We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Detail from the 1969 Sears catalog. / flickr.com/wishbook
Sex and Unisex: Fashion, Feminism, and the Sexual Revolution
Jo B. Paoletti
Indiana University Press, $25 (cloth)
In The Devil Wears Prada (2006), we learned from Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly that no one can claim to be above the kings and queens of fashion. Even your “lumpy blue sweater” originated with top designers and publishers who spent millions to determine which trends make their way to the clearance bin. “You think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry,” she says, "when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you” by distant tastemakers.
But if fashion has a hierarchy, it also has a social context. In the newly released book Sex and Unisex, Jo Paoletti tries to understand that context as it gave rise to a revolution that almost was—the unisex fashion trend that, in hindsight, appears awkwardly sandwiched between the conservative, gender-conformist 1950s and the Disney princess tidal wave of the 1990s. For a brief time, little boys and girls wore the same cowboy shirts tucked into identical blue jeans, some men and women wore the same ponchos and turtlenecks, and male and female TV space travelers wore identical outfits.
To the Rick Santorums of today’s culture wars, the 1960s were, in Paoletti’s words, “self-indulgent and aimless—just a bunch of free-love hippies waving protest signs and getting high.” But the unisex moment that era begat was actually “emblematic of a very complicated—and unfinished—conversation about sex, gender, and sexuality.” That conversation encompassed freedom and individualism, yes, but also civil rights, sexual orientation, and the emerging science of gender identity. In Paoletti’s telling, the unisex movement generated unprecedented clothing options for women, men, and children as well as a fascinating series of lawsuits in which the wayward enemies of conformity—mostly men—put their feet down against the arbitrary, controlling ways of an establishment that was temporarily back on its heels.
The backlash against feminism and the Equal Rights Amendment came dressed in the resurgent femininity of women’s and girls’ fashion.
This book is truly refreshing: an incisive, challenging look at gender, sex, and sexuality from a feminist scholar, but without a trace of academic jargon or theoretical posturing. (Disclosure: Paoletti is a colleague at the University of Maryland, in a different department, and I am acknowledged in the book as someone who gave her feedback on the project.) Sex and Unisex is a sequel to Paoletti’s history of gender in children’s clothing, Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America (2012), which showed how far, and how fast, American society had moved away from the gender-neutral styles of early childhood that prevailed only a century or so ago.
When the pink-and-blue imperative struck in the early twentieth century, it left such a strong impact that a generation later everyone assumed it had always been that way. In this respect, fashion is both beguiling and befuddling. On the one hand, the way we grew up seems natural and traditional, the way things are now seems odd, and the conflict between the two always seems new. On the other hand, people seem not even to notice the changes. Paoletti writes:
The 1970s girl who had worn plain corduroy overalls over a striped turtleneck grew up dressing her own daughter in pastels and ruffles and adding a stretchy headband to the outfit when they went to the mall, just to make sure everyone knew the baby was female.
Because our own perspectives are so warped by experience, I recommend engaging this book, which includes only black-and-white images, with your Google image and YouTube search windows close at hand. Give yourself time to get lost: from the 1963 Pepsi Generation to the festooned scooters of Mod teens, Rudi Gernreich’s costumes for the mid-’70s TV series Space: 1999, Nehru jackets, and the 1969 Sears catalog. To get beyond the superficial view of fashion history—what Paoletti calls “those crazy people and their wacky clothes!”—you have to dig for more than just stereotypical images.
The trends aren’t linear, and they aren’t universal; for every woman picketing the Miss America Pageant, many more wanted to be Miss America. So it is a hard story to tell. How is it possible that children’s clothes in the “traditional” 1950s (at least play clothes) were so much less gender differentiated than today’s? Why did the string of movies celebrating the elegant men’s suits of the 1930s—Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Godfather (1972), and The Sting (1973)—segue so smoothly into the open-necked polyester and tight pants of disco?
To help bring sense to the chronology, Paoletti places herself gently into the story, enough to motivate her search for a narrative thread as we wind from her birth in 1949 through the Miley Cyrus controversy of 2013, when the pop star, clad in a plastic bikini, writhed on-stage in a manner indelicate even by current standards. Paoletti came of age around the time unisex took off—in the mid-1960s. The unisex archetype was a woman dressing in masculine or gender-neutral clothing—not a man dressing more like women—but there were moments of genuine opening and possibility. Women began wearing pants much more often at work and in formal settings. Some men rode dangerously close to “the specter of decadence and homosexuality . . . . the territory between expressiveness and effeminacy.” Unisex hairstylists appeared. There were epaulets.
The details are breezily described through a trove of archival material—from Playboy’s back-to-school issues to department store and sewing-pattern catalogs, from popular culture and self-help books to avant-garde designer shows and fashion magazines. Paoletti’s story reminds us, too, that although gender is always a set of relative positions, the changes of the era were more directed at women and their evolving place in society than men: while the suit and tie connect men with generations past, women have no such anchors. The unique moment in men’s fashion—what became known as the “peacock revolution”—was fairly transient, while changes in women’s styles were more lasting and fundamental. That may be what makes this book most important, because what some people call the “gender revolution”—which emerged around the time Paoletti started high school but suffered a series of setbacks and delays starting in the 1980s—tracks the fortunes of unisex fashion remarkably closely.
