Stereotypes and Women’s Clothing

July 9th, 2014 | Categories: Uncategorized

Today’s guest blog is reposted from Natasha Shapiro’s blog Art Therapy and Related Topics. Natasha is an art therapist and occasionally provides The Communicated Stereotype with insights into related topics. Today’s post deals with stereotypes of women’s clothing.

Why Are Women’s Clothing Descriptions Not Neutral? The Weirdness of Our Culture

I have not posted something I have written in a while, and I was thinking about this topic about a month ago and filed it in the back of my mind as something I wanted to write a post about. Maybe another type of series of blog posts, like my other cultures’ interesting rituals series, but I guess this would be: American Culture and its Strange Phenomenons, Some Pleasant, and Some Not So Pleasant. I would file this under Not So Pleasant. An example of pleasant would be “The Twilight Zone”- the TV Series and American’s beliefs about the Supernatural… I am biased, as I love the TV Series.

Fashion in our country is inherently gendered; in fact, what you wear is a very big indication of how you view gender, whether you have a narrow view or broad view of gender. Young women with long hair who wear men’s ties or suspenders with various types of outfits would be an example of a broader view of gender or simply an individual who enjoys using their sense of fashion style to make a statement about gender.

Anyway, we still have “catalogues” to order clothes from, though I don’t know how long they will last. They may last longer if there is not a new invention of digital easily acceptable info for toilet reading and other type uses. People still enjoy magazines even though they will probably go out of business, sadly. I of course like them for their art therapy collage uses. Anyway, whether you go to a store to buy your clothes, order from a magazine catalogue, or from the internet, the description of the clothing is not something most people pay much attention to, but it really is a big marker of how we still view the “female” body and its’ decoration from a strange and sometimes slightly presumptuous if not insulting point of view. This is less obvious in stores, but also occurs in fashion game apps for even children, when the customer asks the budding fashion designer to make her a “baby doll” dress, for example.

So we could start with the “baby doll” dress, which I think was brought back from whenever before in the nineties as part of the  “grunge” look. What is a “baby doll” dress: it is to my mind a short dress that has no natural waist. It is defined at the bust and then goes out. I assume the shortness of the length combined with their being no definition of the body makes it like a kind of “doll” look, even though most dolls do not wear such dresses. These dresses lend themselves to maternity wear for some women, usually small short women, though probably tall women wear them too. The “empire” waist and lack of tightness below the bust is what defines such dresses and makes them ideal for a summer pregnancy if you don’t mind short dresses.

Here is a dictionary explanation from

“A usually sleeveless or short-sleeved dress having a waistline that is just below the bust and a loose, gathered skirt that ends above the knee.  Origin of babydoll dress. After the film Baby Doll(1956), in which American actress Carroll Baker wore a loose, short-sleeved dress with a high hemline.”

This is what I love about blogging about strange phenomena, especially the more cultural psychological kind. I had no idea this dress was named after a film, and though I love old films, I have never heard of this one, probably because I like older films and films from the sixties and  seventies. So what was this film about and what does “Baby Doll” mean? I’m guessing there will be some kind of call girl or prostitute like things in the movie, but I may be totally off base. Back to the internet from


Tennessee Williams‘ 27 Wagons Full of Cotton was the basis for this steamy sex seriocomedy. Karl Malden stars as the doltish owner of a Southern cotton gin. He is married to luscious teenager Carroll Baker, who steadfastly refuses to sleep with her husband until she reaches the age of 20. Her nickname is “Baby Doll”, a cognomen she does her best to live up to by lying in a crib-like bed and sucking her thumb. Enter crafty Sicilian Eli Wallach (who, like supporting actor Rip Torn, makes his film debut herein), who covets both Malden‘s wife and business.Malden‘s jealously sets fire to Wallach‘s business, compelling Wallach to try to claim Baby Doll as “compensation.” Heavily admonished for its supposed filthiness in 1956 (it was condemned by the Legion of Decency, which did more harm to the Legion than to the film), Baby Doll seems a model of decorum today–so much so that it is regularly shown on the straight-laced American Movie Classics cable service. ~ Hal Erickson, Rovi

So the character did wear such a “frock” in this film, and it seems that it was a style of lingerie, slips, and also may be the connection between some of these dresses looking like they were inspired by lingerie: it seems that originally this dress was actually used on babies and did make the diaper easy to change, implying I guess, that such dresses would be easy for a women to, well, have sex in it…

“The original babydoll dress was short enough that the child’s diaper could be easily changed; that style was translated for adult women in the 1956 film “Baby Doll,” when Carroll Baker’s character wore a short, A-line frock.”

A lot of these dresses do have little hints of lingerie or nods to children’s clothes in their make up; I confess I own quite a few myself and I like them; I just am not so happy about the origin of the term and the term itself. At the same time, the part of me that doesn’t care about feminism or strange allusions to women being babies or whatever, well part of me likes the term and I think it has stuck because it really captures the “naughty” subversive aspects of clothing and of this particular garment. Part of the point of this post is that fashion would be a lot less fun without such weird ways we have of describing clothes. I also love that finding out about a catalogue term for a dress can send you down an interesting rabbit hole.

Some links to such dresses:

Here is one that gives a nod to lingerie:

This one is more modest and hip: 

Here’s a mixed historical reference one with a nod to grunge plaid and also an interpretation of the bow tie:

That last one was very appealing to me, as I happen to be obsessed with plaid clothing and plaid in general.

Here’s an obvious one that is ubiquitous: “the skinny” jeans

A pair of skinny jeans is a pair of denim jeans type pants, usually low waisted, that is tight everywhere. If you’ve ever worn them you’ve had to take them off by kind of peeling them off you. I guess they could have called them “tight” jeans and that would be it. Or “ultra tight” (don’t wear them if you like very comfortable garments). I’m not sure when they came into style as they didn’t have the term when I was growing up in the era of “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins” when really tight jeans got very trendy back in the 80s.

Wonders never cease. Not only did these come from a long time ago and were applied a lot for men, there is a whole blog devoted to the topic of skinny jeans. And one important element of them is that they are made from stretchy denim, which I thought did not come around until the end of the nineties, but I’m not a good history person.:

So it also appears that there are two terms of skinny jeans, the style mentioned above that continues to evolve and be trendy for any gender, and then the “skinny jeans” which refers to a pair of jeans a woman may keep in her closet or buried somewhere, a pair of jeans that fit her maybe a few to ten or more years ago, which she keeps with the hope of fitting into them again one day. A woman who has this pair of jeans usually knows exactly where they are, even though she doesn’t often look at them unless she wants to obsess about her shape and size.

Like “baby doll”, the word “skinny” has so many implications in our culture that books have been written about them.

That’s all for now. Future posts will try to investigate such terms as ” the boyfriend sweater”, “boyfriend jeans”, the “wife-beater”, the “poodle skirt”, “peep” toe shoes, and various other ones…

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