Male Pattern Boldness is proud to be the world's most popular men's sewing blog!

Jan 16, 2012

The Demise of Dainty

Friends, whatever happened to dainty?

I am talking about the word dainty, used not to describe a porcelain tea set, but rather to describe women and all things female.


Just so we're all on the the same page, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word dainty as marked by delicate or diminutive beauty, form, or grace.  

Between the World Wars,  dainty became synonymous with "feminine hygiene" -- itself a rather dainty way of saying clean genitals.

Dainty was always an ideal; nobody's born dainty.

For decades it was a way to connote a certain kind of fragile beauty, a frilly femininity -- all ruffles, posies, and sweet smiles.  But, perhaps as a backlash, it eventually took on a negative meaning, synonymous with prissy, fussy, and fastidious, and is more likely to be used as a put-down today.

A very dainty Forties dress pattern.

Soprano singing star Jane Powell was the quintessence of Forties daintiness -- pretty (but not overtly sexy), petite, and not too pushy -- in films like A Date With Judy.

Elizabeth Taylor started out as dainty, playing a fragile, sweet-tempered ingenue in Cynthia at age sixteenJust a few years later, however, in A Place in the Sun, a more voluptuous, confident Elizabeth represented something much more dangerous and decidedly less dainty.


Let's fact facts: nobody in the West expects women to be dainty anymore and perhaps that's a good thing.  There was something repressive about the very concept of dainty that denied women their own strength and sexuality.

But there was something optimistic about dainty, too, something youthful and appealingly innocent.

In 1945, Jeanne Crain, playing an Iowa farm girl (top pic) in the film State Fair. could sing, longingly:
I keep wishing I were somewhere else,
Walking down a strange new street.
Hearing words that I have never heard,
From a man I've yet to meet.

Eighteen years later we had the hip-swiveling bombshell Ann-Marget, playing a suburban teenager in Bye Bye Birdie crooning:

There are men of nineteen or twenty
Who are suave and reckless and true

Older men who give a girl plenty
I've gotta a lot of livin' to do

And we knew exactly what kind of livin' she was talking about.  Dainty was seriously endangered.

Today, Britney Spears, croaks the double-entendre'd:

If I said my heart was beating loud
If we could escape the crowd somehow
If I said I want your body now
Would you hold it against me.

Britney is to dainty what Agent Orange is to the California redwoods.

What a journey we've traveled in a just a few generations!
Even Walt Disney studios, which did more to extend the life of dainty than any other filmmaker, with its shiny re-tellings of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, all scrubbed of their gruesome bits, replaced the warbly, uber-dainty soprano sound of it's heroines (think Snow White) with a more confident Broadway-style belt (think The Little Mermaid).  Dainty went the way of the dodo.

Readers, just what killed off dainty?  I can identify a number of factors, none by themselves the proverbial nail in the coffin, but all contributing to dainty's (unavoidable) demise:  

a) World Wars I & II, which forced women into traditionally male roles;

b) The pill, which disconnected sex from the fear of pregnancy; 

c) Marilyn Monroe, whose joyful sexual expressiveness was a direct attack on the delicate, dainty ideal; 

d) Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita, which revealed that a dainty facade may be just that, a facade; 

e) Films like Rebel Without a Cause, that presented young people of both sexes as alienated from the adult world, and depicted them as multidimensional beings as opposed to sunny songbirds.

In closing, readers, is dainty something you ever aspired to be, or were taught you should be?

Is dainty truly dead, or does it live on in the cultural crevices: Disney princesses, Barbie pink, and Casey's Elegant Musings?

In your opinion, when we dumped dainty, did we throw out the baby with the bathwater, or was it good-bye and good riddance?    Do you ever feel nostalgic for dainty?

Speak up, Ladies (and Gents), but please, don't shout.


  1. You nailed it, Peter. I can't see anyone ever describing me as dainty, in any universe, but if someone did, I wouldn't consider it a compliment. :)

  2. My mum still says things like 'she's a dainty wee thing' and only ever means it as a compliment. I'd probably take it as such from an older lady... but never from a guy. It would just seem oh so patronising, like being called little lady or something. Probably an adjective best kept to china tea sets and lapdogs!

