Thursday, November 14, 2013

When Little Girls Wore Blue & Boys Wore Pink Dresses

Thursday, November 14, 2013
Isabella reporting,

As Loretta discussed in a recent post highlighting 19th c. American portraits from the Heritage Museums & Gardens, it's not always easy for modern eyes to decipher a historical child's gender. For hundreds of years, young boys and girls were dressed in virtually the same clothes - a long gown that seems like a dress to us, but was in reality a simple garment for convenience in those pre-Pampers days. The question of color defining gender does appear in the late 18th c., but with pink preferred for boys as a stronger, more masculine color, and blue - a color long associated with innocence and virginity - as the primary choice for girls.

I thought of this again while visiting the Think Pink exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts (which I mentioned earlier this week here.) The charming small dress with the puffed sleeves, left, is made of bright pink printed cotton, with seams accentuated by white cotton embroidery; the narrow-legged trousers beneath are modern reproductions. The dress was worn by an American child around 1825, but whether it was made for a boy or a girl remains unclear.

Gender guessing games are difficult for curators and art historians. A similar dress in blue is worn in the painting, right, which is most likely a young girl. Another in white, lower left, is nearly identical in style, and because of the toy horse, is probably worn by a little boy.  But with the sitters' identities long forgotten, no one now knows for certain. Confusing matters further is that 19th c. parents weren't as concerned as their modern counterparts about choosing the "right" color, and might simply have dressed a child in blue to match her (or his) eyes.

Apparently the current generation of American parents is much more concerned  than ever before about reinforcing gender stereotypes through children's dress. According to this fascinating article from Smithsonian Magazine, new mothers who were dressed in genderless children's clothes in the 1970s-80s are now choosing the pinkest of ruffled dresses for their daughters and aggressively blue overalls with footballs for their sons - choices encouraged by savvy marketers of children's wear. Who knows which way the kiddie fashion pendulum will swing next?

Perhaps this little pink unisex dress is more ahead of its time after all....

Above left: Boy's or Girl's dress, United States, about 1825. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Photograph copyright Susan Holloway Scott.
Right: Detail, Family Group, by Sturtevant J. Hamblin, 1830s.
Lower left: Detail, The Williamson Family, by Stanley Mix, 1840s.
Both images from the wonderful art history website by Barbara Wells Sarudy, It's About Time.

4 comments:

Mantelli said...

Why do children so often wear off the shoulder dresses in these paintings?

Isobel Carr said...

Interesting. My friends with boys seem pretty relaxed about it, but my friends with girls are almost militant about keeping anything too pink and frilly out of the wardrobe.

@Mantelli: It's because children's clothing was made to mimic adult clothing, and that off the shoulder look was "the style" of the era (though I'm wondering if some of these aren't hand-me-downs, because the styling seems to be earlier than that of the parents' clothing).

bubblegum casting said...

Because they look artistic !

Anntaylor said...

love the ancient times.

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