Book Review: Pink and Blue



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

by Jo B. Paoletti

Indiana University Press (2012)


As regular readers perhaps know, gender and color theory are two great interests of mine, and I relished the opportunity for a sneak-peak at Jo B. Paoletti‘s soon-to-be-released Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America (I previously wrote my own pared-down article on this topic). Ms. Paoletti has examined American historical children’s dolls, child rearing advice manuals, baby photos, children’s clothes and patterns, and more general social histories for a widespread and thorough sourcing to dissect children’s appearances ages 0 through 7, 1885 – 2011. Three especially influential scholars for her were cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken, sociologist Daniel Thomas Cook, and cultural historian Gary Cross. Sometimes contradictions between sources bring their own interesting conclusions, such as photographic evidence that proves the age windows were much looser than rigid advice column lists of appropriate ages for specific clothing milestones. Far surpassing the title’s implied scope (that of color), in fact pink and blue is but one chapter– other topics covered include the infant’s dress (not just for girls), bifurcated garments for children (not just for boys), and how shifting concepts of infancy, childhood, and parental roles have influenced how Americans have clothed their children.

In the chapter “Dresses are for Girls and Boys,” Paoletti stresses that “neutral” clothes are such by cultural cues and not by inherent design. White t-shirts, for example, were “masculine” in the early 20th century because they were men’s underwear, but in the past 40 years the cultural acceptability has shifted so that white t-shirts are now seen as gender neutral, acceptably worn by both men and women. Like white t-shirts are now, white dresses in the 19th century were gender neutral garments, indicative of the angelic innocence and implied absence of sexuality in babies. White dresses were also highly practical, with easy access to diaper changes, and able to withstand bleaching and boiling to keep clean. That said, subtle cues implying sex could be seen in the trim and details. Adult clothing was, of course, highly gendered and Paoletti points out that dresses might subtly connect desirable traits of women — the primary caretakers — with those of children: passive, chaste, delicate, helpless, and house-bound.

In the late 1890s and early 20th century as child psychology and pediatrics became their own intellectual disciplines, there was an increased fear of the psychological and physical damage of masturbation for boys — often linked with homosexuality — and children’s clothes reflected this. Suggested sartorial modifications for boys included low, loose crotches with no pockets so as to remove “temptation” and curtail permanent sexual deviancy. Somewhat ironically, it was around this same time that bifurcated garments like “creepers” and “rompers” for very young childrenĀ  — boys and girls — gained acceptability due to physicians and child development “experts” who encouraged more physical activity for youngsters than in previous generations. But Paoletti drives home the point that it has been an unsteady and inconsistent movement towards gender-neutral baby clothing, a matter that is far from settled, still.

The last chapter, “Gendered and Neutral Clothing since 1985” was especially interesting — and depressing — for me. Paoletti points out that after a leap in gender-neutral children’s clothes in the ’70s, promoted by parents who grew up in the sexual revolution of the ’60s, the mid-1990s hearkened even more gender-specific clothing than the stereotypical gender-rigid 1950s! Over the course of the 20th century — and accelerating in the latter half — the very definition of gender neutral items shrank as once-neutral sartorial elements like lace, velvet, and flowers were reassigned as “feminine.” ’60s feminists fought to wear pants (again — see my post on Women, Pants & Politics for a longer history of this battle) and men fought to grow their hair long, confronting previous generational stereotypes of what gender roles were and how they were or were not reflected in dress. Paoletti posits that the popularity of unisex baby styles in the ’70s resulted from Baby Boomer parents who rejected the 1950s sexism; younger parents in the mid-1980s (when there was a boom in gender-specific diapers, headbands, barrettes, etc.) were younger when they had been exposed to unisex styles and found it more threatening, therefore viewing it more negatively. Since the ’80s, cheaper and more effective prenatal testing technology has made it possible for expecting parents to determine the sex of their unborn child ever-earlier and give advance notice to present-buying relatives and friends, and a crop of gender-specific child advice literature appeared. Also since the ’80s, corporations who produce children’s clothing and toys have realized that they can double their sales by making fewer gender-neutral items, so households with multiple children might feel pressure to buy boy and girl-specific products instead of sharing or receiving hand-me-downs from the “wrong” (opposite) sexed child.

Throughout the book Paoletti takes care to point out how children have little-to-no agency, that sexual roles and clothes have been and continue to be imposed upon children by adults who reject or embrace ideas imposed upon them during their own childhoods. The colors pinks and blue, whose gender connotations — so solid in our 21st century minds — are not only recent inventions (having only been linked with boys and girls within the past 100 years), but have actually reversed their boy and girl associations (pink, a derivative of “virile” red, used to be favored in boys’ clothes, Virgin Mary blue with girls). Very occasionally Paoletti gets bogged down with wordy lists of age ranges and the associated clothes changes that could perhaps be more succinctly framed in a table, but these are few and far between. In this relatively slim volume (139 pages plus Bibliography and Index), 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.

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