  3. Since my mother was a pre-Title IXer, dainty was not done in our house, because dainty girls did not play sports and my Sainted Mother was going to live vicariously through my sister and me. I would love to see 'dainties' come back as a euphemism for the things ladies keep in their purses: lipstick, emergency flats, quick-change superhero outfits etc

  4. I think the pendulum has swung a bit too far. "Dainty" had to be broken down in order for women to have more rights and freedom... to have a CHOICE to be who they want to be... but, personally, I think it's gone a bit too far. Feminine qualities aren't respected (or even known) by the majority of people. A woman is either "sexy, fun" or "prude" or "conservative."

    The ideas in Lolita were such revolutionary ideas back then, but, I have to think that the flamboyant sexuality depicted everywhere today is a facade.

    Thanks for posting. Oh, and your post yesterday was great. I'd love to see some patterns which ARE flattering, using your secret algorithm :)

  5. I really never wanted to be dainty...but my mother wanted me to be. Well, I am glad that I was a forthright (but not mean), feminine (but not a pushover), strong of mind and body (but not a "jock") 60's hippy with a guitar and a very SEXY look.

  6. I'm in agreement with Karen; the pendulum has swung so far, it's off it's hinges. We live in a world where slovenly women wear pajama pants in public, looking like be-flanneled buffalo. I find that absolutely disgraceful. I often watch old movies and wish the American public still placed such importance on dressing appropriately and women indeed did look a bit more dainty. I certainly wouldn't want to return to the days of women being treated as dainty, but looking like it, sure.
    Maybe that's just "Midnight in Paris" syndrome, but, honestly, what's acceptable today is just pathetic.

    1. I totally agree with you. What's interesting to me, though, is the more I embrace a retro aesthetic and challenge myself to dress up more even just for running errands, the more I run into strangers who seem to like the style, and go out of their way to say so. I think there's a large section of our society who are sick to death of dressing down, of be-flanneled buffalo, as you say (I may have to steal that phrase!). It takes a little courage to go out knowing you'll be overdressed compared to our current norms, but the more of us who do it, the quicker the current norms will disappear. ;)

    2. ~ * ♥ * ~

      Agreed Glass ~ I think it's interesting how you can influence others around you with the way you dress. To be sure, I know that I walk out the door in outfits that would be classified as overdressing by today's standards, but I have noticed that a lot of the time, other women around me respond to that and start dressing up their own style as well {Not all of them, but some for sure}.

      Which is a rather interesting phenomena to me. I consider it to be evocative of society's subconscious mindset. I think women in particular are over slovenly dress and wish to bring back the days where we were careful about our behavior and appearance, because of course dainty isn't just about looks, but about manners as well. A very interesting thought and discussion ~ thanks Peter. :D

      bonita of Depict This!
      ~ * ♥ * ~

  7. I personally think that the word dainty implies fragility and I don't think anyone wants to be considered fragile. That said, in my clothing,I definitely want feminine (maybe even romantic) I almost always wear a classic silhouette but with a smidge of lace or embroidery somewhere.

    Daintiness probably belongs in the long ago.

  8. I am somewhat flattered you think dainty may be lurking around the corners of my blog, dear Peter. I'm sure if you asked my mother if I was dainty, she'd tell you quite a different story. rofl!!!! :D

    I really like what Karen said in the comments about: "Feminine qualities aren't respected (or even known) by the majority of people. A woman is either "sexy, fun" or "prude" or "conservative". " I think somehow that reviving the idea of "dainty" in dress is not so much about reassigning women to gender roles that are outdated and downright insulting, but rather embracing another facet of the female personality. That is to say: not all of us fall easily into one of those other categories ("sexy" is never a label I have felt comfortable wearing), and opening up the idea of there being alternatives to the generally-accepted form of "femaleness" in the modern day would be refreshing. Or maybe I'm just over-thinking this. ;)

    Shall go off to continue to arrange my dainty little knick-knacks and rifle through my dainty vintage patterns. haha. (I'm being totally tongue-in-cheek.)

  9. Alright, I have to finally delurk for this one. I agree with everyone that's said that dainty is a feminine quality that just hasn't been "taken back" yet. Speaking from a male-dominated field, I understand why that is. If I were to even act "dainty" at work, much less dress that way, everyone would stop taking me seriously. They would equate it with being an airhead. Hopefully one day we'll be at a point where you can be dainty or daring and be respected either way.

