March 18, 2014

Little boy blue?

My jeans are finished but still await a photo opportunity. So, I thought I'd talk to you about the project I've just started on. And the issue that stirs up.

I'm making another outfit for my nephew, baby J. 
My mum, his gran, has been knitting a a cardigan for him and she asked me to make a t-shirt and a pair of trousers so we could give him a complete outfit.

She picked the yarn a while ago. It's kind of lilac. Based on that, she first suggested I would make both trousers and t-shirt in beige. 
I thought that would be just a bit... eh... So I came up with other suggestions and sent her swatches: dark blue jeans (the same thin jeans I've just used for myself) with unbleached cotton jersey or beige cotton twill with dark blue rib knit. I also threw in a scrap of dark blue an off-white striped cotton. She chose the stripe and the off-white jersey. I guess she really didn't want any dark colours for this outfit.
Which is a bit surprising for a woman who knit a dark blue wrap for her first-born (that would be yours truly) during her breaks at work despite the criticism of a co-worker. Oh well, opinions change over time.

I had traced patterns from Knippie magazine last month (from a book of last year's issues from the library. And yesterday, I cut them out. Now, I just need to sew both items before Saturday afternoon...

My mother's choice of yarn surprised me a bit. I don't know why she picked this colour. It doesn't exactly scream 'baby boy'... I would have gone for a brighter and/or stronger colour. 

I don't think she has consulted my sister, J's mother either.
When I did so before sewing his coat-suit, she told me, and I quote: "Tough and beautiful colours look well on J, e.g. light or dark blue or green. Brown or grey can look nice as well. I think plain black and white would be boring but of course, these could work in a combination. Girly colours are, of course, not suitable for him".
He was eight months old at the time.
I didn't comment on it then but I was a bit surprised at the completely spontaneous gender stereotyping. In my opinion, no casual observer could possibly guess the gender of a child of that age if he/she were wearing his/her diaper. So I don't really buy into the theory that he would obviously look best in "real boy's" colours... Of course, the unisex look of any infant might be why a parent would want to show the gender through clothing.
Reading back, I was surprised again. This time at the fact that she only mentioned colours which would even be acceptable in rather conservative menswear. Even when steering clear from 'girly colours', there should be plenty of nice bright hues to choose from for a baby boy...
Of course, we were talking about a winter coat so that may have been a factor in her considerations. 
I made a blue coat with red rib knit details and they were happy with it.

It still puzzles me though.
Looking at the young parents among my friends and family, it seems to be such a natural thing to show off the gender of children too young to have any notion of it. You'd almost think it was a general human tendency to do so.

Except that history-mad me knows that it isn't.

To start on the issue of colour, the 'pink for girls, blue for boys' rule which seems so normal now is, in fact, less than a century old. Here in the Netherlands, it came in after the Second World War, under the influence of American products and advertising. Before that, children's clothes weren't strictly colour-coded. And if anything, pink was for boys. This owed to old colour theories in which red was a real men's colour, symbolizing courage and strength while blue stood purity and tranquility. For children, lightened versions of colours were deemed appropriate, so pink for boys. 
If you would like to read more about colour stereotypes, go this blog which I just found when researching pictures for this post.

And if you thought my remark about the unisex look of infants was a bit crazy, what would you say if I told you that for a long time, all children up to about three years of age were dressed the similarly. In skirts.

In this picture (this and the next are from late 19th century Harper's Bazar), all the non-standing children are just described as 'infants' without any distinction in gender.

When they got a bit older, differences between boys and girls were introduced gradually. The small child here is dressed in an "outfit for boys aged 2 to 5". So, he's in a skirt but the same outfit wouldn't be worn by a girl.

Actually, I've got an anecdote to back up the evidence of these engravings. It's a story my father told me: As a child, he would often visit his grandparents. In their house, there was an old picture of a small child in a dress with long hair in pin curls. He had remembered it all that time because it was a picture of his grandfather, whom he knew as large, impressive man.
I've never seen that particular picture (I wish more of those old family pictures were still around!) but it must have been taken around 1900.

And don't think the practice of dressing boys and girls alike ended in the dawn of the 20th century either. It may have done for a lot of people but in regional costume, it stuck around for longer. 

