years of my life, seven in the bustling railroad town of North Platte. How would my life have been different if my family had not moved to the New Jersey suburbs, and then to rural New England? What was it like to grow up in North Platte?
Specifically, I expect to begin with questions like these:
It took me a while, but I have settled on the paper topic I will be presenting (fingers crossed) at the Popular Culture Association conference in San Diego next April. Since I am in the middle of a giant research project, I had lots of choices, but this one kept calling to me. Here is the abstract I submitted. What do you think?
Women's clothing sizes are complicated. Despite decades of attempts to standardize them based on measurements, female shoppers still must navigate a confusing, chaotic system of categories, vanity sizing, and proprietary sizing schemes. In this presentation, I will add to the confusion by tracing the shifting relationship between age categories and size categories (junior, misses, and half or plus sizes, for example).
This fraught relationship dates back to Lane Bryant's maternity designs, which found a market among "stout" women, especially those over fifty. Similarly, junior sizes, once designed for the slim, high-busted figures of women in their teens and early 20s, became the size range of choice for women of any age who retained their "girlish" figures. (Thus "A size, not an age", the theme of a 1957 fashion show at Saks Fifth Avenue.)
I will discuss this quandary from the point of view of women over fifty, who must search for "age appropriate" clothing based on their body type.
I am on research leave this fall semester, working on Age Appropriate. So far, that has meant a mix of reading, very rough drafts, and daydreaming. But today I took a huge step, but reaching out to people who -- hopefully -- can help me with a vital part of my research. In just over a month, I will head to North Platte, Nebraska, the town where I lived as a little girl. The burning question on mind is, "Who would I be, if we had not moved away?"
You may wonder what this has to do with gender and fashion. So do I, sometimes. But deep inside, I know there is a connection. My journey from infancy to the edge of old age is not just temporal; it is also geographical, social, and cultural. I have reached out to the local paper, the high school I would have attended, the town library, and the church where my family worshipped. Now I just have to hope that at least some of the kids I knew stuck around.
Wish me luck!
Oh! I love your hat
I love your shoes
I love your sparkly unicorn
I love your leggings with the big red hearts
I love everything about you!
Except the person inside.
I did not write the first five lines. I overheard a grownup saying exactly those words to a little girl not even two years old.
I just submitted an article about boys’ clothing to Vestoj, a pretty awesome platform (blog/journal) on fashion, for their issue on masculinity. I will post a link to the whole thing if and when it appears, but in the meantime, here is a taste, adapted for a blog post:
Gendered colors were adopted first for infants, and gradually applied to older children and adults. Neutral colors were pretty much eliminated as an option for babies after the early 1990s, except for a few items in yellow or green in newborn sizes. This suggests that associating pink with girls and blue for boys was the earliest lesson in gendered visual culture for many of today’s young adults. Babies and toddlers can perceive these color differences as early as five months and can apply gender stereotypes by the age of two. All children (except the 8% of boys and 1% of girls who are color blind) learn pink and blue as gender markers; girls don’t just learn about pink, and boys don’t just learn about blue. Color coding may well be the first thing they learn about the rules of gender that govern their own lives. Why does this matter?
Children are born into an intersectional network of culture. In addition to being surrounded by racism, classism, religious and political beliefs, and myriad other norms, children learn to define and shape their gender identities according to prevailing gender rules which are predicated on a binary. According to the binary view, there are two sexes: male and female, and two genders: masculine and feminine. (The first is anti-science, and the second defies common sense, but the binary exists, nonetheless.) However, boys AND girls are influenced by girly culture, and girls AND boys are shaped by masculine culture. Consider the cultural landscapes and boundaries marked by pink and blue. A firm knowledge of girly culture is required for boys to avoid being contaminated by femininity or anything associated with women and girls. Pink identifies “girly culture” for both girls and boys. Pink is visual femininity repellent for the very young boy.
If all we need to protect the fragile masculinity of boys is a visual culture (pink-unicorns-sparkles) that signifies GIRL so clearly that no child under the age of six months will ever mistake one for the other, why do we need blue? In some ways, we don’t; we just need not-pink. It’s been clear for me for some time that pink and blue are not just opposite equivalents, functionally.
What do men learn from boy culture? (Little macho culture? Machito culture? Still looking for the right word!)
According to some of my male friends and former students (a very small convenience sample)* , they learn:
,*Many thanks to ZS, CC, and WW for their contributions!
I would add to this my own observation that boys also learn that girls who are like boys or who like machito things, can be good friends, but that boys should never allow them to win.
Pink and blue. Girl and boy. Girly and ... what? I am in in search of a nice one-word term for the male partner to girly culture. (Yes, for now I am imagining binary because the existing cultural construct is binary.) In clothing terms:
Girly clothes: pink, pastel, frilly, soft materials, unicorns, kittens, butterflies, high heels, ruffles, tight-fitting, skimpy, glitter, delicate, fussy.
______ clothes: camo, loose, athletic gear, trucks, trains, cars, pockets, dark colors, brown, gray, black, blue, neckties, bow ties, sturdy, plain.
Here are the words I am considering. Keep in mind I am looking for something to describe the culture experienced directly by babies, toddlers, and small children.
Girly culture -- pink, princess, sexually precocious -- has been studied extensively. Right now I am at work on a piece that examines boy culture, specifically the norms and expectations that shape boys from infancy to adolescence. I am working my way through the academic literature, especially the works of Michael Kimmel, but I have a question for the men in my audience.
This is very much a draft.
Let's assume that boys AND girls are influenced by girly culture, and girls AND boys are shaped by masculine culture. I want to look at this from the boys' point of view. Girly culture has a purpose for boys, and it the same as insect repellent. A firm knowledge of girly culture is required for boys to avoid being contaminated by femininity or anything associated with women and girls. If all we need to protect the fragile masculinity of boys is a visual culture that signifies GIRL so clearly that no child under the age of six months will ever mistake one for the other. What then, is the purpose of boy culture?