Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America

Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America

by Jo B. Paoletti
     
 

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Jo Paoletti's journey through the history of children's clothing began when she posed the question, "When did we start dressing girls in pink and boys in blue?" She analyzes clothing, photographs, advertising, catalogs, dolls,
baby books, mommy blogs and discussion forums, and other popular media to examine the surprising ebb and flow of gender in American

Overview

Jo Paoletti's journey through the history of children's clothing began when she posed the question, "When did we start dressing girls in pink and boys in blue?" She analyzes clothing, photographs, advertising, catalogs, dolls,
baby books, mommy blogs and discussion forums, and other popular media to examine the surprising ebb and flow of gender in American children's clothing. Topics addressed include the decline of the white dress for both boys and girls, the introduction of rompers in the early 20th century, the gendering of pink and blue,
the resurgence of unisex fashions, and the origins of today's highly gender-specific baby and toddler clothing.

Editorial Reviews

CafeMom
A terrific new book...if you're getting flack from someone for dressing your boy in pink or your girl in blue...hit them with a copy of Paoletti's book. When they come to, maybe they'll read it and leave you alone.—CaféMom
Cafemom
"A terrific new book...if you’re getting flack from someone for dressing your boy in pink or your girl in blue...hit them with a copy of Paoletti’s book. When they come to, maybe they’ll read it and leave you alone." —CaféMom
Forbookssake.net
"Recommended for: Those interested in the history of fashion, gender studies, and gender politics." —forbookssake.net
Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

"Jo Paoletti provides a compelling examination of 125 years of children's clothing in this volume, raising issues with broad ramifications for understanding the cultural history of the United States between the late-nineteenth and early-twenty-first centuries." —Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

Library Journal
When and why did we start dressing girls in pink and boys in blue? Paoletti (American studies, Univ. of Maryland) shows that the social rules for attiring our young are ever-changing. Her survey, the result of 30 years of research, considers consumer culture, gender-identity formation in children, parental anxiety about the same, mass production vs. home sewing of clothes, and changing societal beliefs about masculinity and femininity, propriety, and gender roles. Old photographs, paper dolls, and sewing-pattern packages illustrate Paoletti's findings, e.g., that traditional white baby dresses were common for boys and girls from infancy well into childhood through the late 19th century. In the 1920s, a survey indicated that about half of major American department stores promoted blue for girls and pink for boys. An interesting trend toward unisex fashion, influenced by feminism and the sexual revolution, thrived from the 1960s through the 1980s. But from the 1890s onward, children's clothing has become increasingly gender-specific and now heavily reinforces gender stereotypes. VERDICT This is a fascinating piece of American social history, perhaps raising more questions than it answers. It is of potential interest to students and professionals in fields ranging from child development to gender studies to fashion to marketing, as well as to new and prospective parents.—Janet Ingraham Dwyer, State Lib. of Ohio, Columbus
PsycCritiques

"In Pink and Blue, Paoletti presents an interesting portrayal of an important gendered
system—a historical perspective that psychologists might otherwise underestimate and
undervalue." —PsycCritiques

Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences

"The author is skilled in writing to a wide audience." —Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences

CaféMom

"A terrific new book...if you’re getting flack from someone for dressing your boy in pink or your girl in blue...hit them with a copy of Paoletti’s book. When they come to, maybe they’ll read it and leave you alone." —CaféMom

Author of The Commodification of Childhood - Daniel Thomas Cook

"Paoletti delivers an insightful analysis of the origins, transformations and consequences of gender distinctions in children’s dress over the last 125 years.... A must-read." —Daniel Thomas Cook, Author of The Commodification of Childhood

Author of The Social Psychology of Children - Susan B. Kaiser

"Pink and Blue is an interdisciplinary tour de force. Readers will never again take gendered children’s fashion for granted." —Susan B. Kaiser, Author of The Social Psychology of Children

Author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter - Peggy Orenstein

"Pink and Blue challenges the cultural panic over how children’s clothing affects gender and sexual identity. Paoletti shatters myths about what girls and boys 'naturally' like, and does so with details that will fascinate both the casual and professional reader." —Peggy Orenstein

forbookssake.net

"Recommended for: Those interested in the history of fashion, gender studies, and gender politics." —forbookssake.net

From the Publisher
"Paoletti delivers an insightful analysis of the origins, transformations and consequences of gender distinctions in children’s dress over the last 125 years.... A must-read." —Daniel Thomas Cook, Author of The Commodification of Childhood

