Monday, January 25, 2010

Punk Rock and Peace Kids: Projecting Parental Identity

Child’s Play: Aesthetics, Gender, and Children’s Clothing features a pair of cute toddler forms in yellow and black silkscreened onesies. These two pieces represent a contemporary trend in infants’ and children’s clothing, while expressing vastly different sentiments.

Peace dove onesie and turtle hat by karmabee, 2009

Grenade onesie by My Baby Rocks, 2009

Today it isn’t unusual for a child to display his or her parent’s identity via printed apparel items. Whether it’s a sport, music, political, or religious affiliation, children are being used as billboards for their parents’ beliefs. Long before a child can express any interest in the Indianapolis Colts, Ramones, anarchism, or Countdown with Keith Olbermann on MSNBC, parents can speak for them via their clothing. Functioning like an adult’s printed t-shirt commemorating a special race, beloved band, or political candidate, these children’s clothing items project a message to the world. For those parents who may hold such beliefs may but be uncomfortable wearing them on their own bodies, subcultural and political messages in tiny dimensions are tempered with a cuteness unavailable in adult sizes.

from the Another Mother for Peace website.

While statements of peace and love hearken back to the 1960s/1970s and seem a natural fit with the contemporary view of childhood as an innocent, idealized state, subversive and political messages on infants’ and children’s clothing are a more recent development. Parents and gift givers can choose from grenades, brass knuckles, camouflage prints, and guns, symbols previously unheard of in children’s wear. (Though, ironically, ownership of actual “real" toy guns is frowned upon by many parents today). One might expect parents interested in these kind of items to ignore gender-typed clothing, but it's there in full force, as seen in the pink "Punk Rock Princess" and "Diaper Pirate" pieces.

As children of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s who identified with alternative or particular subcultures such as skate or Goth matured and started having children of their own, a desire to parent in a way that harmonized with their lifestyle choices gave rise to the demand for images and slogans for children that echoed those found on their own t-shirts and gear. At the same time, the (DIY) do-it-yourself movement empowered those seeking such apparel to create for themselves and others what couldn’t be found in stores. Today, the Internet provides an efficient way for small businesses to advertise and distribute their wares.

The skull, a frightening symbol that was previously reserved for Halloween only, has caught on with mass merchandisers in a big way (see here and here). The success of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and its compelling lead character Jack Sparrow (played by Johnny Depp), as well as the sweet darkness of Tim Burton movies The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride, has made the skull, a symbol of death and violent piracy, almost as ubiquitous and nonthreatening as the smiley face.

What do you think of this trend in children's wear?

Monday, January 11, 2010

Before Pink and Blue: Baby Clothes Before Babies had Gender

Prof. Jo Paoletti

The Indiana University Department of Apparel Merchandising and Interior Design will host University of Maryland Professor Jo Paoletti, the department's 2010 Bill Blass Fashion Design Seminar Series speaker, Wednesday, January 13 at IU Bloomington. This free, open-to-the-public lecture, "Before Pink and Blue: Baby Clothes Before Babies had Gender," will be held Wednesday, January 13, 4-5:15 pm in the Whittenberger Auditorium of the Indiana Memorial Union.

Paoletti's lecture is made possible through the Bill Blass Fashion Design Seminar Series established in 2002 with a bequest from fashion designer Bill Blass, a native Hoosier and friend of Indiana University. The Bill Blass Fashion Design Seminar Series is presented and hosted by the department of Apparel Merchandising and Interior Design and the College of Arts and Sciences.

Paoletti is an Associate Professor in American Studies whose training is in apparel design and the history of textile and clothing. She has spent over thirty years researching and writing about children’s clothing in America, particularly the development of gender differences. The University of Utah Press will publish her monograph, Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, in 2010. Most recently Paoletti has been focusing on everyday ethical concerns such as conscious, ethical consumption, frugality and voluntary simplicity. You can visit her blog dealing with those issues at

"Before Pink and Blue" is presented in conjunction with Child’s Play: Aesthetics, Gender, and Children’s Clothing, an exhibition of more than 50 ensembles from The Sage Collection exploring the dynamics of aesthetics, gender, and fashion. The Monroe County History Center is located at 202 E. Sixth St., Bloomington. Child’s Play closes February 27.

For more information on Child's Play or Professor Paoletti's lecture, contact Kelly Richardson at or phone 812-855-4627.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Anchors Aweigh!

Thursday, December 3rd at 7:00 pm, the Sage Costume Collection at Indiana University will present a free lecture open to the public at the Monroe County History Center. Titled “The Sailor Suit: Icon of American Childhood”, Assistant Curator Kelly Richardson and Curator Kate Rowold will explore the history and meaning of a classic children’s look: the sailor suit.

Introduced in 1846 via a painting of the Prince of Wales (the future Prince Albert VII), the sailor suit sustained great levels of popularity with American families in the 19th and 20th centuries. While the high esteem of this ensemble in Great Britain was tied to national identity and pride, the sailor suit (and its many variations) in the United States was wildly popular because of its ease of movement and manufacture, as well as its undisputable “cuteness”.

Albert Edward Prince of Wales, watercolor, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1846.

Vanished from the wardrobe of older boys by the 1930s, the sailor look lived well on into the 20th century in girls’ apparel, women's sportswear, and infant's and young children's clothing.

McCall pattern #7938, 1934

Sears catalog, Spring and Summer 1959, page 99.

