May 31, 2003

Icons of Boyhood

Tinker, tailor,
Soldier, sailor,
Rich man, poor man,
Beggar-man, thief.

My boy wears blue, not pink. Oh, and other colors too, of course: red, green, white, yellow, grey, and even, on occasion, a sweatshirt that my mother got him in a pale shade of purple that comes dangerously close to "lavender" except that there's a tow truck on the front which says, unmistakably, "boy." But not pink, not ever.

Apparently things were different just 80 to 100 years ago. Historians of clothing and costume inform us that the blue for boys/pink for girls imperative is of fairly recent vintage:

An American newspaper in 1914 advised mothers, 'If you like the color note on the little one's garments, use pink for the boy and blue for the girl, if you are a follower of convention. [The Sunday Sentinal, March 29, 1914.] A woman's magazine in 1918 informed mothers, 'There has been a great diversity of opinion on the subject, but the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. 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 pertier for the girl.' [Ladies Home Journal, June, 1918]

Indeed, as I understand it, until very recently there were no significant gendered differences in infant, and possibly also in toddler, clothing: both sexes wore more or less the same thing, and that apparel was more or less marked as feminine. The donning of knee-breeches or short trousers was a rite of passage, through which the boy symbolically left the world of women and children and started down the path to manhood. You see this in very old photographs: "But why is that little boy wearing a dress?" Because that's what boy babies wore back then. This lingers on in the convention of the "christening gown."

Baby clothes are now highly gendered, probably more so than ever before. Some people object to this early stereotyping, and no doubt with good reason. Hence a small movement toward more unisex clothing, though it is largely limited to the type of parents my husband calls "alternayuppies:" that is, people both of liberal, progressive persuasion and, not insignificantly, of ample material resources (we came across a lot of alternayuppies in our childbirth class, by the way, at the birthing center where I myself had the ultimate alternayuppie childbirth experience, which is to say, a completely "natural" and unmedicated birth). Unisex clothing tends to be expensive and hard to come by: you won't find much of it at your local Walmart or Target.

It occurs to me that this gendering of baby clothes is more complicated than appears at first glance. Yes, of course it's silly and abritrary (it used to be pink for boys, after all), and it helps strengthen and reinforce all kinds of stereotypes that I would like to see weakened if not entirely eliminated. Still: if we think about this in relation to an earlier symbolic sytem in which all children, male or female, were basically coded as "feminine" and belonged originally to a world of women and children until roughly half of them emerged/escaped from this world to join the world of men, well, things look a little more complex. This gendering of baby clothes might actually represent a step forward. Grant that it relies upon and indeeds helps create and reinforce a basic division between male and female. It says, in effect, that both sexes begin as infants and then gradually make their way toward adulthood. Which actually might represent a move away from the "women and children" motif, in which a feminized realm that has do with infancy and childhood exists in contradistinction to a masculine world of fully realized adulthood (the problem with tightly linking "women and children," of course, is that it tends to infantilize adult women).

Anyway, I wouldn't sign my name to the above paragraph, I really am just musing on my blog. Or maybe I'm trying to rationalize? I'm a feminist. And there's no way in hell I'm going to dress my boy in pink florals. I don't know anyone who does, actually. You know it's silly and arbitrary and problematic, but you don't put your boy in a pink dress. You just don't.

But enough about gender. Let's move to class. Though that's wrong, of course, because it's really gender and class:

Here is a one-piece sailor suit with a hand-embroidered sailboat on the collar. List price: $78.00. And another, of blue linen, hand washable only, with a list price of $80.00. A shortall and shirt set, with handsmocked rescue vehicles (an ambulance, a firetruck and a police car), which sells for $58.00. A black and white gingham seersucker set with handsmocked watermelon truck described as "totally boy!" (list price $72.00, and it's machine-washable). And a blue gingham seersucker outfit with smocked train -- "so cute and masculine at the same time" -- carries the more modest (though not exactly cheap) pricetag of $38.00.

Well hey, nothing says "masculine" like hand-smocking, right?

Of course not. And therein lies the appeal. These clothes are sweet, fussy and feminine -- handsmocked and handwashable (look, if there's a dad in this country who can care for this expensive clothing properly, I'd sure like to meet him) -- but their femininity (women and children) is rescued by such motifs as that of the masculine rescue vehicles.

