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!
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.
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:
One of the reasons I wanted to write about unisex fashions is that they seem emblematic of a very complicated -- and unfinished -- conversation about sex, gender and sexuality. Rick Santorum's comment from last year is one expression of that conversation, and I thank him for being so honest in putting it out there. Many of us who grew up in the 1960s have mixed feelings about that era, though mine are more positive than Mr. Santorum's. Unlike him, I feel that family planning is good, abortion should be safe, legal and accessible regardless of income and that biological sex is an interesting category but not my be-all and end -all.
But here's the catch: something happens in the coding for feminine clothing in the 1960s that essentially conflates femininity, youth and sexual attractiveness, and it shows up in girls’ clothing. Six-year-olds in bikinis -- thank the 1960s.
More to come, as I am deep in writing mode for the next nine months. This site will also be changing to reflect the widening scope of my work. In my ample free tie, as they say.