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Our Adorable Past

Tracing the Origins of Gender-Specific Clothing for Children

The child pictured above is our 32nd President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And indeed, he is wearing a dress, as was customary in the late 19th century. Smithsonian Magazine has a really interesting article about when gender-specific clothing started being worn (and marketed) towards children. (Answer: Not until around World War II.) Shall we take a walk down memory lane, when girls wore blue and boys wore pink, but mostly everyone wore white?

Let’s start at the end: the present. According to Jo B. Paoletti, a historian at the University of Maryland and author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America, a lot of the blatantly gender-specific clothing came about as a result of parents wanting to know the sex of the baby they were having. In the beginning, babies and young children (until the age of 6 or 7) wore white dresses. This was more out of convenience — whites can all be washed together. But by the early 20th century, it seems like designers wanted to give more definition to how children were distinguished. However, pink was for boys. From a 1918 issue of Ladies Home Journal:

“The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

Maybe this has to do with pink being a softer version of red? Not really sure, but sometimes the color choices were based on hair color (still not gender). By the time the baby boomers were born though, that was when boys dressed like miniature versions of their fathers, girls like their mothers (except for playtime).

The first feminism movement rejected this, as we know, and started promoting anti-feminine/anti-fashion attitudes. Women would dress androgynously, even masculinely, which was meant to kill the visual separation between men and women. And this extended into clothing for babies and children — pink clothes for toddlers weren’t even sold for two years in the 1970s in the Sears, Roebuck catalog.

“One of the ways [feminists] thought that girls were kind of lured into subservient roles as women is through clothing,” says Paoletti. “ ‘If we dress our girls more like boys and less like frilly little girls . . . they are going to have more options and feel freer to be active.’ ”

But clearly, this is not the case now, and Paoletti noticed it in the 1980s when she had her own children. The shift happened within a couple of years, and while clothing had started heading into gender-specific territory, it swung back into it with full steam. Overalls for boys weren’t just blue — they had sports imagery on them too. And if you take a walk through any girls’ clothing section, it’s not just pink — it’s hot pink. Sometimes glittery. This isn’t considered to be a step back. More like embracing femininity while playing the same games as the boys.

“Even if they are still feminists, they are perceiving those things in a different light than the baby boomer feminists did,” she says. “They think even if they want their girl to be a surgeon, there’s nothing wrong if she is a very feminine surgeon.”

However, this mostly had to do with individualized marketing towards expectant parents who underwent prenatal testing. (Well, as “individual” as can be when the two individuals are entire genders.) If parents knew they were having a boy, they could buy all the cool boy stuff available. Not too far removed from the act of choosing a name. Then, when they had a girl, they would buy all kinds of (girl) stuff, just for that girl. (I doubt my father thought “I can’t wait to teach her about football and firefighting!” when he found out I was going to be a girl. But it probably crossed his mind when he found out my brother was going to be a boy.) A lot of parents still decide to not to find out about their baby’s gender (like in ye olden tymes), so in this culture of oversharing, they still like to be surprised about something. This has resulted in more gender-neutral baby (and toddler) clothing.

But once again, there is a push for gender-neutral clothing now that more parents are realizing they might be forcing their children into someone else’s ideals. Take, for example, Dyson Kilodavis, the subject of his mother’s book, My Princess Boy. He dresses like a princess, sparkles, tutus, etc. and his mother is completely behind him. Is he wrong? To some, he’s gender bending, “breaking the rules” of boyhood. But to others, he’s simply dressing how he wants. This is what makes him happy and comfortable. There has always been a bit of a debate about tomboys and tomgirls — girls seems free to dress like a boy (though some still catch flack for “dressing like a boy” instead of just “not dressing feminine”) but when a boy dresses like a girl, he’s seen as deviant.

This is an interesting study in how back-and-forth this concept has come and gone since less than 150 years ago. What will we, as a generation, teach our own kids about gender roles? And then change our minds about it?

(Smithsonian Magazine)


  • Emily Anne94

    This is very interesting… Even I, and I consider myself open minded, find it hard to imagine little boys dressing up like princesses – Not that I’d stop my son if that’s what he wanted. It’s just… the way we were raised, I suppose. Females could be as tomboy-ish as they wish- it’s accepted more so now. So, the next step is freeing the boys from their genderized clothing, I suppose.

  • Belphoebe

    It extends beyond just clothing-I was not expecting to have to enforce gender norms on my child with his diapers, bottles and other accessories. In fact I missed it a couple of times which is why he has Dora the Explorer swim diapers and drinks out of pink and purple bottles. He loves the family cat, but if I bought him a cat shirt-it would be pink and then I would be using him to make a point and I don’t want dressing my son to be an act of rebellion or an opportunity to create family strife. I just want to dress him appropriate to the weather, with a little bit of humor and not come to blows with my SIL when she calls my son girly. Thank you Threadless for having a line of kids shirts that are witty, strange and fun without having them be gender-specific.

  • Anonymous

    By the time my youngest brother and sister (twins) were born, my parents were too tired to give a flying fuck about whether or not my brother was wearing blue and my sister was wearing pink. They used all of mine and my brother’s hand-me-down stuff – basically if it was clean and relatively free of holes, they used it. Sometimes people would mix them up (hey, they’re twins), and half the time we would correct them and half the time we didn’t because It Didn’t Matter. (Until they hit about 5 years of age, my brother and I would just refer to them as “the babies” or “the twins” and hold them to be slightly more interesting than the dog.)

    So I guess what I’m trying to say here is, my future child’s gender and preferences are none of your business. I mean, I’m not going to raise them as some asexual experiment, but there isn’t going to be any of the “X is for girls, Y is for boys and never the twain shall meet” crap. I just don’t have time for that bullshit.

