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Illustration of a boy’s dress from Canadian fashion magazine The Delineator, 1895public domain

Ainsley Hawthorn is an author, cultural historian, and multidisciplinary artist based in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, who holds a PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations from Yale University.

How schools should address gender identity – or whether they should at all – continues to be a fraught topic for parents, teachers and governments across Canada.

In British Columbia and Alberta, controversy rages on over SOGI 1 2 3, a resource program for educators on how to make schools inclusive for students of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Meanwhile, in Ontario, after scrapping the sex-ed program introduced by the previous government, Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives have pledged to reinstate the portions of the curriculum that cover gender identity and consent, but gender identity will now be covered in Grade 8 instead of Grade 3.

At the root of these debates is a fear of what will happen if we tell young children that gender is flexible, or that not everyone needs to express their gender the same way. But we can look to our own history for proof that children don’t need strict gender distinctions to flourish. In fact, just a century ago, young boys and girls in North America were much less differentiated from each other than they are today.

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Portrait of Louis XIV of France and his brother the Duc d’Orléans attributed to the Beaubrun brothers, ca. 1645public domain

During the Victorian era, a young child wearing a lace-trimmed dress, an elaborately decorated hat and a pair of patent-leather Mary Janes was as likely to be a boy as a girl. Today, we interpret these garments as feminine, but at the time, they were considered gender-neutral, at least as far as children were concerned.

Gender-neutral clothing was the rule from the moment a child was born. For about 300 years, European infants wore the same outfit, regardless of sex: a white gown.

As a child grew from a baby to a toddler, the gown was exchanged for a dress made of sturdier and, for the upper classes, more decorative fabric. The transition was known as shortcoating, since toddlers’ dresses were shorter than infants’ gowns, which extended below the feet and would have been impossible to walk in.

This choice of clothing had many practical advantages. It was easy to flip up a gown to change a baby’s diaper, and white fabric could be bleached again and again to remove the inevitable stains.

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Portrait of Hugh John Macdonald, son of John A. Macdonald, by William Sawyer, 1852 (Library and Archives Canada)public domain

In a time when fabric was expensive and people generally owned less clothing than most of us do today, a loose dress left room for a child to grow, extending the garment’s lifespan. The open bottom could accommodate growth in height, and extra fabric was often left in the seams to allow for expanding chests.

The dresses worn by older Victorian children were made of washable fabrics such as linen and cotton. They were typically around knee length, which may have made them more conducive to active play than the restrictive trousers of the period.

Children graduated to adult clothing when they reached “the age of reason,” usually around seven years old. Boys this age would be “breeched”: they were given their first pair of trousers and, often, their first haircut.

Girls’ clothing changed around this age, too. In the 19th century, for instance, an older girl would have been outfitted in floor-length women’s dresses, rather than the knee-length dresses of childhood. She would have been introduced to undergarments such as stays or even a corset and, by puberty, she would have begun to wear her hair up.

Breeching signified a child’s passage into young adulthood and marked the age when a boy, especially if he was a member of the working class, might begin to take on adult responsibilities. British historian William Hutton, who was sent to work as an apprentice in a silk mill by the age of six, was breeched in 1727, when he was four years old and was given household and child-care duties soon afterward. In his autobiography, he remembered when “dressed in my best suit, a cocked hat, and walking-stick, then four years and a half, my sister took me by the hand to Gilbert Bridge’s, for the evening’s milk, which was, in future, to be my errand.”

When we look back on how children dressed in North America and Europe before the 20th century, it’s important to note that – however it might seem to us – boys weren’t dressed “like girls.” Rather, children were dressed like children, and their clothing was distinct from both men’s and women’s apparel.

Children’s gender neutrality extended beyond the way they were dressed. Babies in particular were spoken about in terms that were more or less genderless, and they were referred to using the pronoun “it,” rather than “he” or “she.” Consider this excerpt from The Maternal Management of Children in Health and Disease by Dr. Thomas Bull, published in 1840: “A young married lady gave birth to a plump, healthy boy … It became rapidly thin, and after a short time its flesh was so wasted, and became so flabby, that it might be said literally to hang on the bones.”

Even though the baby in the story is clearly male, the text refers to the child as “it” throughout. (For those who are concerned, this child did ultimately recover.)

The Victorian period, of course, isn’t known for its social liberalism. Why, then, were children exempt from many of the gender norms that were in force for adults at the time?

The answer seems to be because gender was closely linked with the act of sex. Gendering children the way one would adults – for instance, by dressing them in miniature versions of adult clothing – would have been tantamount to sexualizing them and would have seemed inappropriate, even perverted. “For many parents in the early 1900s, gender identity was tied uncomfortably closely to sexuality … For these parents, infants and toddlers were asexual beings, and the only proper way to dress them was in clothing that concealed their sex," Jo B. Paoletti wrote in her book Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America. "This was not only about adult perceptions of little children; according to this view, the children themselves should not be made aware of these differences until they were old enough to begin to understand them.”

Things began to change, though, at the beginning of the 20th century.

As more people moved from the countryside into big cities, men were trading traditionally masculine activities such as agriculture and hunting for factory and office work. Meanwhile, the suffrage movement was growing, and women were agitating for political rights that had once been men’s alone.

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Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1884public domain

The result was a crisis of masculinity. What defined manhood in this new, urban society? And how could parents make sure their sons grew up to be acceptably masculine?

One response was to make children’s gender obvious from an earlier age. Parents began dressing male children more like little men, and, by the 1920s, it was normal for boys to wear trousers.

Still, it was several decades before the specific gender norms we have for children today came together. Pink didn’t become associated decisively with little girls and blue with little boys until the 1950s, and it was only in the 1980s that children’s clothing and furnishings became even more gendered with prints featuring butterflies or baseballs, flowers or fire trucks.

This shows the role that commercialism has also played in gendering the lives of children. Gender-neutral clothing and accessories can be handed down to all the children in a family. Make these items gender-specific, on the other hand, and parents who have children of both sexes feel obligated to buy twice as many.

In an interview with Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, an executive from children’s electronics company LeapFrog called this “the pink factor”: “If you make a pink baseball bat, parents will buy one for their daughter. Then, if they subsequently have a son, they’ll have to buy a second bat in a different colour. Or, if they have a boy first and then a daughter, they’ll want to buy a pink one for their precious little girl. Either way, you double your sales.”

It’s easy to assume that the gender norms we grew up with have been roughly the same since time immemorial. If you believe this, supporting children who behave or dress in ways that don’t align with our expectations for their gender seems like a radical approach, a modern experiment.

The reality is, though, that gender norms are constantly shifting and the rigid distinctions we make between little boys and little girls today are relatively new.

What we should take away from the popularity of gender-neutral children’s clothing and pronouns at earlier periods of our history is that there is no one right way to raise children when it comes to gender, and no historical evidence that forcing children to adhere to strict gender norms is beneficial.

After all, for centuries, the movers and shakers in Europe and North America – both male and female – were raised in dresses.

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