Classes start in two days, I just got home from a blissfully restful week at Star Island (just off the coast of New Hampshire) and look what is waiting for me. The page proof for Sex and Unisex! This is as close to perfect timing as it gets. If you want to pre-order your own copy, just use the link on this page.
Work on Age Appropriate (the working title for book three, on dress, gender and age) is going slowly, as I have an unrelated large project this summer. With school starting around the country, I have also been keeping my antennae out for news about dress codes. I will be giving a paper on the topic at the Mid-Atlantic Popular Culture Association in November. Stay tuned!
So what's all this about a second book? Yes, I am about halfway through the copy edits on my second book on gender and clothing, which means you can expect to be able to pre-order it from Indiana University Press sometime this fall.
Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism and the Sexual Revolution grew out of the last two chapters of Pink and Blue, particularly the one on unisex clothing of the late sixties through the mid-1980s. I was puzzled by how that period seemed to be headed in one direction, but then suddenly reversed course. In 1970, designer Rudi Gernreich was predicting miniskirts and caftans for everyone, and a futurist author was declaring the death of the gray flannel suit. But by 1980, preppy was all the rage and not only were men still wearing suits, but women were wearing them as well.
My research began there, and led me in what seemed like a hundred different directions. Eventually, I ended up considering the present, because so much of our current cultural landscape is unfinished business from the 1970s. Along the way, there are chapters on
It was great fun to research, and more than a little confusing to write, and I am looking forward to the reaction when it comes out later this year!
With the first draft of Book 2 (Sex and Unisex) complete, I want to take a few minutes to express my gratitude. Karin Bohleke of the Fashion Archives and Museum at Shippensburg (PA) University let me spend two days looking for images, and has been sending additional lagniappes all summer. My Facebook and Twitter communities have been supportive and generous with comments and encouragement. None has been more of a champ than Eliza, a sister in microbrew love who offered to read the (very rough) draft and contributed valuable comments, questions and corrections. My friends and family in real life have been patient beyond belief, given that my writing mode is pretty antisocial. (Special shoutout to Jim, Katie, MaryBeth and Sandy, the stalwarts of the Franklin's Regulars). The folks at Indiana University Press are awesome, full stop. Every author should be so lucky as to work with such pros.
I also want to thank the software wizards behind the tools that make my writing life a joy. I would be completely lost without Scrivener, Index Card and Zotero. No lie.
The draft heads to IUPress and out for review. In a few months, I'll get reviewers' comments and revise the draft. Hopefully, Sex and Unisex will be out in early 2015. In the meantime, watch this space for more posts about gender and appearance, ranging from news items to snippets that were left out of books 1 and 2 to previews of Book 3 (oh yes!). The working title is Age Appropriate, and it will be about how women over 50 deal with gendered cultural expectations. Stick with me!
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.
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 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 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.
Hot off the presses!