These are beautiful clothes. And of course they represent the higher end of toddler boy apparel (though not the highest end: there are children's clothing shops in Manhattan selling outfits of linen, cashmere and silk that start at well over $100: here's an online version [no address, but the fax number is a 212 exchange], which sells cashmere jumpsuits for infants at $180.00; no details on fabric care, but I can assure you this little beauty is not machine-washable).

What's interesting, I think, is that the parents who can afford to spend $80.00 on a linen sailor suit don't want their little tyke to grow up to be a sailor. Or a fireman, or a truck driver, or a police officer. No, they want Junior to go the best schools, in order to become a knowledge worker: a lawyer, or an investment banker, or a doctor, perhaps. But when it's portrait time, they dress the little guy in 100 percent cotton or linen, with handsmocked icons of masculinity: firemen, police officers and truck drivers.

These days, I know, we're not supposed to talk about class. And I sure hope my random musings on boys' clothing aren't interpreted as a form of "class warfare." But I find it very interesting that the gendering of "boy" in baby clothes is produced through an equation of masculinity with the kind of blue-collar jobs that middle and upper-middle class parents don't want their sons to grow up to.

The same is not true, it should be noted, of baby and toddler girl clothing. Here the motifs most often come from gardens: flowers, of course, overwhelmingly flowers, though to a lesser extent, butterflies and ladybugs (the caterpillar, by the way, is an interesting case: it's basically coded as masculine merging into unisex, while the butterfly is absolutely feminine: I defy you to find a piece of "boy" clothing with a butterfly as its motif). Women in the workforce: there is a popular image of the well-heeled professional career woman, but the fact is, of course, that women are concentrated in the service sector and in something that some people call the "pink collar" segment: low- to mid-level office work. You won't find a corresponding iconography on baby girls' clothing, nothing that says "waitress" or "support staff." Why is that? A leftover from the notion that while man does, woman just is?

So I can't help wondering if these icons of boyhood don't represent, in some new and strange way, an infantilization of working-class masculinity? The same parents who would dress their little boy in a fireman theme ("our little fireman! how adorable") would be horrified at the thought that Junior might actually grow up to be a fireman (my god! the best schools, from preschool on -- and here in New York they actually interview 2-year olds for preschools: no really, I happen to know a 2-year old who had an interview -- in order to get him into one the become a fireman?). Yes, I know we're not really supposed to talk about this stuff, we're all middle-class here and any mention of class is pretty much taboo. But I ask you: what the heck is going on with an $80.00 sailor suit?

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at May 31, 2003 12:03 PM

Simply since you didn't mention it, I would suggest at least perusing Paul Fussell's book Class, which does outline some of these absurdities. I am told that the stylized dance of Ivy League admission has worsened in the past few decades, and oddly enough as the Ivy League has become less selective, not more, since each school's enrollment has increased, while the overall pool of applicants has decreased. My parents were as anxious as anyone to get me into an Ivy League school in the early 1960s, but with imperfect grades (though from a very good public school), high SATs, and some "serious" extracurricular activities, I had little trouble getting in. Now, going to the right "feeder school" is stressed, both among aspiring parents and among the student body once one arrives.

But you've raised many points worth pursuing.

Posted by: John Bruce at May 31, 2003 03:32 AM

the stylized dance of Ivy League admission has worsened in the past few decades, and oddly enough as the Ivy League has become less selective, not more, since each school's enrollment has increased, while the overall pool of applicants has decreased.

Where Frank Admissions when you need him? I believe the trend is that the high school applicant pool is expanding.

Posted by: AccidentalAdmin at May 31, 2003 04:14 AM

I used to think that differences between boys and girls was mostly socially constructed, but having watched the growth of one particular boy and a number of other boys and girls from different economic means and socio-political backgrounds (my colleagues and I are defintely from different socio-political backgrounds -- see my blog for commentay), I am now of the mind that there is a large genetic component to boy/girl behavior. My son is fascinated by trucks with no prodding on my part. And his favorite pasttime is wrestling me to the ground. Again, at my advancing age, and with my injured body, this is not something I require.

And as for clothes, my favorite color for a boy is red since it hides ketchup (catsup for you people in Manhattan) stains very well.

