Little Women and Little Men

Many of the children's garments displayed here look like miniature versions of adult clothing, as children in traditional societies were considered adults-in-the-making from an early age. (The idea of long, distinct periods of childhood is a relatively recent concept, which began to emerge in Europe around the 17th century and eventually spread to other cultures.) In the Baghdad community, for example, the outfit worn by an eight-day-old baby boy at his circumcision resembled the coat worn by a bridegroom. But important additions accompanied many of the adult-looking clothes of babies and toddlers: special amulets to protect them from harm, at a time when child mortality was widespread.

Because traditional societies placed a higher value on male children, in some communities an attempt was made to confuse the evil forces intent on harming young boys by dressing them in girls' clothing. Later on, the Western idea of using color – blue for boys and pink for girls ¬– to distinguish between boys and girls also exerted an influence. Today the tendency to blur age and gender identity has made a comeback, though for very different reasons: age-appropriate clothing is no longer popular, as women wear youthful fashions and little girls dress like grown-ups, and gender-specific colors have become politically incorrect.