"This is a fascinating piece of American social history, perhaps raising more questions than it answers. It is of potential interest to students and professionals in fields ranging from child development to gender studies to fashion to marketing, as well as to new and prospective parents." —Library Journal

"In Pink and Blue, Paoletti presents an interesting portrayal of an important gendered
system—a historical perspective that psychologists might otherwise underestimate and
undervalue." —PsycCritiques

"Recommended for: Those interested in the history of fashion, gender studies, and gender politics." —forbookssake.net

"Pink and Blue is an interdisciplinary tour de force. Readers will never again take gendered children’s fashion for granted." —Susan B. Kaiser, Author of The Social Psychology of Children

Worn Through

"Ms. Paoletti has managed to cram a wealth of information in a relatively fluid narrative that scholars will undoubtedly quote and casual readers will enjoy as an engrossing cultural history of parenthood, as well as childhood." —Worn Through

PopMatters

"Pink and Blue is meticulously researched, with references to paper dolls, old retail catalogs and the arcane field of material culture studies. Her findings are fascinating." —PopMatters

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780253001177
Publisher:
Indiana University Press
Publication date:
02/06/2012
Pages:
192
Product dimensions:
6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Pink and Blue

Telling the Boys from the Girls in America


By Jo B. Paoletti

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2012 Jo Paoletti
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00130-6



CHAPTER 1

UNDERSTANDING CHILDREN'S CLOTHING


What is the purpose of cultural patterns such as gender conventions in clothing? How do we explain their existence? Do they simply arise out of a need in an earlier time and then continue through mindless transmission? Do they stem from societal structures and conflicts, manifested as material objects and patterns of their use? Or are they responses to those social structures—the way we change them over time to suit our changing environment? Or can our material world be reduced to the embodiment of neural impulses, evolutionary biology, or unconscious fears and desires? Unlike older children, babies and toddlers have little choice in their clothing, which reflects the attitudes and beliefs of adults. Since children are known to acquire sex role stereotypes and begin to fit their own identities to these cultural norms during these first years of life, this is a particularly useful way to understand how gender norms are negotiated, expressed, learned, and changed. It is important that we understand that these supposed "traditions" are of recent vintage and that they represent the culmination of just over a century of dramatic change in what has been considered appropriate dress for infants and small children.

To that end, it is important to clarify the scope of this book and the meanings of a few basic terms. In academic literature, the words "sex" and "gender" have specific meanings that are usually conflated in popular usage. To the scholar, "gender" refers to "cultural differences between men and women, based on the biological difference between men and women." "Sex" is used to denote those biological differences (male, female); "gender" is used for distinctions in role, appearance, and behavior that are cultural in origin, but stemming from an individual's sex (masculinity and femininity). In practice, these classifications are more complex; recent scholarship has begun to take into consideration the fact that biological sex is not binary (either-or), with 1 in 100 adults having genetic or physical attributes other than "standard" male or female, including as many as 1 in 1,500 babies whose genitalia is sufficiently atypical that a specialist is consulted. If sex is not binary, then it follows that "gender," being based on sex, is not binary, either. Current gender studies scholars are operating with a much more complex and fluid notion of both "sex" and "gender" than is represented by those terms in everyday speech.

Since this is a book about everyday culture, the common meanings of these terms should be assumed; when I intend a more specialized academic or theoretical usage, it will be noted explicitly. "Gender differences" in children's clothing refers to elements that are classified as "masculine," "feminine," or "neutral," almost in a grammatical sense. "Gender identity" will mean personal congruence with existing norms of masculinity or femininity, including the possibility of being at odds with those norms. The words "sex," "male," "female," "boy," and "girl," when referring to the apparent (or assigned) biological sex of the child, all have a biological basis but cultural meanings. This is reflected in the common usage of the word "gender" to refer to biological sex, and most of the time I will be using "sex" and "gender" interchangeably, clarifying a more precise meaning as necessary.

This is about the clothing of children up to the age of about six or seven, living in the United States from 1885 through 2011, when this book was completed. The age limit is important; children learn the patterns of gender-appropriate dress and apply them to the construction of their own identities during the first seven years of life. Focusing on this age group enabled me to formulate connections between the history of gender differences in dress and the body of behavioral science research on gender identity acquisition in early childhood. The developmental stages within that age limit have been known by many names, including newborn, infant, child, toddler, and preschooler, and the boundaries for those distinctions have changed over time. This complicates the description of the appropriate styles for each age; an 18-month-old would be considered an "infant" in 1885 and a "toddler" in 1935. For the sake of clarity, these shifts will be noted within each section.


