If you are embarking on research on clothing and gender, I've recently written a bibliographic essay on the topic for the Berg Fashion Library. It is now available online -- for FREE! I tried to provide a solid foundation for anyone new to the topic, and would love to get feedback.
I can't resist sharing my favorite warning about the dangers of pants for women, from none other than physician Robert Bradley, author of the very-popular Husband-Coached Childbirth.
I strongly feel that the current rash of vaginal infections is related to women dressing in men's-style clothing. I'm an old square who thinks women look graceful and feminine in long skirts with lace and frills to accentuate their femininity. Pioneer women wore long skirts with no underclothes--at least for working--and had far fewer bladder infections than modern women who wear slacks, especially tight, rigid denims, and panty hose. In addition, the exercises of squatting and tailor sitting can be performed so much more easily in a large, loose skirt than in tight-fitting slacks.
This was a popular "science-based"argument in the 1960s and 70s for why women should not wear pants. (Strangely, it was not used to discourage us from wearing underpants!) Later studies found trousers innocent on all charges; instead the major culprits were nylon panties and pantyhose.
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!
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.
I was setting out my tomato plants this morning, at last. It's late, because the Maryland weather this spring has been fickle, and I only had four plants, too few to risk losing any. While I worked I listened to a podcast sermon on creativity and the divine. In it, the minister suggested that humans are driven not to "get back to the garden" but to create the garden anew, to complete our world.*
As often happens while I putter, or walk, or shower, a flash of insight hit me. I study gender because it is what I must understand to understand my own life. For others, the puzzle may be race, or death, or something else, but my deepest questions have always been about this paradoxical thing we call gender. I call it paradoxical because the term was invented in the 1950s to describe the social and cultural expressions of biological sex, yet in everyday usage sex and gender are almost always conflated, inseparable in many peoples' minds.
You see me here in two very different childhood pictures. The formal portrait (above) is me at about 3 and a half, in a velvet-trimmed dress I still remember fondly. My mother's red houndstooth check dress was also trimmed with velvet, and my father and brother wear nearly-identical warm gray suits. The very model of a gender-appropriate family in 1952. At the right is a snapshot of my brother and myself taken around 1955 in our back yard. My hair is in its natural state, and I am wearing my brother's old T-shirt and jeans. This was my world in the 1950s: dresses and pin curls for school, church and parties but jeans for play.
I wanted to be a cowboy when I grew up, and my parents humored me with a cowboy outfit with a two-gun holster for Christmas (along with a dollhouse). I adore all of these pictures because they are all so very me.
I got my first period the year after the Pill was approved by the FDA. In 1963, when The Feminine Mystique was published, I was just starting high school. Like so many young women who were swept along in the sexual revolution and the cultural shifts of the 1960s, I was promised much and given -- well, not little, but less than "revolution" implied.
The more I pursue the idea of "gender", the more it gets tangled up in sex. This gets ever clearer as I explore unisex and gendered clothing from the 1960s and 1970s. So many dead ends, so much confusion and so very much unfinished business! Turns out the sexual revolution may be the cultural Hundred Years War. Researchers thrive on open questions; gender is mine, because it is the aspect of my own life that puzzles me most.
*The sermon is available to read or hear at the UU Church of the Larger Fellowship website.
As I finish the chapter on children's clothing, I'm sorting through my images and videos about adult fashions. Here's one you'll enjoy, from an early Soul Train episode. Notice the range of gender expression, on both men and women. A thought: did African American men have more or less leeway in this realm than white guys? My first impression is more, but also that I may be dazzled by the flashiness.
I'm working on a careful description and analysis of the children's styles fro the Sears catalogs, and decided to get reactions from my readers. These images (211 of them!!!) are arranged in chronological order, by year and then season (Spring-Summer, then Fall-Winter). You can view them as a slide show and add comments here or on Flickr.
What do you see? (patterns, trends, surprises, memories)
Here’s what I detect in the pages of the Sears catalogs from 1962 to 1979:
Feminist biology professor Anne Fausto-Sterling of Brown University contacted me recently about a research note about gendered colors in that struck her as weak on evidence. I had the same reaction, and was mulling over how to respond to the article, but felt competent only to address the author's approach to historical evidence, not his science. (The original piece is behind a paywall, but described in this post at Life's Little Mysteries.)
Fausto-Sterling and I reached across the disciplinary divide to co-authored a response that was just posted on her blog at the Huffington Post. Frankly, we need lots more of this in gender studies. Gender formation and the creative and transmission of gender signifiers are complex, multidisciplinary topics, and the more disciplines enter the conversation, the better we will understand them. And someday, I will even meet Anne Fausto-Sterling in real life! In the meantime, thank heaven for the Internet.
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?
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.