HM - June 2019 - Lesson Plan

Lesson Plan

Clothing and the Construction of Gender and Childhood

By Wendy Rouse, San Jose State University

This lesson is intended to help students to understand how gender roles and notions of childhood have been constructed and reconstructed across time and place. The activities are designed for middle school students, but can easily be adapted for use in elementary or high school settings.

The lesson begins with a hook activity that asks students to consider their clothing style as an expression of their identity. Students are prompted to reflect on questions such as: What type of clothing do you wear? What is your favorite outfit to wear and why? What does your clothing say about you as a person? What does it say about your values and your beliefs? What does your clothing say about current fashions and trends? What does your clothing say about the values and beliefs of the larger culture? These questions may be posed to students in the form of a free-write at the start of the lesson, but there are certainly other opening strategies that teachers might elect to incorporate at their discretion. 

Next, the instructor will move into a guided analysis of a primary source photograph of two children from the early twentieth century. The photograph depicts two children, one seated and the other standing and leaning against the other. The photograph was taken in an outdoor setting with a fence, tree or shrubbery in the background. A small wagon has been placed in the foreground. Students are first asked to describe what they see in the image by making observations of fact. Second, students are invited to make inferences based on their observations of the image. Students typically describe the photograph by noting the presence of a wagon, vegetation, a fence and, a boy and a girl. Once students begin making inferences they usually infer when and where the photograph was taken and by whom. Oftentimes students make inferences regarding the relationship between the boy and the girl, concluding that they are biologically related and are possibly brother and sister.

After students have made these observations and inferences, reveal the caption of the image: “Robert and Paul Rouse, New York, circa 1910.” The instructor asks students if the caption surprises them in any way. Students usually note with shock that they thought that one of the children was a boy and the other was a girl. The teacher should then lead students through a discussion about how and why they reached that conclusion. Students often reveal modern gender norms and expectations by explaining that because one of the children is wearing a dress they assumed that the child was a girl. At this point, the teacher can introduce the idea of gender norms and explain to students that expected behavior for boys and girls, as well as clothing styles, change over time. Society (parents, peers, corporations, media, etc.) often defines what clothing children should wear, what toys children should play with, and what behavior is appropriate for boys and girls. When society defines acceptable clothing, toys, and behavior for children it constructs what we call “gender norms.” Gender norms vary from place to place and change over time.

At this point, the instructor will want to provide some historic context on clothing, childhood, and gender during the historical era represented in the photograph. From the mid nineteenth century and continuing through World War I, middle-class white parents in the United States usually dressed their children in white because they believed that babies were born pure and angelic. Christian religious beliefs and traditions reinforced a view of childhood innocence. Infants were often dressed in long, flowing gowns. As the baby began to grow into a toddler, parents still saw no need to dress boys and girls differently. Parents allowed children’s hair to grow long and often adorned their hair and clothes with lace and ribbons. Toddlers typically wore short dresses to allow them the freedom to move around as they learned to walk. Parents believed that children should have the freedom to play and explore the world around them. Between the ages of three and seven, children would wear short dresses with ankle-length pantaloons underneath. Boys and girls wore the same colors, usually white, and often wore laces, ribbons, and necklaces. Long, curly hair trimmed with ribbons was also fashionable for both boys and girls. Children’s clothing was androgynous and not separated according to whether or not a child was male or female. Instead, children were dressed as children (Calvert 1992).

When children began to go to school, the type of clothing they were expected to wear was defined by their gender. Girls were expected to wear dresses and only boys could wear pants. Children were also expected to play with gender-specific toys. Gender roles became very strict from around age seven on because parents believed they were preparing their children for the adult world where men would work outside the home and women would become wives and mothers. Most adult married women did not have many options to pursue careers or work outside the home in the early twentieth century. Parents believed that they were preparing girls for their roles as adults by limiting their clothing and toy choices.  Girls were encouraged to play with dolls so that they could learn to take care of babies and be good mothers. Boys were given toys that would prepare them for the work world outside of the home. Children had less choice in their clothing and toys as they grew older and as gender expectations became increasingly distinct.

After providing students with the historic context of the photograph and the concept of gender norms, students will move toward independent practice. In this active-learning portion of the lesson, students will work in pairs to examine a series of photographs from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Students should be prompted to carefully examine the clothing of the children in the images considering:
  • What are the common features of the clothing for young children?
  • What are the ages of the children based on the clothing styles they are wearing?
  • What does the clothing suggest about beliefs about childhood during this time period?
After examining the initial set of images, students will work through a second set of images depicting older boys and girls. Students are asked to consider:
  • How do clothing styles and hairstyles change for boys and girls as the children get older?
  • What do you notice about their toys?
  • What do these changes suggest about beliefs about older children during this time period?
Following the independent analysis portion of the lesson, the teacher should elicit student responses in a whole-class discussion. During this debrief, teachers should remind students to support their assertions by providing evidence from the images. After a thorough discussion of the student’s conclusions, the instructor should help students make connections between the past and the present by considering how children’s clothing in the past was similar or different than children’s clothing today. The instructor should also prompt students to think about how the clothing of the pre-WWI era reflected the values of the period and how children’s clothing today reflects the values of modern society.
  • In what ways was children’s clothing in the past similar to the clothing that children wear today? In what ways was it different?
  • How did the children’s clothing of the era reflect the values of society at the time?
  • What has changed about gender roles from the past to today?
  • How does children’s clothing today reflect the values of our society now?
This would also be a good point to explain that gender norms can be somewhat fluid over time and that gender norms are continually shifting. For example, whereas white was typically considered the color of childhood in the early twentieth century, the colors pink and blue gradually became associated with girls and boys by the second half of the twentieth century (Paolleti, 2012). Immediately after children were born, parents sought to distinguish between the two sexes, sometimes in subtle and unknowing ways, with distinct clothing, colors, and toys. They believed at the time that this would help children grow up to know their roles and expectations in life from an early age. But these roles were often very limiting with women still expected to stay at home and men expected to be the sole economic provider for the family. As gender roles in society changed once again and women gained more rights and freedoms to pursue education and careers, gender norms also shifted. Even as pink and blue designations between the sexes remained popular, some parents resisted this type of gender stereotyping and advocated for unisex clothing for children. Gender norms continue to be discussed and debated across society.

The instructor should explain that even today clothing styles and gender norms vary from one region and cultural subgroup to another and continue to shift over time. Explain that although typically boys and girls have dressed a certain way in the past, these gender norms are not static and will continue to change. Many parents and children today advocate for the right for boys and girls to wear any color or style of clothing they prefer and any toys they want, regardless of whether these clothes and toys have been historically defined as specifically for boys or girls.

As an extension to this activity, students may also consider how beliefs about gender and childhood varied not only across generations, but across class and ethnic boundaries. For example, the teacher could guide students through an analysis of images of various immigrant children who lived in the United States during the early twentieth century. Refer to the lesson plan link for a possible extension activity. Through analysis and contextualization of these images, students may gain an even deeper understanding of how gender norms and beliefs varied across time and space.

PDF of  Lesson Plan "Clothing and the Construction of Childhood and Gender"
Sources: Karin Calvert. Children in the House: The Material Culture of Early Childhood, 1600-1900. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1992; Jo B. Paolleti, Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2012; Wendy Rouse Jorae, “Limits of Dress: Chinese American Childhood, Fashion, and Race in the Exclusion Era,” Western Historical Quarterly (Winter 2010), 451-470.

Wendy Rouse is an Assistant Professor in Social Science Teacher Preparation at San Jose State University in California

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