Posted by: John Lemon at May 31, 2003 06:35 AM

"Again, at my advancing age, and with my injured body, this is not something I require."

It's not about you. But I'm sure you already know that...

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 31, 2003 02:59 PM

For AccidentalAdmin, there may be up trends in a secular down market. The applicant pool for universities is, as I understand it, nothing like what it was in the 1960s, which is one of the major problems facing universities -- they are still staffed and scaled as they were then. The current post on Educational Gadfly covers this, making the point that only 25 percent of US colleges and universities are selective -- and I believe if you scratched this figure seriously, you would find very flexible definitions of "selective". I believe Brown, an Ivy League school, has a reputation for admitting some whose main qualification is that their parents will write a check for the full amount of their education. There was a recent Wall Street Journal story on the ability of families in Lake Forest, IL, to get their children into Duke, a top-20 school, based on the promise of generous parent donations.

Posted by: John Bruce at May 31, 2003 03:38 PM

Points worth considering, all. My daughter has an obsession w/animals, so one of the things I've noticed in my neverending quest for animal-motif clothing is that it pretty much stops at 4T for girls, though I was able to find boys' clothing with appropriately masculine (read: carnivorous and often reptilian) animals: tigers, bulldogs (coded references to the Ivy League?), snakes, lizards, dinosaurs.

Posted by: emily at May 31, 2003 04:12 PM

With regard to college admissions: there aren't as many applicants, I don't think, as during the baby boom; the current applicant pool is the biggest it has been since then, though.

In terms of admissions standards, I would be interested in finding out what percentage of students the Ivy League schools took, back in the 60s. If their selectivity has gone down from where it used to be, and they are now admitting between 10 and 20 percent of applicants (see, for example, for relatively current figures), what did their admissions numbers look like 35 years ago?

Also, hasn't it always been the case that people have been able to get their kids into the "right" schools by spending large amounts of money? I don't know that I would chalk the sorts of examples that John Bruce describes up to reduced selectivity, put it that way.

Posted by: Mark at May 31, 2003 05:50 PM

Interesting post, IA. It strikes me that, of the roles boys typically like to play as children, almost *none* would be considered favorably--by a wide-range of middle-class parents--as real-life career choices. Even those that pay well (airline captain, big-city fire chief) and those that carry enormous power and responsibility (brigadier general) would be considered as lower in status, by parents who themselves are lifelong servants of some bureaucracy, with indifferent salaries and minimal job security.

I'm not sure what this means, but it seemed interesting...

Posted by: David Foster at May 31, 2003 06:16 PM

Almost all the stereotypically macho jobs are for losers with no money or future: cowboy, logger, gangster, roustabout, roughneck, truck driver. Union construction workers, policemen and firemen make pretty good money, but they're still blue-collar.

Some kinds of success these days depend on doing what you're told for decades in school, e.g. becoming an MD or an engineer. Not very macho.

I think that macho sexiness is a relic of the time not too long past when a capacity for violence was needed for personal and family protection (as it still is in lawless areas) as well as the time when the ruling class was the military elite. Sort of a historical relic, which wreaks havoc in a.) males who still believe this stuff and b.) women who turn on to those guys.

You still often do find middle-class guys who are not at all tough, acting tough. In my generation, anyway, and especially among the Republicans I suppose.

Posted by: zizka at May 31, 2003 08:01 PM

"Almost all the stereotypically macho jobs are for losers with no money or future: cowboy, logger, gangster, roustabout, roughneck, truck driver."

Hey, don't sugarcoat it, Zizka! Ouch.
I will freely admit that I don't want my son to grow up to be a gangster, a roughneck or a roustabout.

Interesting point David makes about the roles boys tend to play. It seems like a lot of children's role-playing has to do with very stereotypical or exaggerated gender roles that might be seen as relics: e.g., friends of mine with girls tell me that the princess theme is still huge, as is Barbie. With boys there is the toy gun issue. I know a couple who ban toy guns, which ban their son circumvents by turning hockey sticks and other items into imaginary weapons.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 31, 2003 08:41 PM

For Mark, the school I'm most familiar with is Dartmouth, which to my understanding is currently admitting about 1 in 4 or 25%. I believe that when I attended in the 1960s it was accepting 1 in 12, or about 8%. The freshman class at that time was about 800; now I believe it is about 1200. Another factor is that before 1970 it admitted only males, so that you would have to figure that 8% to be from an applicant pool that could have been double its size at the time -- if this had been the case, an acceptance rate normalized to the current co-ed pool would have been more like 4%.

