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.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.