Everyone who is looking to buy children’s clothes today is familiar with the gendered color divide of stores’ aisles. If one is looking to dress a baby boy, they can choose from a variety of blues, grays, greens, browns and the occasional orange or yellow. On the other hand, if one is searching for a baby girl outfit, chances are that pinks, reds, and purples will be the main options. What seems today so natural and obvious – blue for boys and pink for girls – is in fact a relatively new phenomenon, with its origins in the first decades of the twentieth century.
The Wade Family Papers (MS. 3292) at the Cleveland History Center of WRHS provides a great opportunity to trace the history of the development of children’s clothes. Indeed, at the end of the nineteenth century, baby and children’s clothes were far less gendered than today. Whereas the blue and pink were used widely for children’s clothing in the mid-nineteenth century, they became a marker of gender only after World War I. Infants were usually dressed in white long dress, no matter what their sex as shown in this photograph of young Jeptha Homer Wade Jr. (1879-1936), the great-grandson of Jeptha Homer Wade I (1811-1890).
Hairstyles are not an accurate indicator of gender with little children. A later photo of Jeptha Jr. shows him with long curls and bangs. He might be mistaken for a young girl of today.
Jeptha Jr.’s mother, Ellen Garretson Wade (1859-1917), in a series of letters to her mother-in-law Anna McGaw Wade (1835-1910) written in 1883, discusses the making of her children’s clothes that provide insight into the fashionable expectations of American mothers for their children in the 1880s. As seen from her letters, boys clothed in dresses was an acceptable custom, and only at around ages 5 or 6, did clothes became differentiated by gender, as boys would begin to wear pants. In April 1883, Ellen writes: “I cannot make up my mind to put him [Jeptha Jr.] in pants this summer and while I am deciding he has to go around in his old clothes, but I have just had one new little dress made for him and he looks so pretty in it.” Indeed, even for a 4-year-old boy, as Jeptha Jr. was in 1883, walking around in dresses would not seem bizarre.
For children under the age of 5, the major change in their clothes was not the transition into pants for boys, but the shortening of their dresses. As long as babies did not walk, they were dressed in long trailing dresses that often prohibited movement. Ellen G. Wade, writing on her younger child George Garretson Wade (1882-1957), complains that already as a little baby he was too active to remain in his dresses. In a letter from February 1883 she notes: “I think I will have to put Garretson in short dresses pretty soon for it is perfectly impossible to keep his long skirts on he kicks so much and some days they have to be put on three or four times, and even then they are never in the right place.”
Ellen went ahead and shortened little George Wade’s dresses. In March 1883 she wrote Anna that “I am not having any new dresses made, only the long ones made short and two little cloaks.” For Ellen, dressing up little George in dresses provided great joy. “I wish you could see him in his short dresses,” she noted in the same letter, “He looks like a little doll. Jep [his brother, Jeptha Wade Jr.] says that he looks like a little ‘rosebud,’ and is all the time calling our attention to his ‘expression.’”
Little male children in dresses were not an unusual site, and the gendered division of colors was quite different in the 1880s. Americans in the Gilded Age thought that it was the warmer colors – reds and pinks – that were more suitable for young boys. As Ellen noted in another letter, this one written in March 1883: “I am making [George G. Wade] such a pretty little cloak. It is of a delicate shade of pink ottoman trimmed with white embroidery as pink is his color.” Long after George Wade stopped wearing his little cloak, pink would remain the leading color for boys. As the Smithsonian website reveals, a June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department said, “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.”
Despite (and perhaps because of) being dressed in pink dresses and wearing their hair long, both Jeptha Wade Jr. and George Garretson Wade grew up to be adorable little children who gave their parents much joy. Going through their photographs and their mother’s letters provides an interesting prism into the life of children in the late nineteenth century, and reveals the power and fluctuation of fashionable truths and styles.