The main point to be made from this is the major difference between applicant pools and the student population during the baby boom and now, however you may feel about the current "baby boom echo". It's an echo. Yet US colleges and universities are staffed and scoped to accommodate those 1960s student bodies.

I would certainly agree that with enough money and pull, you can do more than without it. However, assertions by admissions directors that the process is meritocratic, or that admissions are need-blind, must necessarily fall in the face of examples like Brown and Duke. These highly rated schools clearly find it advantageous to bend their standards for a checkbook, something they may have been less inclined to do 35 years ago.

An interesting case is the late John F. Kennedy, Jr., a Brown graduate. His father, Kennedy Sr., was of course a Harvard alum, which would normally make Jr. a legacy candidate with extra points in the applicant pool. Jr. was reputed to be a party animal, and may not always have been the sharpest knife in the drawer, which brings me to speculate on how it came about that he went to Brown instead of Harvard -- especially in light of W.'s ability to attend Yale even as a legacy. It's possible that in some cases standards may be bent only so far.

Posted by: John Bruce at May 31, 2003 08:41 PM

I think there is something to the idea that what is happening is an infantilization of male working-class roles, but lets not forget the fact that white collar jobs other than doctor are hard to get much play time out of. Fireman, cowboy, jungle explorer, lots of possibilities there. Accountant, investment banker, professor, not much you can do.

Of course it does cut both ways. At a conference a while back people were talking in hushed tones about someone we knew slightly who had walked away from tenure at a pretty good place. Then someone who knew her a bit better told us that she was leaving to take over the family cattle ranch in New Mexico. We concluded that if you had to choose between tenure and being a cowgirl, go cowgirl.

Posted by: Ssuma at June 1, 2003 03:34 AM

To go on a little -- I think that there's a lot of macho acting-out in leadership struggles even in totally respectable organizations, and that during these struggles some vestige of actual macho experience probably is a resource (if accompanied with the normal middle-class skills). Theodore Roosevelt got a lot of miliage out of a couple years as a cowboy and a few months as a soldier.

Theoretically all this has changed with feminism, etc., but the change is very incomplete and is one of the markers of the red/blue divide.

Posted by: zizka at June 1, 2003 07:32 PM

zizka...those stereotypically "macho" jobs don't by any means all involve violence...there's nothing inherently violent about being a construction worker, a logger, or a fireman. What these jobs *do* involve is working with *things* rather than with symbolic constructs. My sense is that there is a fair amount of class prejudice against people in this category, and I think it has little to do with any issues of violence. Not sure it has much to do with gender, either...a female nurse, who works in part with her hands (although she is also a knowledge worker) is probably perceived by most people as lower-status than a female journalist, whose hands are limited to tap-tapping on the keyboard.

Posted by: David Foster at June 1, 2003 09:14 PM

Though a female nurse does work with her hands, I think she is perceived as working with/for other people. And the extent to which she is also a knowledge worker is not generally appreciated. I think nursing (along with daycare worker, preschool and elementary teacher) is seen as one of the "caring professions," which are highly gendered as female. Indeed, I think some people are rather suspicious of male nurses, it just doesn't fit with their notion of nurse (personal note: when my son had to have tests at 6 months old which involved catherization, often a quite painful procedure, I was relieved that this was done by a male nurse -- I didn't ask for a male, this just happened by accident -- because I figured he would be more sensitive to the, uh, sensitivity of the relevant area).

I take your point that class may sometimes be of more significance than gender in terms of the status of different occupations. But I believe the two are often intertwined. Given the amount of education that is now required for nursing, for example, I believe it should have higher status than it generally does, and I suspect its relatively low status has something to do with its "caring profession" feminization. In any case, I think you are right about the class prejudices against those who work with things rather than symbolic constructs.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 2, 2003 01:09 AM

It occurs to me that I am basically contradicting myself, or at least arguing in different directions. On the one hand, I suggest that nurses should enjoy more status than they presently do because they are in part knowledge workers and their job requires lots of advanced education. On the other hand, I am very uncomfortable with the class prejudice that says a fireman has lower status than a bank manager.
I don't know how to reconcile the two...

