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Dressing for sexes

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These are easy to read and understand and are beautifully presented.

     by Jo Paoletti

Dare I say it?  Maybe the clothes don't make the man.  Sure, clothing can create an image that influences a client or impresses an interviewer.  But can it actually make a man more masculine or a woman more feminine?  Ah, you say we don't believe clothing can do this? Join me in the infant's department, where the world is divided into two distinct segments: pink here, blue over there.  The lines of gender are boldly drawn, with kitties for her and puppies for him, and very, very few styles that could be worn by both.  Contrast this with the infant's section of The Sears, Roebuck Catalogue of 1900.  There you'll find no pink, no blue, no baseball appliques or "Daddy's Little Girl" embroidery.  Babies back then wore white, period: white cambric dresses, white nainsook slips, white flannel kimonos, and white cotton-pique coats.  Boys wore them as well as girls, and both had their share of lace, ruffles, ribbons, and embroidery.  What has happened since then to change the way we dress our babies?

The practice of pink for girls and blue for boys was introduced into the United States from France in the mid-19th century; in Little Women, Amy tied a pink ribbon on Daisy, and a blue one on her twin, Demi, "French-style, so you can always tell."  But the practice was not common until after World War II, partly because there was considerable disagreement about which color was appropriate for which sex.  The Infant's Department, a trade journal, tried to settle the question in 1918: "There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl.  The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for a boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl."

Clothing manufacturers complained that greeting-card companies were confusing the issue by using pink for girls and blue for boys in birth announcements.  The greeting-card people pointed to Gainsborough's "Blue Boy" and "Pinky" as proof they were right.  The debate continued for decades.  in 1939, Parents magazine polled customers in a New York department store and found that, while most preferred pink for girls, about one-fifth favored blue for girls and pink for boys.  The first children to be consistently color-coded by gender were the post-war baby boomers.  Pink has been an exclusively feminine color for only about 40 years.  (This explains all the sweet, elderly ladies who thought your son was a girl even when he was dressed all in blue.)

For centuries, boys wore dresses instead of trousers not only when they were infants but also when they were as old as six or seven. During all that time no one could think of a good reason that boys shouldn't wear dresses.  Then, in the 1890s, boys began wearing trousers earlier and earlier.  A new garment - the one-piece romper - was introduced for toddlers and infants.  At first, rompers were unisex, just like baby dresses.  But gradually our modern masculine and feminine rompers evolved.  By the 1930s there were distinct romper styles for girls and boys, in addition to the unisex rompers.  Dresses continued to be worn by newborn boys until well after World War II. It wasn't until 1957 that Sears, Roebuck dropped the white baby dress from its unisex prepackaged layette.

Despite the polarity of infants' clothing, children today are freer of many of the sex-based distinctions that were common in 1900, or even in 1960.  Girls play baseball, and boys play with dolls.  So why aren't baby clothes more androgynous?  Sex-differentiated clothes may be more for the parents.  Most adults expect to have gender information provided, to the point of feeling uncomfortable or even annoyed if the sex of a baby is not obvious.

In this liberated age, we don't like to admit it, but we believe that clothing has the power to teach gender.  Advocates of nonsexist childrearing ardently believe that unisex clothing will teach children to be androgynous.  Traditionalists put their girls in ruffles and their boys in suit jackets to teach them to be little ladies and gentlemen.  Both groups react with confusion when the girl wearing overalls begs for a frilly party dress or when the little lady rips her pinafore while climbing a tree.  They needn't be so surprised. There is no proof, historical or psychological, that clothing is as powerful as they think it is.  When all American children wore dresses from birth until they started school at age six or seven, they grew up to be masculine and feminine in all the usual variations.  Gender differences are either innate, or they are much more complicated than we think they are; my own inclination is to believe the latter.  And either way, it isn't the clothes that make the man.

Jo Paoletti teaches at the University of Maryland in College Park and is currently working on a book about American children's clothes.

[Bibliography for Jo Paoletti - includes "The Gendering of Infants' and Toddlers' Clothing in America," in Katharine Martinez and Kenneth Ames, ed. The Material Culture of Gender/ The Gender of Material Culture, (The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur  Museum, 1997.]

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