  10. I guess...the way I would describe things that fall into the "dainty" niche would be "sweet," or "cutesy"? That's not quite right but for me it's a subset of that adjectival category. As for BEING dainty, or aspiring to daintiness...fuck no. Daintiness, to me, precludes bright red, and electric blue, and upper body strength, and probably the giant pile of hot sauce I just poured on my lunch, and the f-bomb I just dropped, and the Blondie currently pouring out of my speakers. Dainty gets rid of most of the things I love.

  11. "Dainty" is an aspect of myself that I've tried to embrace the last few years, but I like it best when in contrast with other aspects of my personality. I may look dainty in person and lately have taken to dressing in a way that plays that up, but I'm also creative, opinionated, fiery, etc. I like that "dainty" is something I can choose to incorporate or not, rather than an ideal I must strive for or a box I've been placed into.

    1. ~ * ♥ * ~

      Mmm, I must agree with you again. : ) That's what I love about being a woman in 2012. I get to chose whom I want to be and if I want to be dainty one day, then a speed freak the next, it's entirely my choice and my freedom.

      Being dainty is not about restriction, it's about choice for me. : )

      bonita of Depict This!
      ~ * ♥ * ~

  12. While I certainly don't see dainty much in mainstream fashion, I feel that dainty is one of the dominant aesthetics of home sewing in my demographic (white, female, college educated, 20s/early 30s, 'indie' loving... basically hipsters) - dainty and quirky. I think dainty pretty well describes the aesthetic of Colette and Sewaholic Patterns - and that of their fans. The pastels, lace, ruffles, and gathers... lots of pretty.

  13. Dainty needs handling delicately or it will spoil. I can't imagine why anyone would aspire to that nowadays. It smacks of the days when women couldn't possibly be expected to look after themselves or hold a bank account, or be trusted to make a decision beyond their choice of outfit without the help of a nice sensible strong man. Yeuch and good riddance to it as far as I'm concerned!

  14. Another thoughtful post from you Peter. I really think that, even when my darling Mother donned me in the 'dainty' dresses she made for me as a wee one, no one would have called me dainty, based on my actions while wearing them ;D And that hasn't changed (except I don't wear 'dainty' anything...except for, well....we won't go there....

    I too think the pendulum has swung too far, but it's the yin and the yang of history and balance...always moving. I can't ever see returning to the sort of daintiness your ads & movies displayed though, and I call that a good thing.

  15. I'm tall and have a large frame, I will never be dainty! And neither will many of the women that I know.

    If I dressed daintily for work I wouldn't be taken seriously.

    Life changed, American women all taller today than 60 years ago, and we have different jobs than back then. I think the changes are good and I don't dream of looking dainty.

  16. Whenever I hear the word "dainty", I can't help but think of frills and lace and very brittle bones. I'm afraid that is never going to be me.

    However, I did love the Bye Bye Birdie clip because I saw the EXACT top I made not long ago from a vintage pattern!

  17. I think acting dainty from time to time might be nice. But being dainty works in a world where women have to depend on their men.

    And that's a point where I don't what to be. I prefer a world of equal partners and same choices for men and women.

  18. "Dainty" puts me in mind of a porcelain tea set that I had as a little girl. One day I decided to drop the tea pot (with lid) from the second floor to see what would happen. It was very exciting. My parents stopped me about half way thru the saucers.

    I don't think that I can dissociate dainty from the social norms and how women were supposed to behave in that era. So, at heart, I still agree with my 4-year-old self when it comes to dainty.

  19. I think "dainty" as a word just has too many loaded connotations. You can't be tall, or stout, or even just muscular like me and be dainty. You certainly can't be loud or forthright or athletic!

    The odd thing is, I spent years wanting to be dainty. I wanted to be petite and round. I wished heartily that I wasn't so intellectual, so given to argument, so LOUD. I remember cringing in shame when a friend's mother referred to my "machine gun laugh." It may not have been trendy in my era (I'm mid-thirties) to be dainty but it was still held up in some circles as an ideal.

    I've had a good circle of friends and plenty of male companionship for years and I finally got over (mostly) wanting to be someone else. Dainty is just too dangerous to hold up to girls as an aspiration.