  • Ruby

    As a cashier, it broke my heart how often I saw mothers admonishing their toddlers, “Pick a toy. No, you can’t have pink, that’s for girls,” or, “No, you don’t want the Cars toy, you want the one with the Princess on it.” I hated that our Christmas toy shipments were literally divided into “boy toys” and “girl toys.”

    When I was young, I played dinosaurs and hot wheels with my brother, and he played Barbie dolls and dollhouse and kitchen set with me. Why can’t we just let kids play with the toys they are interested in and develop their own personalities?

    You hit the nail on the head when you described the clothing section. Girls’ clothing is a sea of neon pink, purple and glitter; boys’ clothing is all blue, camo, sports and skateboards. That’s not even getting into the oversexualized clothing in the girls’ section. It’s sad that when I teach elementary school I see little girls wearing low rise jeans.

  • tselmorrah

    My great-grandmother told us that when my grandpa was a baby in Luxembourg (mid 1910s), girl babies were dressed in blue because that color was associated with the Virgin Mary, and rose was associated with the royalty or the Infant Jesus.

  • BriAnna Shultz

    Um… while I can follow the idea that these colors were given “meanings” at the time periods listed by the article, the evidence given here for young children all wearing dresses until WWI seems anecdotal at best. I have some pictures of my great grandmother in the 1880′s and her sisters are in dresses, but her brothers are in pants. A Google search for 1880s family photos finds tons of pictures where baby boys and baby girls are side by side in pants and dresses respectively… I suspect this article was poorly researched, or the intro was added at the last minute.

  • Guest

    Unfortunately, your great grandmother’s photos and a google search also qualify as anecdotal evidence. For example, it is possible that wealthier people (and not the masses) could have their photos taken in the 1880s, and that they could afford to have photograph-worthy formalwear made for their children, but just because their children are dressed a certain way in a photograph does not mean that that was the norm for everyone in everyday situations.

    For all I know you may be right that this article was poorly researched, but your own reasons for thinking so are not particularly compelling.

    To go back to the article, I’d be interested to see how babies around the world are treated– whether Chinese, Peruvian and Indian babies are dressed in gender-specific clothing as well, for example. I’m pretty sure I’ll let my kid wear whatever’s clean and comfy. The only thing I really want my kid to wear are those adorable knit hats shaped like animals.

  • Anonymous

    My son wears jewelry, high-heels, butterfly wings, whatever he wants to dress up in. Parents that worry about that kind of stuff are missing out. Not only do their kids not get to explore the world free from arbitrary restrictions, they will never, ever know the sheer joy of watching a 2-year-old play soccer with a T-rex while wearing snakeskin pumps.

  • mu

    Augh, why do I live in a society that approves of low rise jeans for children, but not colorful dress shoes small enough for my size 2 feet?

  • Ashley Sue

    I can’t said my childhood clothing was gender specific. Being the third out of four children, I was given whatever was clean and my size. If that was my sister’s old teeshirt and my brother’s plaid shorts (the pains of having siblings born in the 70′s), that’s what I’d go out in.
    That being said, toys wise is a totally different story. For all the Barbie dolls I got as presents, the only things I wanted to play with was my brother’s old Legos, and my beloved bow and arrow kit. Wooden arrows! They caused so many bruises…

  • anon

    my sister went to Kashgar (remote western china, near Uzbekistan) and found that all the little girls wore hot pink and all the boys wore blue. the same gender marketing seems to reach everywhere.

  • Julia Zion

    Well, I am transgender. I am definitely a part of gender norms. It’s all about perception. When I was younger, I dressed up in my uncle’s old plaid sport coat and stuff like that. I didn’t care. It was just dress up. Unfortunately, I was never allowed to wear anything girls because it wasn’t for me. I was a boy, not a girl. Gender neutral clothing should be the norm, but it is not. Very unfortunate. It causes confusion to some kids, especially ones with gender issues. Makes growing up very frustrating.

  • Shulamit Miriam

    The double standard that girls can wear boy clothes but boys can’t wear girl’s clothes makes life VERY difficult for trans people, IMO. No matter how flat I make my chest, how boyish my haircut is and how much I dress like a guy, I am read as female, partially because girls are “allowed” to wear boys’ clothes. In the meantime my roommate, who is trans female, gets negative reactions from a few people who think she is a cross dresser because boys aren’t “supposed” to wear girls’ clothes.

    So yeah, gender neutral clothing should be the norm. And parents should allow their kids to express whatever gender they want instead of arbitrarily deciding that certain clothes and toys are for a particular gender.

  • No Superstition

    Children up to the age of approximately five were dressed in dresses.  After that the clothes were gendered.  That information is in the original article.  Go back and look at your family pictures.  How old are the children?

    It astonishes me that people will waste everybody’s time making a post when they can’t be bother spending enough time to actually READ the article or comment they are supposed to be commenting on.  You didn’t bother to read the article properly.  Why would you imagine that you are entitled to waste everybody’s time making ignorant comments, just because you can’t be bothered to make even a minimal effort to avoid being ignorant?

  • เสื้อผ้าเด็ก

    Thanks for the great article.

  • JustPlainSomething

    I was at a toy store the other week and heard a mother say, “Are you SURE you want that toy?” and there was a little girl maybe four years old clutching a big plastic dragon. And I’m talking about a mean, snarling one with black and brown paint. The mother let her get the toy and I did a little fist pump in the air once they were out of sight.

    And then I went to buy my My Little Pony toys. I’m 26. (no shame)