These are boy's costumes from the Dutch village Marken, as on display in the Zuiderzee museum (I mentioned the old fishing villages on the IJsselmeer before, in this post).

And here you can see a girl and a boy (first picture) and a boy (second one) wearing the special Queen's day celebration versions of the costume (that's why the outfits are all orange) in 1980 (I found the picture on this news archive site). 
Marken is one of the last places in the Netherlands in which traditional costumes are still worn and it likely that a lot of people will only still wear them for special occasions. Still, the boy looks perfectly comfortable in his skirt.

I read a lot about clothing and gender on sewing blogs, so the little issue of picking colours for baby J made me think more than it maybe should...
And yet, if we wonder why adults think in stereotypes, doesn't it all start young?  I'm not a mother, so maybe it's easy for me to criticize.
What are your thoughts on colours and styles for small children? Are things there clear 'rules' for those where you live? And do you think parents should care about those? 


  1. I think the emphasis on "gendered" colors is a fairly arbitrary and silly one personally. And although it's really a fairly recent phenomenon in the grand scheme of things, it has become so ingrained in the public psyche it can be hard to surmount. Much of it is related, in my opinion, to the marketing world also. Children's clothes (and adults clothes as well) are designed to be throw-away items. They are not generally intended to be worn by numerous family members, nor will they likely be saved for use by future generations the way "heirloom" infant clothes have been in previous eras. The production of highly gendered clothing necessitates the purchase of numerous wardrobes if families have children of both sexes, etc. Children's clothes can and should be made in any color (and as the mother of a boy it is MUCH easier to change him in his 18th century re-enacting gowns than in his modern onesies and pants).

  2. I thought about this a bit as a mother. But I just gave up and went along with expectations. One has to pick one's battles and this just wasn't worth it to me.

    When my daughter was old enough to express her opinions, it was for pink and purple everything. Then it was yellow and blue. And now it is black and olive. Whatever.

  3. It is not much of an exaggeration to say that I did not sleep at all during my older daughter's first 6 months. I was always grateful when I opened her drawer that everything was pink. Therefore, I did not have to worry about anything matching.

  4. I have a friend with two boys and I have a little friend very kindly gave me some hand-me-down infant clothes in neutral colours but actually refused to give me the "boy" clothes. When I assured her I didn't care if my little girl was seen in blue she told me I would just be annoyed when everyone assumed my baby was a boy. As if I care that someone I don't know and probably won't see again (like in the grocery store) is mistaken about the gender of my baby. I find the whole gendering of colour baffling but it is certainly alive and well here in Canada.

  5. I think men are especially sensitive about their children being mistaken for the wrong gender. I have seen this in fathers of both boys and girls.

  6. I am conducting my master thesis on children’s (active) wear (I'm studying product development) and as such I've spoken to a lot of parents regarding clothing. Of course, this is in Sweden but I think it’s fairly similar. Anyways, many people think a lot about these colour choices and are quite frustrated that the options are so narrow (we have met both mothers and fathers, no difference really). Of course, we probably met mostly engineers and if you take a look on the

  7. One thing to remember with baby items, is they spend as much time being laundered as they spend on the baby. So items which can be laundered together are appreciated (single color family) as are items which can be laundered with bleach (white or at least pastel). My daughter was given a tiny red t-shirt and shorts set when she was a newborn and I liked the novelty but still it was hardly used. It didn't go with anything else we had and would invariably get lost and separated in a load of adult laundry like a pair of socks. In newborn sizes the item can literally be outgrown before it is washed, so mix and match is very helpful as are one piece items. My second child is a boy and initially I thought I'd make/buy unisex items which could be passed down. But this worked out in very few instances as my daughter was two years older and toddlers really do wear through and destroy their clothes. I know non of this means boys must wear blue and girls pink, but it does end up that way without a concerted effort and at least the laundry and dressing is simplified. And having time to consider these things is a luxury I didn't have while I had babies around. Interestingly, my son is now larger than my daughter and still they've shared almost no clothing. They each have their own tastes and very distinct physiques so even when they're heights matched they couldn't share clothes.

