Costumes in Children's Literature--Girls


Figure 1.--This British girls' annual appeared in 1964. Notice the hoirses in the background--a popular girls' theme. Also notice that British girls had begun wearing jeans. Image coutesy of the AM collection.

Actual childrens' literature did not begin to emerge in quantity until the 20th century. Until that time children would red adult literature with gender specific themes. Boys might read exciting tales like James Fenamore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans. Gradually books written specifically for children appeared. This literature also has some useful information on historical boys' clothing. We have received so many inquiries about girls' clothes that we thought it would be a good idea to create a page on girel's literature. Not only will the books have information on girls'd clothing, but there may be information on boys' clothing as for the different eras that these books were written.

Beyond Nancy Drew

Duke University's Special Collections Library (last mentioned in the April 17, 2001Scout Report for Social Sciences & Humanities) presents this research guide to Girls' Literature in the Sallie Bingham Center for Women's History and Culture. While the guide is intended for scholars doing research in Duke University's Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, it should be helpful for any scholars of serial fiction or girl's literature. The site provides a brief overview of and citations for girl's fiction ranging from Rebecca Clark's (Sophie May) Little Trudy series in the mid-19 century to, for example, Jane Severance's 1983 novel Lots of Mommies. The guide is divided into topical sections, among them Tomboys and Working Girls, Girl Detectives, and Nurses in Girls' Literature, as well as selected secondary sources. The links to external sites and the occasional cover art illustrations are a plus.

Classics

There are of course the classics that every girl should read about: Alice (Allice in Wonderland), Ann (Ann of Green Gables), Dorothy (Wizard of Oz, Heidi, Jo (Little Women), Laura Engles (Little House on the Prairie), Mary (The Secret Garden), Pollyanna, and Sara Crew (The Little Princess). Perhaps our readers know of other classic girl characters that should be added to the list. Many of these books include value information on clothing in different eras, both boys and girls' clothes. As with books with boy characters, there books appear to mostly come from the Anglo-American tradition (here we are including Canada) and were written in English. Again we are not sure why so many of these classic characters were created by Anglo-American authors. One point here. While many of the boy characters come from important literary classics (Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Tom Sawyer, and Huck Finn), many of the books about girls are usually classified as children's literature. The exception here is Alice in Wonderland.

English Girls' Literature

England appears to be a special case in the annals of girls' literature. Many literary forms developed for boys were soon followed by similar girls' versions, this inclided papers like the Boys Own Paper, annuals, and school stiries. Eventually publications emerged for boys and girls, but many of the early fornats were uniquely featured for boys or girls. These girls' annuals persisted even after World War II. We notice them being published in the 1970s, but are not sure about the current status.

American Girl

One company has sucessfully merged children's literature and selling clothing. The American Girl is a non-book company that sells very expensive collectors' dolls that has commissioned a series of four or five fictional biographical books to accompany each doll. The dolls and matching expensive clothing for the girls has classical styles and replicated the costumes of books created to stimulate an interest in the clothes and associated products. Thd concept is specificaly directed at girls. Boys would certainly have less interest in wearing clasically styled clothes.

The American Girls collection obviously was crafted to at least appear as educational as well as entertaining. The American Girls company has some minimal background information at the end of each book, unlike earlier historical novels.

One of the MAJOR tourists sites in Chicago is the American Girl Store just off Michigan Avenue. It's an astounding display of the merging of the marketing of history with the marketing of gender roles. The place is packed, every day, with billions of little girls and their parents; the historical "exhibits" inside also double as sales promotions, and the whole ambiance of the place is designed to create a feel of how "good" American girls used to be. There are also special girl events like tea time in the restaurant and performances by the ballet etc. Also amazing in a totally postmodern way is that there are about twenty dolls (selling for about $80 each) with different skin tones and facial and hair characteristics. One observer who visited the place, a few little girls were standing in front of the exhibit of the model dolls and pointing to the ones that looked like them saying "That's me!" The place needs to have a good critical historical analysis immediately!

Mattel's attempted to ride on the coattails of success of the American Girl series. A few years back, Mattel started producing "historical" Barbies. There were dolls, for example, like "Civil War Nurse Barbie." Given that an HBC contributor found her and her cohort on the drastically reduced shelf, I take it Mattel's attempt was not very successful.

The increase of this informal type of education in the context of progressive education may be part of a conservative force to promote "American values" where there are "clear models" of what American boys and girls are "ideally like". The gendered modelling of the Scholastic book series provide some such clear guidelines. Scholastic is a prime example of that. A review of one of the scholastic books in the Dear America series found that the attitude was that the "market place" should decide whether the errors and stereotypy were acceptable. .Scholastic was the publishing component of an educational institution which was purchased to be a free standing publisher. A visit to their website demonstrates the merchandising links and of course Scholastic books are available through schools which gives them an enhanced credibility and tacitly suggests endorsement by the educational system.

Other Cross Marketing Enterprises

The American Girl phenomenon has raised the question of whether children's books were marketed with toys and other promos in the past. I can think of a couple of examples.

Palmer Cox in 1887 published a series of children's books about the adventures of The Brownies, humorous but didactic stories of little fairies who played pranks on humans. His delightful pen and ink illustrations were then sold to companies who sold everything from threat to soap with them. He also marketed children's toys (stamp sets, cards) and dishes and silverware with the brownie designs.

The biggest entrepreneurial enterprise of the genre, until the American Girl, was probably that built around the Little Colonel books by Annie Fellows Johnston. Department stores had whole sections devoted to the "Little Colonel dresses." Notably the market was little girls not boys. Of course, their popularity had as much to do with the Shirley Temple movies as with the books. And their were dolls, diaries, and other toys marketed as well. So the American Girl phenomenon is certainly not new. The difference today is probably that the books are sold because the toys/dolls are appealling, rather than the other way 'round.






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Created: October 5, 2001
Last updated: 7:05 PM 7/5/2007