Disclosure: I solicited a copy of Pink and Blue from the author, Jo B Paoletti, for review and for my own research purposes, and was sent one complimentary by the publisher.
Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America
Over two years ago, a new Twitter-friend of mine told me of her mother’s research, into the history of American children’s clothing generally and of pink and blue as gendered signifiers specifically, and of a forthcoming book on the topic. I have been bouncing in my seat — my capacity for patience, never very high, at its lowest — ever since, nagging my friend (or Twitter-stalking her mom) every few months: “Any word on the book? When’s it coming out? What can I do to help??” (My eagerness matched only by my hubris.) Finally — finally! — I have it sitting next to me, notes scribbled on nearly every page, showing wear from two children, two pets, a pencil wedged beneath its cover, and a week of being carted around stuffed in a diaper bag, and I can say: read this book.
A Costume History (it Doesn’t Mean What You Think)
Paoletti, an Associate Professor in American Studies at the University of Maryland, is first and foremost a textiles, costume, and consumer economics scholar. As she points out, “costume” does not mean Halloween dress-up, but rather simply the collective clothing and accouterments that humans use to protect and adorn ourselves. Thus, Pink and Blue is primarily a costume historiography, with primary sources of baby and advice books, paper dolls, and advertisements. It focuses on children’s clothing from birth through age seven or so, from the mid-1800s (though she does stretch back a bit farther for reference) through 2011, particularly the ways in which their dress did — and didn’t — signify gender.
Critiques: I have them
Before I tell you why you should buy and read and share the book anyway, let me tell you of its shortfalls.
First of which is: as a book, Pink and Blue is not that great. Which is not to say the writing is bad: it’s at worst fine, and often ascends to quite engaging or enjoyable. But it lacks the cohesion and polish of a really excellent, thoroughly readable popular text; though it approaches this in many places (especially toward the end), it is uneven. The first chapter, for example, appears to have at one point been written as the introduction (p 8: “In this introduction, I will focus… but in each chapter, where appropriate, I have incorporated…”), and certainly it reads like a book with two (each well-written) intros.
Pink and Blue is, as she says, “several overlapping and interconnected narratives” (p XVI), so there is a significant amount of repetition of information: because of this, and because there are only so many times I can read 1865-this and 1868-that before my eyes cross, I found myself wishing again and again for an overarching time-line, perhaps in appendix or introduction, that covered all the key dates mentioned throughout: the introduction and cessation of “the white dress”, the start of bifurcation in toddler wear, the Little Lord Fauntleroy fad, the Time Without Pink in department store catalogs. Though these things are all rather fuzzy, Paoletti does successfully attach dates to many of them: to lay them out chronologically, and then explain their research and ramifications in the text, would be so helpful in the reading and absorbing of her ideas.
Finally, on the topic of trans and gender non-conforming children, I found earnestness and good intentions but a few cringe-causing comments nonetheless, including cissexist pronoun use and centering of assigned-gender as “real” (as in “a boy who insisted that he was a girl” p 13) and conflation of gender nonconformity and transgender experience1. This is not the main focus of the book, however, and so the few failures are irritating imperfections, not prohibitive problems.
Read It Anyway
If you’re interested in gender, parenting, and the societal forces influencing these — that is, if you’re a regular reader of this blog — odds are excellent you’ll enjoy Pink and Blue. I certainly did, frequently exclaiming over a new thought, a clarifying detail, or a novel approach to historical analysis. It’s not that often that I read a book on gender in which I learn something new to me (rather than learning more about something I already knew): Pink and Blue is a refreshing exception. Even in the places where I disagreed with her analysis, I felt engaged rather than put off.
One of the most intriguing (and novel) ideas in the book is Paoletti’s theory of the generational, developmental evolution of children’s clothing. That is, “[t]he fashionable infant of 1900 was the fashionable schoolgirl of 1908 and the fashionable young miss of 1914, and the fashionable woman of 1920 might become the grandmother in a polyester pantsuit in 1973.” Paoletti asks, and to some extent answers, “what connections might there be between children’s clothing of one era and the adult clothing of the next?” (p 15)
It is this question that most fires my imagination, as I clothe my children; it is this especially that compelled my fascinated flip from page to page until the last; it is this that will guide me as I seek, in whatever small way my writing and activism allow me, to affect the next generation’s gender health; and it is wondering what answers their historians will find in my work that fuels me.
Thanks to the groundbreaking scholarship of Pink and Blue, I have no doubt there will be historians working in this rich and fascinating field for years to come.
- Although I will admit that especially in children there is a significant amount of blurring between gender nonconformity and transgender experience — and that the two are not mutually exclusive, as in the trans boy who likes flowers as dolls — there are of course many trans girls, just as there are many cis girls, who want nothing more than the mainstream binarist offerings of pink, pink, and more pink. The point being not that they are two distinct categories, but that neither are they interchangeable: transgender does not mean binary-defying any more than cisgender or gender typical means binary-loving. ↩