HISTORY AND CULTURE OF CHILDHOOD

The artifactual sources would have been sufficient if my intention was only to describe the gendering of children's clothing in America. Understanding the confusing and contradictory landscape of children's clothing requires connecting that narrative with the work of scholars in other fields, beginning with the history of childhood.

The social history of childhood as an academic field emerged in the 1960s with the publication of Centuries of Childhood by French social historian Philippe Ariès. Although many of his conclusions have been reconsidered or rejected by later scholars, his work is still significant for its groundbreaking attention to everyday life and for his persuasive argument that the doctrine of original sin and infant depravity began to give way to a more complex view of the child as an innocent, malleable being with a soul capable of corruption or salvation. This shift paved the way for sweeping changes in childcare, education, and material culture—not only clothing but toys and furniture as well.

Historian Linda Pollock, drawing on British and American diaries and autobiographies, critiqued Ariès's argument that childhood was "invented" in the early modern period and the contentions of other scholars that higher infant mortality rates before the seventeenth century resulted in adult indifference to or neglect of babies. Her book, Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900, provided convincing evidence that babies and children were loved, valued, and mourned as earnestly in the past as they are today. Her use of personal diaries and autobiographies, in addition to advice literature, was also instrumental in making other scholars more skeptical about the uncritical use of published advice. Pollock pointed out that advice literature often had no connection to actual practice, though it might illuminate desired behavior. This has certainly been the case with fashion advice, whether for children or adults; studies of nineteenth-century advice for men's clothing and for brides in mourning indicated that the authors copied freely from each other (multiplying their perceived impact) but were often widely ignored. Comparing advice literature with evidence from baby books helped trace both the experts' changing standards and consumers' acceptance or rejection of the rules.

The work of material culture scholar Karin Calvert drew upon Pollock's research and added extensive study of the clothing, toys, and other furnishings of American children, particularly in the colonial era and the early republic. In Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood, 1600–1900, Calvert connected the works of Ariès, Pollock, and others with a close study of objects to convincingly argue not only that children in early America were perceived as impressionable, valued members of the family but also that their physical surroundings were designed to shape their bodies and their souls.

The works of historians Joseph F. Kett, William Bridges, and Mary Lynn Stevens Heininger are invaluable for detailing the changes wrought upon middle-class American families by the Industrial Revolution and the American Civil War. Men's work moved beyond the home, leaving women and children in a "separate sphere" idealized as a refuge from worldly vices and pressures but also the place where children (especially boys) must be prepared for that very world. This paradox provides dramatic tension in raising boys and dressing them appropriately. While girls could be kept at home and sheltered from the demands of industrial and commercial pursuits, boys must—eventually—leave behind the comfort and safety of home and go into the world to make their own way. Much of the complicated history of boys' clothing in the nineteenth century can be attributed to ambivalence about when and how to transition boys from babyhood to boyhood to youth to manhood. Girls were perceived as moving more smoothly though the years before puberty, when they experienced "wrenching adolescence" as the end of their childhood and the beginning of their preparation for courtship and marriage.

The influence of scientific discoveries on child rearing at the end of the nineteenth century was considerable. The writings of Charles Darwin on the evolution of species may not have won over the general public, but the idea of "the survival of the fittest" as applied to societal competition, success, and failure was quickly propagated in popular culture and public discourse. Equipping boys for life beyond the home took on the urgency of racial survival, in the face of increased immigration from southern and eastern Europe. G. Stanley Hall and other pioneer child psychologists added another source of anxiety: subconscious desires and fears, stemming from early childhood, which could manifest themselves in adulthood as neuroses and depravity. Meanwhile, leaders in the women's rights movement were advocating for more freedom for women and more education for girls, to open up opportunities for them beyond home and family. Early feminists wrote passionately against the rigidity of expected gender roles for boys (playful and free) and girls (nurturing and useful) and against the very idea of separate developmental theories for boys and girls. The convergence of these trends at the end of the century—ambivalence about the industrialized future, anxiety about competition and survival, challenges to existing gender roles—resulted in changes in children's lives that are visible in their very appearance.


CHILDREN AND CONSUMERISM

It is no secret that children in America have been the targets of manufacturers, advertisers, and marketers since the early twentieth century. Within the larger fields of the history of childhood, marketing, sociology, and media studies, countless researchers have documented the growing importance of consumption by and for children and analyzed its impact on boys and girls. Three scholars in particular have informed me to an unusual extent: cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, sociologist Daniel Thomas Cook, and cultural historian Gary Cross.

