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

By Jackson, Kathy Merlock | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), September 2012 | Go to article overview
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Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America

Jackson, Kathy Merlock, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)

Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America. Jo B. Paoletti. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012.

Jo B. Paoletti's study was inspired nearly thirty years ago by a simple question: "When did we start dressing girls in pink and boys in blue?" (xiii). To answer it, Paoletti pored over catalogs, baby record books, advertisements, birth announcements, greeting cards, paper dolls, photographs, childcare manuals, periodicals, trade publications for the garment industry, mothers' blogs, and artifacts of children's clothing. In addition, she conducted interviews to learn more about how fashion for the under-seven set changed from approximately 1885 to the present day. Her study draws on theories of material culture, history of childhood, consumer culture, developmental psychology, and fashion history. Paoletti's completion of the book was prompted by Peggy Orenstein's article on Disney princesses in the New York Times and subsequent best-selling book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, in which Orenstein voices the question of many parents of young daughters today: Why is everything for little girls so pink and feminine?

Paoletti begins her book with the assertion that most clothing for children is purchased by adults; thus, child dress says a lot about cultural attitudes toward childhood. For children, clothing becomes a way of fitting in and expressing identity, especially related to gender or class. Paoletti expected childhood dress to be "a modified version of adult dress," but instead found something else: "a highly complex interaction between children and adults, including both parents and grandparents" (15). Her study, chronological in nature, shows how the childhood experiences of one generation affect the dress of the next.

Pink for girls and blue for boys, it turns out, is a fairly recent phenomenon. In fact, as Paoletti notes, "the conventions of 2010 are nearly the reverse of those in 1890" (xiii). In the late 1800s, both boys and girls wore primarily white for pure practicality: children get dirty, and white clothing can be easily bleached. Infant boys and girls also wore dresses that extended a foot past their toes to keep babies' feet warm. These dresses were not regarded as feminine attire, simply baby attire. The traditional white christening gown for both genders pays homage to this practice. The color white also suggests purity and innocence, traits associated with babies. Toddler boys and girls also wore dresses, although they became shorter as growing children gained more mobility. Up until the 1930s, dresses, skirts, or robes for litde boys were not considered unusual.

In a chapter tided "Pants Are for Boys and Girls," Paoletti discusses the rite of passage known as "breeching," when a boy traded his dresses for trousers, marking "his first step into manhood" (44). Many believed that dressing boys in pants brought about more masculine behavior. However, it was not only boys who wore pants. The "romper," a two-legged, or bifurcated, garment that provided comfort and room for movement during play, became popular for both boys and girls.

Gender distinction in clothing parallels developments in child psychology. Paoletti devotes a great deal of her chapter titled "A Boy Is Not a Girl" to a treatment of the frilly Fauntleroy suit, which had its heyday between 1889 and 1895 and is the signature element in a popular story by Frances Hodgson Burnett that was first published in 1886 as a serial in the children's magazine, St. NichoUs, and later the same year as a book. Godey's Magazine and Lady's Book gushed about the look in 1889: "For small boys nothing has met with such universal favor as the Fauntleroy suit. It certainly is the most attractive seen for some time. It is usually made of black velvet or velveteen, with a broad collar and cuffs of Irish point lace, with a sash of silk passed broadly around the waist and knotted on one side" (68).

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