Kindergarten Fashion

Did children always wear gender-specific clothing?

Angelina Jolie and daughter Shiloh

Angelina Jolie, whose daughter Shiloh has often been photographed wearing “boys’ ” clothes like ties, jackets, and porkpie hats, defended her 4-year-old ’s fa shion preferences in an interview with Reuters on Saturday. Did boys and girls always wear gender-specific clothing?

No. For most of U.S. history, nearly all infants, regardless of gender, wore dresses. Only in the 20th century did sex-specific clothing come into fashion: Boys started wearing pants, while girls continued to wear dresses. There was a second unisex period in the 1970s, with many catalogs from that decade presenting boys and girls in identical-looking pants. This trend was part of a larger movement to de-emphasize gender roles: On the popular 1972 children’s album, Free to Be … You and Me, for example, two babies try to figure out their gender, and a poem called “Don’t Dress Your Cat in an Apron” reminds listeners, “a person should wear what he wants to, and not just what other folks say.” The movement was relatively short-lived, however, as 1980s designers encouraged parents to outfit their girls in frills and dresses once again.

Parents used to clothe their male infants in dresses because pants symbolized an accession to manhood. The day a young boy received his first pair of pants—an event known as “breeching” to early Americans—was a seminal moment in his life. This sartorial bar mitzvah usually occurred between ages 4 and 7 for 17th-century lads. Boys made the switch to pants younger and younger until the early 20th century, when they stopped wearing dresses altogether. G. Stanley Hall, one of the fathers of American psychology, published a series of articles around that time arguing that gender distinctions were a hallmark of modern Western society. In his view, parents had an obligation to teach their children gender roles. (Prior to Hall, gender-appropriate behavior was assumed to come naturally.) The theory trickled down to ordinary parenting magazines, which started advising readers in the early 1900s to dress their male toddlers in pants to help them identify with their fathers. Hall’s research notwithstanding, many dress-wearing babies of the time, like Ernest Hemingway and Ronald Reagan, grew up to be plenty manly.

Just as boys were once clothed in dresses, they were also once swaddled in pink. Historically, in many European countries, pink was the dominant color for boys, and blue—the official hue of the Virgin Mary—was the popular girls’ color. In 1927, Time magazine found that American color conventions were completely unsettled, with six of 10 retailing giants, including Marshall Field’s and Filene’s, using pink as the dominant color for baby-boy accoutrements. It took two or three more decades for the modern convention to establish a firm hold on U.S. nurseries.

For what it’s worth, Shiloh Jolie-Pitt may be at the leading edge of a backlash. Despite an uninterrupted quarter-century of lacy dresses and flowered pink headbands, observers of high-end children’s clothing designers detect a trend back toward gender-neutral clothes.

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Explainer thanks Linda Baumgarten of Colonial Williamsburg, Jo Paoletti of the University of Maryland and author of the forthcoming book Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, and Kelly Richardson of the Sage Collection at Indiana University.

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