Cultural history is rife with folklore. Popular origin stories make the rounds on a regular basis, amusing readers and tormenting cultural historians with charming, simple tales of how It All Started. The latest to pollute my timeline is a Smithsonian article about why men's and women's clothes button differently.
It's one thing when the subject pops up on Quora or a thread on Snopes, but both Atlantic.com and Smithsonian.com have featured articles about buttoning in the last year. The one thing they have in common is a summary of other similar speculative articles, none based on primary research by real costume historians (they do exist).
So, in an effort to counter some of the fanciful explanations making the rounds, here is the opinion of a costume historian who decided to do some RESEARCH to test some of them. (Full post is here and worth reading, especially if you are a journalist thinking of pitching this lame idea to some hapless editor.)
Until the late 18th century, buttons are rare on women's dress. In the few earlier pictures, the direction often can't be determined. At least I've found one 14th century example where the buttons seem to sit in the right-hand edge (i.e. the "male" side), and two ditto examples from the 17th century. In the late 18th century, we find buttons on female dress relatively often, e.g. on comperes, jackets and redingote dresses. In every case, the buttons sit on the right side. In the 1830s, buttons are rare on women's clothes and evenly distributed between right and left, then nothing until the 1850s. During the 1850s, left sligthtly outweighs right. From the late 1860s on, buttons are quite common on women's dress - all left.
Finally, the author speculates (and helpfully labels it as theory).
This leads me to a completely new* theory: Since female clothing took on more and more features of male clothing in order to express emancipation (a process that, I'd like to point out, most contemporaries were not aware of), it became necessary to establish a feature that signalled that an item of clothing was, despite its male appearance, nevertheless female. Otherwise someone could be led to believe that the lady wore a man's coat, a man's shirt etc., and use that as a a moral handhold against her since wearing the clothing of the opposite sex was immoral. The closer female clothing got to male clothing, the more important the "little difference" of buttoning became. At the end of the 20th century, the buttoning was often the only thing that differentiated a female blouse from a male shirt.
To which I append my own, rather boring modification. If the author's sense of the timing of this is correct (and it seems good to me, based on my own knowledge of 19th and early 20th century clothing), then there may be a very practical reason for the difference. Having a clear distinction between male and female versions of the same garment (shirts, for example) that was visible even when they were folded would have been very helpful for people who had to package, stock, and display them. I have done no research on the question, nor do I intend to.
I am much more interested in why these origin myths about gender differences are so persistent.
I know it has been quiet here. Forgive me. Besides the usual day job distractions, I have a new role as undergraduate director in my department. Thankfully, it is temporary; I am just filling in for a colleague who is on leave. But it not only eats into my writing time, it also shatters my attention into tiny splinters. I can get little things done, but the big things tend to drift.
While I have not been writing, I have been reading and thinking. The "Age Appropriate" book is taking shape and there are now little sprouts of organization. By spring, I hope to have a proposal and a couple of chapters ready to share with my publisher, with full-time writing to commence over the summer. (Autumn promises a sabbatical leave and a true descent into the writing rabbit hole.)
At any rate, here are the little chapter seedlings. They already have roots -- articles, books, and media that inform them. Would love to hear your thoughts about this direction.
I get quite a few questions something like this:
DIDN'T PINK AND BLUE SYMBOLISM USED TO BE THE OPPOSITE?
WASN'T PINK A BOY COLOR A HUNDRED YEARS AGO?
The short answer is "not quite". Yes, boys used to wear pink, and there were even places in Europe (Belgium, for example) that reversed the gendered use of pink and blue. But it was never as universally considered a "boy color" in the way that pink has been a "girl color" since the mid-1980s. I use that date because as late as the 1970s it was possible to find places in the US where pink was either used for boys or used along with blue as "baby colors" in a neutral way.
Consider this note found in a documentation file I was cleaning today:
This is not political and it certainly isn't "politically correct". It's two things I care deeply about: good writing and placing individual differences over categorical differences. If your son is reading two years above grade level, would you want to see him placed in a special boys' reading group because "boys don't read as well as girls"? Hell, no! Should your daughter automatically get the princess toothbrush at the dentist instead of the one with the rocket ship because "most girls like princesses"? Again, no. Does your son's reading ability make him feminine? Is your daughter's love of space science "mannish"? No, no, no, NO! Is Serena William's body "masculine"? Don't even go there.
So don't be lazy. Use your active adjectives!
Instead of "masculine", try tailored, functional. or understated. If by "feminine", you mean delicate, ruffled, or pastel, just say so!
So Rick Santorum is in the 2016 race for the GOP nomination for President. Senator Santorum occupies a very special place in my heart, along with New York Times columnist Charles Blow, because they switched on the connecting synapses in my brain just as I was really, really struggling with how to make sense of unisex fashion.
From the introduction to the book:
Who knew that the 2012 presidential campaign would turn into a 1960s flashback? For many of us, the moment of awakening was when Republican candidate Rick Santorum seemingly stepped out of a time machine and proclaimed his opposition not just to abortion rights but to birth control as well. The controversy began when columnist Charles Blow rediscovered Santorum’s 2008 speech to the Oxford Center for Religion and Public Life in Washington, including this comment the senator made during the question and answer period:
And with that, I was off to the races. Three years later, Santorum is back, and the culture wars are in full swing, with reproductive choice, dress codes, and LBGTQ rights filling the news. Just in time for three months of summer break and blogging time! Watch this space.
Welcome back, Rick!
Read the Charles Blow column.
Read Sen. Santorum's 2008 speech.
Pop Matters has posted an excerpt from the book. Enjoy this free sample!
I know it's been quiet here. I got clobbered by the semester, which ends in about three weeks. Watch this space.
Here we go again: another blogger reaction to the popular message that there is something wrong with dressing a little girl in pink. The author lays out all the reasons she wants her daughter to like blue AND pink, tiaras AND telescopes. Good, so far. But then she adds, "Femininity is not less than masculinity. It is a different kind of strength, but it is powerful and wonderful and deserves our respect." What's wrong with that?
Femininity and masculinity are the names for the expressions traditionally associated with biological sex. But these expressions -- from liking pink to hating to ask directions -- are cultural, and do not always map precisely with biology. The call for more choices and fewer stereotypes is not about undervaluing girls or hating pink. I don't hate pink. The only color I truly hate is that yellowish green that looks like snot. I believe that people should be treated with love and respect, regardless of sex, gender expression, or sexuality. Finally, I believe that sex, gender expression, and sexuality are not binaries, much less opposites.
I *do* hate essentialism ("girls naturally like pink"). I also think that when we stereotype something as "masculine" or "feminine", we ignore real and important variations in human nature and expression.
No one should hate pink; it should just be a color. Save the hate for snot green.
Hot off the presses!