British Columbia

Dresses for boys, blue for girls: Old baby clothes reveal a lot about modern hangups

Until the 20th century, it would be considered perfectly normal to put a baby boy in a pink dress.

'I feel we're being manipulated by manufacturers' says Fort St. John museum exhibit organizer

Until the early 20th century, it was normal for baby boys to wear dresses. (Fort St. John North Peace Museum)

After putting together a new exhibit on the history of baby clothes, Fort St. John museum volunteer Marjo Wheat has some theories on why infant girls now tend to be put in pink and boys in blue.

"I feel we're being manipulated by manufacturers," she said.

"But I won't want to get too political."

It wasn't the case in older days, when she says baby clothing was more gender neutral, and practical.

Wheat has spent the past few months putting together Say Yes to the Dress: A Journey through the History of Infant's Clothing in Western Culture for the Fort St. John North Peace Museum.

When baby clothes were all one colour, usually white, they were easier to pass on between brothers and sisters. (North Peace Fort St. John Museum)

It started when Wheat came across some "beautiful old infant clothes" in the museum's storage and decided she wanted to come up with an exhibit to get them on display.

She started collecting clothes from friends, as well as other museums and collections, to get a sense of how infant clothing has evolved since the Middle Ages.

Through her research, Wheat discovered that children's clothes used to be much more gender neutral.

For example, until the early 20th century baby boys would wear dresses alongside baby girls for the practical reason of "it's easier to change a diaper in a dress."

Likewise, many of the clothes were simply white "so they could have been used for either sex," and even when the colours started to change to reflect boys and girls they were different from what is usually seen today.

"Blue used to be for girls because it's a more retiring colour, and pink for boys because it's related to red and it's a strong colour," Wheat said. 

That changed around WWII when manufacturers and marketers started aiming blue at boys and pink at girls, a trend Wheat said seems to be even more pronounced today than when she was a child.

"It's become quite strong in our culture to have those girls in pink and boys in blue and never the twain shall meet," she said.

Marjo Wheat is a master weaver and volunteer at the Fort St. John North Peace Museum in charge of the textiles collection. (Fort St. John North Peace Museum)

"I feel we're being manipulated by manufacturers who make it look like we have to dress our girls in pink and our boys in blue when it's just not as practical, is it?"

As a master weaver and the museum volunteer in charge of the museum's textiles collection, Wheat said she really enjoyed exploring the hand-crafted clothing of bygone eras and learning what old frocks and tunics have to say.

"I had so much fun doing this display. It was great fun," she said.

With files from Jordan Tucker