No sooner had the RompHim appeared, but it was the target of criticism and humorous memes. My own objection to the name was that it joined a growing list of unnecessarily gendered style terms -- man bun, boyfriend jeans and the like -- that seemed to signify a transgression of gender rules. Since rompers have a long history of unisex and masculine design, it seemed an odd choice. Of course, ACED Designs probably intended to give their project a rebellious aura and make clear the intended market for the RompHim: men so secure in their masculinity that they can and will wear anything. Men like James Bond.
Ridicule plays an important role in policing men's appearance and behavior. It can be the first warning a boy or man gets that if he persists, he risks harassment and ultimately violence. In my long ago dissertation research, I studied how cartoons making fun of older, more formal styles helped accelerate the transition to the modern business suit. Psychologists who have studied fashion behavior have found that "avoiding ridicule" is the top motivation for men's clothing and grooming choices, in contrast to women's number one reason, which is to look attractive.
This begs the question, "Will the RompHim survive the memes?" According to their Kickstarter page, they not only exceeded their fundraising goal, but quickly sold out the first production run. In another year we will be able to see if it is the wave of the future or this year's Nehru jacket.
The internet seems to be losing its mind over the "RompHim" (TM), the one-piece leisure outfit for men that raised a pile of money on Kickstarter. Because I was in the throes of the usual end-of-the-semester chaos, I have ignored it until now. I am going to do a few posts on the trend, so stay tuned.
Let's start with a little historical perspective. Rompers are not new, and they are not feminine. The romper's 18th century ancestor, the skeleton suit, was exclusively for small boys who were too young for adult clothing and too old for baby dresses. Yes, dresses. Calm down.
The modern romper (sometimes called a creeper) was introduced in the late 19th century as a casual garment for toddlers -- male and female. It remained popular through the 1960s, by which time it was also worn by older children and adults as a leisure style. In other words, for a couple of generations it was unisex, though there were "feminine" and "masculine" variations for folks who wanted a more gendered version.
When gendered clothing became the norm in the 1980s, rompers apparently got sorted into the "feminine " category, according to the same cockamamie logic that made kitties and purple feminine. There is no natural law that determines this; it is a cultural mystery, and it is both arbitrary and negotiable.
So if a guy wants to wear a romper, by any name, it should be no big deal. Simmer down, Internet.
If you follow social media, you've seen the story about the leggings ban on United Airlines. This Reuters article is the most thorough reporting I have seen on the subject. I will quote from their excellent coverage:
A bystander who touched off a social media furor after she saw United Airlines stop two teenage girls dressed in leggings from boarding a flight admitted on Monday that she did not fully grasp the situation when she started tweeting her indignation.
Watts reported what she witnessed -- or thought she witnessed, and social media caught fire.
I have a friend who works in transportation who commented on Facebook that even though he works for a different employer, the same rules apply. Enforcement seems to be left up to someone at the gate, which was part of the problem, not unlike when vague school dress codes are interpreted by teachers and administrators. The issue also seems to have been resolved -- eventually -- so I will confine my comments to generalities, rather than the United situation.
The courts have ruled, over the last forty years or so, that employers are well within their rights in establishing dress codes to enforce a pleasing, uniform appearance, as long as the rules did not prevent a class of people (men, women, African Americans, Muslims) from being able to gain employment. Leisure wear and sloppy or revealing clothing is usually prohibited, though what Americans consider "leisure" is a moving target, and the line between "sloppy" and "casual" is practically invisible at times, and "revealing" -- forget trying to define that, beyond nudity.
In my study of dress code litigation in the 1960s and 70s, I found that the authorities usually argued that conformity and submission to rules was especially necessary for boys and young men. Girls’ dress codes, in contrast, placed a premium on modesty. The rhetoric in the dress codes reinforced this distinction. Boys’ regulations were more likely to mention “conventional” standards; girls' restrictions were more likely to mention "revealing" styles or parts of the body that should be covered. Not much has changed since then; men and women are still expected to abide by gender rules that are very different. The rules for women dictate careful management of an image balanced between girlish/ladylike and seductive. For men, there is very little space or place for sexual display, or even individual expression. Instead, boys and men are trained to operate with a very limited visual range.