“The history of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the U.S. Constitution, which was reintroduced to the public discussion in the late 1960s, parallels the popularity of unisex clothing for both men and women,” she writes. “Passed by Congress in 1972 when unisex trends began to peak, the ERA ultimately failed state ratification, vanishing from the nation’s agenda at the same time more stereotypically gendered styles were enjoying a revival.”
Paoletti shows the pendulum swing, and swing back, but not all the way. Blue jeans for adult women started out masculine, became gender-neutral, and then turned sexy—in less than a decade. That is “pretty much the story of unisex fashion for women in a nutshell.” How could it have happened so fast? Paoletti believes the evolution of gender is one of punctuated equilibrium. Unisex emerged in indirect dialog with a civil rights–oriented feminism that downplayed the natural differences between male and female. The political pinnacle of that movement was the ERA, which went down to a concerted campaign by antifeminists. The unisex trend that coincided with that arc wasn’t a feminist movement, but it was a closely related shifting sensibility, reflecting the struggles of both the fashion industry—which tried to package the many, unstable moods of the day for sale—and the young people who, like Paoletti herself, were just trying to find their way. Fashion history shows the battles waged by activists playing out in the lives of the regular people they were fighting over.
The backlash against feminism and the ERA in the political arena came dressed in the resurgent femininity of women’s—and especially girls’—fashion. One mechanism for this was the blurring of age distinctions, so that grown women’s sexy outfits became more girly (Victoria’s Secret debuted in 1977) at the same time sexy outfits started appearing in younger girls’ sizes. Perversely, Paoletti notes, pushing femininity on younger and younger girls fits the preconceptions held by gender conservatives who believe all those outfits are just letting girls’ gendered “nature” express itself. But “prim[ing] toddlers and preschoolers for sexualization by initiating them into a world of femininity” sets them up as early as third or fourth grade to reject pink as “babyish” and move toward more seriously sexy outfits in blue, purple, and black. “When four-year-old girls want everything pink and glittery, it’s nature,” she chides. “But when they’re eight and they want flirty, it’s the media’s fault?” Antifeminism’s intersection with fashion is rife with such contradictions.
There is also an interesting economic side to the feminine backlash that dispensed with unisex style. The long-run trend toward differentiating men’s and women’s clothing goes back several centuries and is tied, Paoletti argues, to the modern rise of individualism. So even in the 1950s, when young girls such as her were wearing their brothers’ clothes to play outdoors, they also wore “good” outfits, understood as feminine, to school and church. In effect, the classy outfit was more girly. So it seems that postwar prosperity made girliness more attainable for more parents dressing their girls, accelerating the underlying tendency of modern capitalism to highlight gender identities—a trend happily facilitated by a fashion industry increasingly geared toward promoting consumer culture. What should we expect, then, as those parents, responding to rising economic inequality, become more insecure about their social class standing and their children’s prospects? The “mommy wars” and parenting mania more generally are partly driven by this rising insecurity; might that not also spur gender distinction to new heights? If prosperity promoted girliness, maybe fear of falling makes people strain even harder for that ideal—dumping money on empty symbols and tickets to success, like unemployed people snatching up offers for self-help correspondence courses.
For someone steeped in the deep cultural roots of gender inequality, this might seem depressing. “Unisex and androgynous clothing,” Paoletti writes, “far from being proof of more relaxed attitudes toward gender and sexuality, now appear to have been just the opening salvos in our own cultural Hundred Years’ War.” And yet she brings calm optimism to her story. Despite the fall of a trend that once seemed to herald a decisive breakthrough in the history of gender, she finds silver linings in the popular acceptance of homosexuality, in the incipient resistance among some parents to coercive pinkification, and in the warming attitude toward gender non-conforming children.
Paoletti concludes that unisex failed to take hold because it couldn’t fundamentally disrupt the gender binary. Even unisex fashion relied on the cultural existence of gender opposites: “Without a commonly understood gender binary, there can be no unisex or androgyny.” The next surge forward, then, will require breaking the grip of such binary thinking. “The notion of male and female as opposites needs to join the flat earth and the geocentric universe in the discarded theory bin,” Paoletti writes. As Sex and Unisex shows, when we reach that point we will see it on the runways of Milan, in the pages of whatever has definitively replaced the Sears catalog, and emblazoned on our own shirts, pants, and maybe epaulets.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
“Never do unto me what your uncle has done to us.” A family member’s disappearance leads to personal revelations.
Critics say human rights discourse blunts social transformation. It doesn’t have to.
“My mother has not slept for seven days.” A Taiwanese woman’s brother avoids calling their mother, setting off an insomniac unraveling.