Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America by Jo B. Paoletti
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.
Paoletti convincingly shows that through the end of the nineteenth century, clothing styles for children six years old and younger signified age but not sex—both young boys and young girls wore dresses that contained no consistent markers for gender. Not until boys were “breeched” (that is, began to dress in trousers) at age six or seven was much effort made to differentiate male and female attire. The book demonstrates that into the early-twentieth century it was considered “natural and amusing” that one could not tell the difference between toddler-age boys and girls by looking at them (p. 26). By the late-twentieth century, the situation was starkly different. All garments starting with diapers were coded for gender distinctions, and for girls wearing pink had, in Paoletti’s words, “reached the level of moral imperative in the age group of three to seven” (p. 86).
The book provides a fascinating look at this shift, which was a complicated and uneven phenomenon. By the 1920s, children’s dresses had become feminized apparel, but since little girls were also wearing bifurcated garments like rompers, the mere presence of pants on boys was not enough to demarcate the difference. As a result, between 1900 and 1970 “dozens of additional trims, decorative motifs, and garment details shifted slowly from the ‘baby’ category to one side or the other of the gender binary divide” (p. 93). Boys’ outfits had pockets and opened in front; girls’ outfits did not and opened in back. Boys’ outfits were decorated with images of athletes, airplanes, cars, and cowboys; girls’ outfits were decorated with flowers, ruffles, and lace. The book also recounts the history of pink and blue, whose [End Page 622] designation as masculine and feminine colors was not consistently applied until after World War II. Paoletti then describes the popularity of unisex clothing from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, which temporarily stalled the move toward sharpening gender distinctions, a trend that resumed decisively beginning in about 1985.
Several factors at the turn of the twentieth century initiated this change. These included new social and cultural priorities for the definitions of masculinity and femininity, new concepts of child development spurred by the establishment of child psychology and pediatric medicine as specific disciplines, and certain popular-culture phenomena. Paoletti also posits a generational dynamic, suggesting that parents wrought significant changes in children’s clothing in the 1910s, 1960s, and 1980s based partially on their own reaction and memories to childhood experiences with clothing and gender identity. This concept is an innovative and promising addition to the analytical toolkit for analyzing clothing habits, although it has its limits. Paoletti so conscientiously documents the incremental and uneven pace of change that the extent of generational influence is hard to calculate. For example, even the abrupt-seeming shifts of the 1980s had several precursors or harbingers from the 1970s, as she notes.
The book draws on a broad range of secondary sources in material culture, developmental psychology, the history of childhood, consumer culture, and the psychology of dress. The primary sources are equally impressive, and particularly noteworthy is the effective use Paoletti makes of baby-book and paper-doll collections. Although the book is slim (only 139 pages of text), it is cogently written and makes a nuanced argument carefully and precisely. Pink and Blue is a valuable contribution to the literature and an illuminating read in its own right. [End Page 623]
Rob Schorman is professor of history at Miami University in Miami, Ohio. He is the author of Selling Style: Clothing and Social Change at the Turn of the Century (2003).