Recently, I have been asked if leggings are pants. (Sort of, but some of them function more like a combination of stockings and foundation garments.) I have also been asked if they are going to go out of style. (Most likely; doesn't everything?) I know some school administrators and parents who will be very relieved when they do. Until they see the Next Big Thing.
I am going to take my time figuring out the cultural meaning of American Girl's introduction of a boy character doll, because it is hard to interpret until the consumer response is clear. After all, I don't create the meaning, nor is the meaning inherent in the packaged and advertised product.
Last week I did an interview with Kathryn Luttner of Campaign US, about Logan, and it was published yesterday. It's quite interesting, since she writes for an industry audience. I mentioned at the end of the interview that we'd be discussing Logan in my Fashion and Consumer Culture class, she was curious about what my students would have to say. Most of the discussion was more of a review of Grant McCracken's theory of meaning transfer from culture to consumer via consumption objects, so it isn't particularly relevant. But here is the interesting part:
Predictably, the male students (most in their early twenties) said they had never played with dolls. This is in contrast with my daughter (b. 1982) and son's (b. 1986) cohort, who played with boy Cabbage Patch Kids and My Buddy.
We also had fun analyzing the CPK boy description from the 1993 J.C. Penney catalog.
"Ruff 'n Tuff" play pal for boys. Dressed in non-removable play clothes". I pointed out that the earlier versions could be undressed and dressed. One discussion group decided that boys would certainly be harmed if they undressed a "boy" doll and discovered he had no penis.
If a boy doll has no penis, he is not a boy and can not use men's bathrooms in conservative jurisdictions. If he does have a penis, and his clothes are not removable, his masculinity is like "a tree falling in a forest" with no one to hear. If his clothes can be removed (penis or no penis) he is encouraging cross-dressing and possibly homoerotic sexual curiosity. Poor American Girl! Caught between a rock and a hard place!
As mysteries go, this will never enjoy a BBC production. After all, it features no bodies, no stolen jewels, and no charismatic detective. Just an aging professor, dressed in well-worn L.L. Bean basics, trying to figure out what happened to the women's clothing range formerly known as "half sizes".
Half sizes were designed for "mature figures" -- women with fuller, lower busts, waists that were larger in proportion to bust and hips than "Misses" sizes, and shorter from neck to waist than "Misses" or "Women's" figures. Half sizes were seldom sleeveless, and the sleeve seam and upper arm were roomier. Skirts were usually longer than other size ranges. Shoulders were more rounded. In other words, half sizes were for postmenopausal women. Until they disappeared in the late 1980s.
So what? Why should anyone care?
Here's the thing. If sizes associated with age (half sizes) do not exist, women over fifty must select clothing from the remaining size ranges based on the size, shape and proportion of their bodies. This sounds like a good thing, but there's this reality: we are not all Helen Mirren. We are also not 20-something plus-size models. Some of look like this, or will, if we live long enough:
And so, I wonder, how did the elimination of half sizes change the ways in which older women see themselves? As baby boom women age, what options will we have, and and what will we choose?
You probably have heard about Logan, the American Girl Boy Doll. I've had a couple of media inquiries but managed to divert them to Elizabeth Sweet, whose work on toys and gender is much more appropriate.
But I do have thoughts.
My first thought when I heard the news was "Are they going to change the name of the company?"
My second thought was "Is he anatomically correct, or is his gender constructed by his hair and clothing?"
This is pertinent because for younger children (up to around 6 or 7) gender is perceived as impermanent, and based on clues such as clothing and hair. Logan is a boy because he dresses like a boy.
My third thought was "Hmm! He has the same face as the girls dolls, but with closed lips instead of parted lips! What does that say about expectations of gendered behavior or expression?"
My fourth thought was "Assuming the answer to my second question is that he is not anatomicallly correct, which bathroom would he have to use in North Carolina?"
My last thought was, if I had Logan and another AG doll, there would be cross-dressing.
And here is someone else's thought. It's a trick of the enemy.
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: