FDR Grew Up in a Dress: It Wasn't Always Blue for Boys and Pink for Girls

Thanks to Smithsonian.com, we now know that little Franklin Delano Roosevelt was once spotted wearing a skirt, with shoulder-length hair and a hat trimmed with a marabou feather. But not because wee FDR was a gender-bender. Instead, the New Deal mastermind's unexpected childhood look is a reminder that our cultural norms about gender-specific clothing for children are a surprisingly recent historical development.

Smithsonian's site has a fascinating story on this topic, "When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?":

Little Franklin Delano Roosevelt sits primly on a stool, his white skirt spread smoothly over his lap, his hands clasping a hat trimmed with a marabou feather. Shoulder-length hair and patent leather party shoes complete the ensemble.

We find the look unsettling today, yet social convention of 1884, when FDR was photographed at age 2 1/2, dictated that boys wore dresses until age 6 or 7, also the time of their first haircut. Franklin's outfit was considered gender-neutral.

But nowadays people just have to know the sex of a baby or young child at first glance, says Jo B. Paoletti, a historian at the University of Maryland and author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America, to be published later this year. Thus we see, for example, a pink headband encircling the bald head of an infant girl.

Why have young children's clothing styles changed so dramatically? How did we end up with two "teams"--boys in blue and girls in pink?

"It's really a story of what happened to neutral clothing," says Paoletti, who has explored the meaning of children's clothing for 30 years. For centuries, she says, children wore dainty white dresses up to age 6. "What was once a matter of practicality--you dress your baby in white dresses and diapers; white cotton can be bleached--became a matter of 'Oh my God, if I dress my baby in the wrong thing, they'll grow up perverted,' " Paoletti says.

The march toward gender-specific clothes was neither linear nor rapid. Pink and blue arrived, along with other pastels, as colors for babies in the mid-19th century, yet the two colors were not promoted as gender signifiers until just before World War I--and even then, it took time for popular culture to sort things out.

Read the full story at Smithsonian.com.

Presented by

Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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