Sears catalog, Spring and Summer 1959, page 400.

In advertising and the media, sailor suits were worn by Shirley Temple, Cracker Jack, Donald Duck, Raggedy Andy, and Popeye, and used to sell a diverse array of products. The sailor “look” and its individual elements such as the square collar, nautical motifs, and necktie are gleaned by designers and inspire high-fashion looks as seen in the 2007 exhibition Sailor Chic at London’s National Maritime Museum.

John Galliano, Fall 2009

At present, sailor suits for the very young are still available, but most are designed for special occasions such as christenings and weddings. Instantly recognizable, the sailor suit now functions as a symbol of innocent childhood, a charming image of a child at play in an adult role.

Did you wear a sailor suit as a child? Do you have photographs of your ancestors or relatives in sailor suits? Share your childhood clothing memories here!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Christening gowns

Long baptismal or christening gowns have been an essential part of the christening ceremony at least since the nineteenth century. The earliest were made of silk, gradually replaced by lavishly embroidered white-on-white fine cotton or linen. The gowns were very long, designed to show off the elaborate handiwork as the infant was cradled in its mother's arms during the christening ceremony. The basic shape and silhouette of the gowns followed fashionable female dress of the time, and there was no difference between gowns worn by infant boys and infant girls. Several sources note that a pointed extension overlapping the waist seam on the bodice might be worn out if the gown was worn by a male child, and inserted into a hidden opening if the child was female. Constructed to be worn by a number of different-sized family members, the gown's fit was adjusted by tiny drawstrings at the neck and waist. Often handed down through many generations, a christening gown can be a family's most treasured possession.

Today, some families mark this ceremonious occasion with new ensembles for the very smallest members of their families. Options range from luxury silk christening ensembles from Christian Dior, and miniature christening tuxedos and blue-trimmed christening sailor suits for boys.

The christening gown on the seated mannequin(left) is the Sage family christening gown, made in France, from about 1870. The bodice of this dress was replaced at a later date, and the original bodice remains at the Sage Collection. Elizabeth Sage, the Sage Costume Collection's namesake, was the first professor of clothing and textiles at Indiana University. Recruited from Cornell University in 1913, Elizabeth Sage was an early proponent of the academic study of dress and appearance. Author of one of the first costume history textbooks, A Study of Costume From the Days of the Egyptians to Modern Times, published in 1926, Elizabeth Sage collected textile and clothing samples for classroom use. This collection of samples was donated to Indiana University upon her retirement in 1937, forming the basis of the Elizabeth Sage Historic Costume Collection. Formally in existence for more than 70 years, collecting has been ongoing for nearly one hundred years.

Long appreciated for their beautiful handiwork and craftsmanship, christening gowns are prized by collectors interested in exquisite lace and fine textiles. Do you collect christening gowns? Does your family have a special christening gown that has been handed down through generations?

Monday, November 16, 2009


Children's western wear became very popular in the 1940s and 1950s, due to the widespread appeal of cowboys such as Gene Autry, Dale Evans, and Roy Rogers. This fancy boys' ensemble, by Roy Rogers, features fringe, contrasting cuffs and yoke, embroidery, and a laced neckline. At this point in time, pink was still viewed as an acceptable color for boys, and singing television and film cowboys (and cowgirls) appeared in elaborate western ensembles in shades of lime green, red, and bright purple. A comparable girls' outfit of the time would most likely have included a skirt instead of pants.

Roy Rogers cowboy ensemble, c. 1950, Sage Costume Collection # 1978.116 AB.

Cowboy outfits could also be made at home, as shown in this 1949 home sewing pattern from the McCall Pattern Company.

McCall Pattern #1504, 1949, Sage Costume Collection # 2000.777.

Official Roy Rogers and Dale Evans cowboy gear could be purchased at Sears, as shown in this advertisement from the Sears Spring and Summer 1959 catalog.

Sears Spring and Summer catalog, 1959, page 452, Sage Costume Collection # 19.2232.

Acknowledgement of a child's need for play occurred in the 19th century, alongside the Victorian love of costume and fancy dress balls. Today, children are facilitated in their imaginative play by the wide range of costumes available to purchase, and it is not unusual to see children out in public wearing superhero, pirate and fairy ensembles long after Halloween. Did you have a favorite dress-up/costume ensemble as a child? Do your children enjoy dressing up on a daily basis?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Welcome to the Child's Play blog!

Welcome to the Child's Play blog! We hope that this will be a place where you can share your thoughts about the Child's Play exhibit, including your own memories of clothes you wore as a child, as well as what your parents, grandparents, children or grandchildren wore.

From a 19th century unisex cotton batiste baptismal gown, to a girl’s 20th century polyester pant suit, and a boy’s 21st century Spiderman play ensemble, Child’s Play illustrates the conscious and unconscious messages sent by the manner in which we clothe our children. Organized by the Sage Historic Costume Collection at Indiana University, Child's Play is on view at the Monroe County History Center, Bloomington, Indiana, until February 27, 2010.

The photograph above is the invitation image from the Child's Play: Aesthetics, Gender, and Children's Clothing exhibition. The two mannequins on the bottom level wear cotton ensembles made in clothing construction classes at Indiana University in the 1930s. The maroon and white windowpane plaid dress and pantalettes at the top is a boy's ensemble from the 1860s. It was common practice for a boy to wear dresses or skirted suits when he was too old for white toddler dresses, and too young for trousers.