What is “women’s clothing”?

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Seems that a full-fledged gender-panic may be breaking out.   As if the whole mishigas with Constance McMillen being told she couldn’t wear a tux to her senior prom weren’t enough, now a mom in Maple Shade, New Jersey has had a fit that has gone viral on Facebook about the humiliation her son would face if he complied with an assignment from his third grade teacher: that all the kids in class come to school wearing women’s clothing from a time period of their choosing.

The teacher, Tonya Uibel, sent a letter home with her third grade class, informing parents that for Women’s History Month the class would be examining how women’s fashion has changed over time.   It gave all the kids in the class a project: come to class dressed in clothing that women wore from some period.   But the letter clarified: “If your child is a young man, he does not have to wear a dress or skirt, as there are many time periods where women wore jeans, pants and trousers. However, each child must be able to express what time period their outfit is from. Most of all, your child should have fun creating their outfit and learning about how women’s clothing has changed!”

I love this project!   It promised to set up a wonderful discussion about the gendering of clothing over time.   Here’s some stuff they could learn: that there is a “male” and “female” way to sew in zippers on pants and buttons on shirts; that “in the early years of the twentieth century, before World War I, boys wore pink (“a stronger, more decided color,” according to the promotional literature of the time) while girls wore blue (understood to be “delicate” and “dainty”). Only after World War II … did the present alignment of the two genders with pink and blue come into being,” as Marjorie Garber taught us; or that men in the Army and Marine Corps are not allowed to use umbrellas because they are considered too feminine.

Who knew?   Certainly not the third graders and their parents in Maple Shade, New Jersey.

But somehow Janine Giandomenico missed the pedagogical opportunity in this project and instead she flipped out that her son might have to go to school in a dress and be humiliated by a project that required cross-dressing as part of an overarching “gay agenda.”   You can read elsewhere about the campaign to queer-bait this exercise that Giandomenico launched on Facebook that took off in the blogosphere.

My interest in the issue is with the teaching moment that was lost.   Take a look at this picture of parents and kids assembled in front of the Maude Wilkins School (where this dispute took place) in the aftermath of the Women’s History Month clothing exercise debacle:

How would you gender their clothing?   Which of them has on “women’s clothing”? Which of them has on “men’s clothing”?   And whatever they’re wearing, none of them looks very happy.   Could it be their clothing that is making them so glum?

If I’d been given this assignment by my third grade teacher, know what I’d have worn?   A tux, of course.   Go Constance!

Katherine Franke, cross-posted from the Gender & Sexuality Law Blog

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