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 2, 2003 01:23 AM

Interesting commentary! Shall I toss another log on the fire? Symbolism on the clothing aside, I find the idea of "an $80.00 sailor suit" in itself somewhat disturbing, and that of expensive cashmere baby clothes even more so. These objects not only so loudly scream their class and gender assumptions that it is a little scary, but they also suggest a sort of careless, disposable consumerism that, as an environmentalist, I find troubling. To spend great amounts of wealth and resources producing what is basically an advertisement of one's status is bad enough, but to do it in the guise of caring for one's child is even more so.

I see an interesting parallel with SUV ownership here; like these expensive clothes, the SUV is presented as a necessary (extravagent) expenditure for the welfare of one's children, while it simultaneously trumpets the wealth and power of the owner. Also, like the class symbols on the boy clothing, the SUV is linked to working class labor but civilized by the car versions of hand-sewn smocking -- cup holders and heated seats and computer ports.

Posted by: Rana at June 2, 2003 02:32 AM

Oh, and regarding IA's last post about the difficulty of reconciling the two positions she describes, I think part of it stems from the related problems of (a) defining people by their work, and (b) defining people by the money they make, rather than by other factors, such as their worth as human beings and contributing members of the community.

On the one hand, you want people to receive the status due them as hardworking, caring people. On the other, we live in a system where status is coded in terms of work and income. So if a caring, hardworking person is working in a job that pays poorly, it's hard to buck the faulty corollary that it must pay poorly because it is done by low-skill people. To counter this you can show that they are not low-skilled, but that reinforces the original assumption in the general case while refuting it in the particular. What a mess!

Posted by: Rana at June 2, 2003 02:39 AM

Re: careless, disposable consumerism. I think the snob appeal of these expensive baby clothes is that they're not supposed to be disposable the way clothes from the Target or Walmart are. E.g., the one-piece sailor suit with handsmocked sailboat is part of something this shop calls the "Boy's Heirloom Classic" collection. They are evoking an earlier (ie Edwardian) era of classic quality. I agree that cashmere for an infant is silly (think of the spitup!), but wool is not disposable, and is far more durable than cheap cotton-poly blends.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at June 2, 2003 04:32 AM

David Foster: Those jobs are not intrinsically violent, but at least two of them are intrinsically dangerous, maybe all three. And part of the image of these kinds of jobs is the two-fisted kind of tough-guy thing, and these jobs, in image at least, are more likely to be staffed by veterans.

Posted by: zizka at June 2, 2003 05:23 AM

About admissions (speculations) - the admissions pool for elite US universities should have increased quite a bit over the past 40 years. The number of female applicants should have increased, as should the number of minority and foreign applicants. In addition, the increasing number of people with degrees should have made a degree from an elite university much more valuable. I'd expect the applicant pool to be very tough, at the top universities.

I remember seeing an article by a Stanford professor, several years back, who had returned to teaching after ~20 years in (Stanford) administration. He was shocked by the level of the undergraduates, and admitted that he wouldn't have been admitted to Stanford if he applied in today's applicant pool. He credited this to the admission of women, minority students, foreign students, and increased federal aid, which allowed students from poorer families to attend. The title of the article was something like 'Grade Deflation at Stanford'.

I was admitted to the University of Michigan in 1978, with a 3.25 high school GPA (and stellar SAT's). I don't think that I'd get in today.

Posted by: Barry at June 2, 2003 02:44 PM

I hadn't thought about those clothes in terms of hand-me-downs. I'm sceptical about the idea that durability is a factor in most purchasers' calculations, however, at least for infant clothes. (Toddlers, maybe.) I don't see families with that income level having more than one or two children, and I have trouble imagining that such children would not, when they later become parents, want to purchase new baby clothes.

On the other hand, I can see the expensive baby clothes being worn once on a special occasion (perhaps having been given as a gift by a doting grandparent), then passed down as a family heirloom rather than a functional piece of clothing -- still a form of conspicuous consumption, but a bit less egregious.

Posted by: Rana at June 2, 2003 07:06 PM