  8. I ended up making most of my son's clothes myself, because I was so annoyed that everything came in either blue with cars on them, or in pink with flowers on. For each size, I chose a colour palette, e.g. green, cream, brown and yellow, so that all items went together well. I never had a problem washing them, as all just went in the 'coloured' wash. Btw, I have never heard of anyone washing baby clothes with bleach...just a regular cotton wash in 40 or 60 degree water with regular washing powder (and some Biotex, sometimes), but then I find baby care routines vary a lot from country to country (I'm in the Netherlands).
    My son is a toddler now, and I still make most of his clothes myself. He helps me pick fabrics - generally, anything with animals on is good. I buy a lot of Scandinavian fabric such as Nosh and JNY design. They are expensive, but they last, and I only need half a meter anyway.
    Incidentally, my mother and her little brothers all wore dresses over wide, harem-style trousers up to the age of four. Not costume, just regular, unisex clothes. This was after World War II, in the Dutch (Frisian) countryside.

  9. I like Evie’s take. There’s also the issue of merchandising. When you go into a store to buy clothes for your child, there are some clothes that are targeted only to one sex (dresses, t-shirts with sports figures on them). It makes sense to physically separate them in the store to make it easier for parents to find what they are looking for without having to sort through irrelevant things. Once you’ve grouped some clothes by sex you might as well group them all. Manufacturers also want all the shelf space they can get, to crowd out other brands. If they have two sets of everything — one in girl colours, the other in boy colours — they can target twice as much shelf space as if they have only one set.

    I also think that to some degree it’s a reaction against feminism, where men’s and women’s roles are similar. I expect my daughter to play soccer and enjoy a challenging career, but she’s still a girl. I expect my son to verbalize his feelings and to share the burden of breadwinning with his partner but he’s still a boy.

    RE being annoyed: my sister put a lot of effort into tracking down neutral-coloured clothes when she had her frst child and ended up taking a single red sleeper to the hospital to give birth. Within six weeks she became so annoyed when strangers didn’t know whether the child was a girl or a boy she was completely converted to gendered clothing.

    Coincidentally I made some infant ensembles this week. Neither are gendered and both can be mixed with shirts and socks of any (or no) colour for gendering purposes as desired.

  10. Oh — for merel RE bleach: In North America our washing machines don’t contain boliers. We can’t set the temperature of the wash. The maximum possible temperature is what comes out of the tap, and of course even the hottest tap water cools down when poured into the washing machine and mixed with the clothes. We have to rely on bacteriostats and bleach to prevent our clothes from smelling.

    1. Yes exactly, I am in NA, too. And although bleach is harsh once the item is washed and dried it is gone so there is no exposure for the infant.

    2. I have one of those front loading, ultra-efficient washers. It has an option that heats up the water to sterilize clothes. So does my new dishwasher. These are the new ones mandated by California, but I think the rest of the states will get them soon, too. (By mandate, I mean that new machines sold in CA have to meet minimum efficiency standards. No one makes you buy a new appliance.)

  11. 3 girls here - never really cared what they wore in some sense, but I actively fought against the pink with my first (had given up the fight with my twins). I went for 'circus' in terms of colour. Bold and graphic - orange and purple or red and yellow stripes, stars etc. if people mistook any of them for boys I had no issue at all with it (and can't understand why anyone would) - also had a bunch of 'boy clothes' (khaki, blue, etc) that were worn repeatedly - only became an issue when the girls got old enough to want to be sparkly and pink like their daycare friends...

  12. Ooh this is a great topic - I was so fed up of all the pink clothes for my first girl that I went out and bought orange yarn to make a sweater and hat. I also bought blue tops because the colour really suits her, and made some other pieces too. Looking at childhood photos of my siblings and I, we all had varying shades of brown striped clothing- which must have made passing on clothes between kids alot easier!

  13. I can't remember having ANY Pink clothes as a child, and photos back this up. I think my mother put me in reds and blues a lot. I rarely ever wore pastels as a child. Now, I don't wear pastels either, but go for strong autumn jewel colours. I think here the stereotypical pink and blue connotations are stronger than they were 30 years ago when I was a kid. Which is a shame.