Saturday, January 12, 2008

dressing up the baby

Because the title of this blog is 'the whimsical nerd,' I will be posting intermittently about the history of fashion. A historiographical essay entitled "Histories of Childhood" in The American Historical Review, about the changing cultural conceptions of children throughout history, included the following tidbit:

"Until the late eighteenth century, girls' clothes and hairstyles were scaled-down versions of those of adult women. From about 1770, girls began to wear muslin frocks that were quite distinct from the elaborate clothing of adult women, and they wore their hair quite short in a manner scarcely distinguishable from that of boys. Boys' dress, however, from the age of about three, when they were breeched, remained distinctively masculine. A change came in the 1830s and 1840s, when both girls and boys from the ages of three to seven began to wear ankle-length pantaloons and half-length petticoats; this, combined with short hair, drew attention to what boys and girls had in common - their childishness - rather than what divided them. In the later nineteenth century, gender was again emphasized, a process that culminated in the adoption of color coding for children's clothes (blue for boys and pink for girls) shortly before World War II." (Cunningham, Hugh. "Histories of Childhood." The American Historical Review 103 (1998): 1195-1208, 1202.)


I find this information fascinating, particularly because girls' baby clothes became more feminine as women's clothes became less so (at least in the traditional sense.) This also speaks to the fact that fashion and clothing have a massive influence on our social consciousness. This color coding was a completely arbitrary method to express the gender of children who are still years off from understanding gender in the first place. Still, I know dozens of men who would never wear pink.



Flora said...

Well, since women got to work during WW2, the clothes had to be more practical and fit for work, thus less feminine. It's obvious that men's clothes are more practical than women's, generally speaking.

Interesting post nonetheless!

whimsical nerd said...

Of course, WWII and other cultural factors ushered in a tendency for women to dress in less traditional feminine garb. What is interesting to me, though, is that children's clothing did not mimic the transition and that baby clothes became more traditionally gendered even as women's clothing shed the rigid distinction.

Heather said...

I remember hearing this before too! I've got old family photos of uncles and grandpas dressed to the nines in frilly muslin and linen gowns, and I've heard that dressing boys like girls is part of what made Ernest Hemingway so adamantly masculine.

I don't know what I think about it... I know that I've been socialized to see colors as gendered, but at the same time, it makes very little sense to give some colors to boys and some to girls. And of course, though women can wear suits and pants and dress in green and brown and blue, men cannot touch pink or dresses.

the iron chic said...

I also once saw a photo of my grandfather dresses like a girl and was so confused. It is still a bit confusing.....

laura said...

yes, it's quite interesting and strange. even today, i often see little girls wearing pink while the boys are wearing blue. and just as you, i know many men who would never wear pink or rose. but a reason could also be that it doesn't suit everyone. for instance, i'm not into this color as well.

Anonymous said...

Interesting points. I am sitting here next to a painting done in the 1830's of a child feeding a parrot, The jury is still out as to wether it is a boy or girl. I think it is a boy, but the "gender indicators" (those items included other than clothing)are also ambiguous.


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