  20. Personally, I think some women *are* rather dainty looking, regardless of social mores or styling (my tiny grandmother looks dainty in a power suit), but some people do indeed style themselves as such (think Kiera Knightley or Rhiannon of, and it works. However, I think that for it to work it should be an expression of who you are and what works for you, rather than an ideal. I like the idea that a very petite, not-so-voluptuous girl can revel in her very daintiness, while still being a strong, independent woman in today's day and age.

    @Clio - that is an absolutely fantastic story. I may just dine out on that later :)

  21. I agree with flynn - some people are just born to be dainty. The only time I've actually heard 'dainty' used in conversation was from a young woman showing off her engagement ring, a sweet little band with a diamond chip that she was all aglow over - it's just so dainty, I remember her saying. Clothing-wise, there's nothing I fancy more than wearing dainty dresses and DocMarts - that dainty/tough contrast is still my favourite look.

  22. My father killed dainty for me. It was his euphemism for stout."oh, she's a dainty flower..." he would whisper to us about women of greater land mass than himself.

  23. "Dainty" in my world is a noun... you know like "That dainty was delicious!" or "Are there any more dainties?" mmm, dainties. But I digress.

    "Dainty" as a descriptive word has gone out of style along with cone bras. The word used as an adjective seems to be replaced with the more socially desired "petite" label which unfortunently I have heard thin women 5' 8" and taller describe themselves as petite. If they knew how hard it is for women 5' 3" and under to find garments and shoes that fit they might not use the word petite so liberally.

  24. After reading this I came across an article where Miley Cyrus described her new foot tattoo as dainty. Cringe.

  25. I suspect dainty persists in things like handkerchiefs and lingerie. I know I look for it in my nightwear.

  26. I think in Australia we now use the word dainty only to describe ribbon sandwiches and teeny weeny cup cakes!

  27. Black women have never really been able to lay claim the dainty label, so I'm unable to divorce talking about historical gender stuff from the way it intersects with race.

    Dainty as a concept seems really dependent on putting white women on an inappropriate, restrictive pedestal. That is not good for women of any color, IMO. Dainty feels so loaded with expectations of decorum, of sexual inexperience, etc that I leave my use of it to inanimate objects. More power to women who want to claim it, but it isn't for me.

    1. I'm not completely disagreeing with you -- as an African American woman, I'm well aware that black women have and still do receive different treatment and that this differential treatment and perception exist even at the level of clothing and self-presentation. Even today, if a white woman sports a certain style it's "edgy," a black woman doing the same is "ghetto."

      Having said that, I think that I have been considered "dainty" in the past. Black or white, it's a put down and an insidious attempt to control female behavior.

      Since we've started, let me get out my list:

      Being called "a young lady" when you're not a kid -- put down.

      Calling yourself a "girl" when you're of adult working age -- self put down.

      I'm also tired of the expressing "you're crying like a little girl." I know lots of brave, stoic little girls. I'm stick of this pervasive sexism in the language.

    2. Sorry for the typos in the last graf.

    3. No worries, my ability to make typos is legendary.

      Sexism in language is definitely a big deal. I try my best to stick to insults that don't rely on the assumption that women as less than men.

      However I'm sure if your examples relate to being dainty, so much as they relate to more general stereotypes about women being stupid, incompetent, constant children, etc. It also reminds me of pseudo scientific theory that Blacks folks were constant children that was used as justification for slavery.

      It seems to me that only a very specific type of woman gets to be dainty in the wider social consciousness. That image doesn't involve POC, working class women, women with disabilities, etc. I really get the desire to reclaim something that's been denied, but like you said, many things women of color do get coded as "ghetto" while seen as valid on white bodies.

      Seriously, thanks for the awesome reply, I was a little afraid I was going to be accused of playing the race card, calling Peter racist, etc. That obviously isn't the case, but this is the internet.

    4. Hello Anonymous and thetroublesome, I'm really interested in your individual descriptions of how "edgy" and "ghetto" would compare. Can you give an example? I'm so interested in this conversation!

    5. Troubleisme: I was going to say something quite similar - but to do with class. I was thinking about my grandmother who was in her late teens/twenties during this era - but as a working class (and half-caste) woman, I'd doubt she was ever described as dainty. She was tough & strong, and raised her daughters to be the same. All through my family there are these tough (and sometimes scary!) women,who have also had to deal with often abusive & fairly useless men. I think all the "daintiness" would have been stomped out of you pretty quickly.