Grant McCracken has written extensively on material culture and meaning, including works on gender symbolism and on generational interactions. His interrogation of the semiotic argument for a "language of fashion" in Culture and Consumption (1988) resonated deeply with my own early research into masculinity in men's and boys' clothing and Susan Kaiser's work in symbolic interaction in clothing behavior. The application of linguistic concepts once used in cultural studies—vocabularies, discourse analysis, and the like—has never worked well for the study of fashion, though it persists in popular works. It was, at best, a useful theoretical platform from which to survey the complex landscape of design, production, marketing, purchase, use, and disposal of clothing. But my experience with primary sources such as actual garments and ephemera is that they impose a reality that challenges theory, especially metaphor masquerading as theory. As an anthropologist, McCracken knows the messiness of culture and the difficulty of reducing cultural patterns to grammatical constructs. Nothing represents this as well to me as the typical long white baby dress from any of the many small museums I have visited: unlabeled, undated, and undocumented. If we attempt to "read" the meaning of the garment using our own presentist lexicon, we will interpret it as a christening gown, probably for a girl. The more we understand about the complete history of the garment, including why it was preserved, the more we must let go of the idea of a simple language of fashion that can be used to analyze meaning beyond a particular specific context. McCracken also brings a keen sense of business to the study of consumer culture, which is absolutely essential. There are too many otherwise valuable articles and books on the subject that rely almost entirely on other articles about history, culture, and consumption but include only a handful of industry or business sources.

Gary Cross's work on consumer culture in general and children's toys in particular have not only provided parallel connections to my examination of clothing but have also set the standard for thorough, nuanced work in the field of consumer studies. His first major work, Time and Money: The Making of Consumerist Modernity (1993), provided essential background in the technological, commercial, and demographic changes that made modern American consumption possible. His works on children's toys and amusements, Kids' Stuff (1999) and The Cute and the Cool (2004), further illuminated the convergence of child-centered educational theories, middle-class parental concerns about their children's future success, and psychology-driven advertising.

Children under the age of seven, the primary subjects of this book, are not consumers in the usual sense. Their parents and other adults act as their purchasing agents, acquiring goods and services on their behalf, according to their own beliefs and values. To be sure, modern children may have a more powerful voice in these decisions, but parents still hold the purse strings or the credit card. Daniel Thomas Cook's study of The Commodification of Childhood (2004) has explained this relationship, especially as it pertained to mothers in the first half of the twentieth century and interpreted this relationship in the context of the evolution of the children's clothing industry through the early history of The Infant's Department (now Earnshaw's Review). Particularly valuable are his insights into the invention of the "toddler" as a developmental stage and a clothing size and the intertwined roles of the children's wear industry and advice writers. The most significant changes in the gendering of children's clothing occurred within this emerging age range during the exact period when the "toddler" was introduced. Moreover, they occurred just as parents began to consult and value the opinions of small children in making purchases for them, suggesting that the period between 1910 and 1930 marks the birth of the American "consumer-tot." Like Cross, Cook recognized the important shift in the parents' role in children's consumption, from primary actors to reactors responding to children's desires. Central to understanding children's commercial culture is the notion of the "symbolic child," which is neither real nor ideal but a constructed image of "the baby," "the toddler," "the boy," and "the girl." It is for this symbolic child that clothing is designed and marketed, and the concept of the symbolic child is very useful for analyzing children's fashions as seen in catalogs, advertisements, and advice literature. Material culture analysis must play a part in the study of consumer culture because symbolic children don't wear real clothes, and artifacts have a way of complicating symbols.


CHILDREN AND GENDER IDENTITY

Historical context is vital to the study of material and culture, and it is comfortable territory for someone like myself, trained in artifact and documentary research. Venturing into the less familiar field of developmental psychology was a formidable challenge but, as it turns out, even more necessary. From the very beginning, one question consistently emerged from audiences or interviewers whenever I shared my research: "Does it matter what little children wear?" Of course, it was not always raised in those exact words. A fifth-grader might ask if the boy in the Little Lord Fauntleroy suit was a sissy; a teenager would ask if he turned out gay. Parents would share anecdotes about tree-climbing princesses, or they asked if they should be concerned if their sons clamored for nail polish. Begging off, with the excuse that I am a fashion historian, not a psychologist, might let me dodge the question temporarily, but it stuck in my mind and demanded an answer.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Pink and Blue by Jo B. Paoletti. Copyright © 2012 Jo Paoletti. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Jo B. Paoletti is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland.

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