      Also the binary between images of "daintiness" and sexualised imagery , seems to me to be a bit of a false one- I'd say both kinds of representations of women are actually about controlling female sexuality, and are just two different sides of the same coin.

    6. @Ustabahippie

      The first thing that springs to mind is colored streaks in one's hair. It gets read as edgy, etc on white women in general and "ghetto" on black and Hispanic women. I think has a post up on it. Looking at their posts on the whiteness of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype may also be helpful.


      Nods to your thoughts on class. I'm pretty sure the women doing back breaking labor for middle class families never got to be dainty, for example.

      Agreed on dainty tying into the Madonna/whore patriarchal bullshit. It would lovely if the kyriarchy would stop tainting things, wouldn't it?

  28. Daintiness is an aspect of cultural femininity that I cast aside early on when I decided to become an engineer. Sometimes I feel like I'm letting down my team, but most aspects of daintiness-- cuteness, ruffles, sweetness-- are not nearly as much fun as ballistics, calculus and material sciences.

  29. "Ladylike" as a descriptor for a human being, sure, if said person wishes. But "dainty" should only apply to things, say, china or small dogs.

  30. Peter, this is an interesting topic.....have you ever consider 'daintiness' in the eastern part of the world, where it could mean...gentle, soft spoken and respectable (I think)? Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that the western part isn't dainty, but perhaps we should not focus so much on appearance or the way we look, but rather of the inner beauty radiating itself in the form of daintiness.

  31. Interesting discussion. I'm someone who wears 50s clothes regularly, but have never worn the dainty type although friends of mine do. I think whether in the 30s 40s 50s or now, there are different types of people, I find the word dainty a bit patronising but I know I would never fall in the dainty category but I do have friends who easily could and suit that description.

  32. ugh. i HATE the word dainty. In my head i can still hear my mother saying (repeatedly as i was growing up); "i don't know what happened, you were such a dainty little baby." Given that my height comes from her side of my genetic make-up and that i grew up amongst three older brothers, i still cannot understand her surprise that i was never going to be the dainty flower she longed for!

  33. "Let's fact facts: nobody in the West expects women to be dainty anymore and perhaps that's a good thing."

    Gee, I wonder why women would not be nostalgic about a repressive social construct that renders them infantile and incompetent?

    BTW, real women do wear lace. If it suits them and their situation and if they feel like it.

  34. Dainty and anything else refined, like courtesy and being pleasant, are deemed weak. Nowadays, nice=stupid. Mean, slovenly, "me first", are confused with being your own person. Now selfish swine of both genders swagger about as if they are "the smartest in the room" - we've been tainted by Enron, Wall Street, and ironically, a faux sense of individuality that has currency with the masses.

    Take Laura Mae, she's industrious, stylish, and without a trace of guile (except when she twirls, but that may just be to tease her public). She's essentially an artist, engineer (who can reverse-engineer), stylist, and highly productive member of society. What Laura Mae does requires moxy and individuality, and not the pajama-bottom-feeding type of either of those attributes.

    The masses will always be the masses, for better or worse.

    Thank goodness for the one-off's and rugged individuals.

  35. Speaking of pajamas...

  36. The only time I've heard dainty and not been slightly taken aback was at Tompkins Square Park where a woman called my dog dainty. I agreed. My mother used the term dainty to describe a feminine ideal but that ideal was something I could never meet. In order to be dainty (at least as I was aware of it) one needed to be petite (not me) quiet (not me), white (not me) and thin. I alternately chased it and eschewed it. I'm glad dainty is gone, it's too loaded and exclusionary.

  37. Wish I had time now to read through all the comments and replies!
    Jane Powell certainly had a far from "dainty" facial expression as she sang Love is Where you Find it.
    I never felt dainty. My mother wanted me to wear a girdle in the 60's, probably because she was embarrassed by my athletic bottom! Thank God for the women'ts lib movement and the negation of he need to be "dainty" to be attractive! Not that there weren't negative aspects to the way women were expected to behave then (as now!), but at least we could be who we were, if we were brave enough.

  38. We were discussing, only this morning, how dainty our girl cat is compared to the boy cat! Can't say I've ever been referred to as dainty and certainly neither have my daughters. But I might consider my mum as dainty come to think of it. She is very petite and very ladylike, very careful and sweet natured but alas that doesn't seem to have worked in her favour over the years. I think nowadays one has to shout to be heard and throw a good deal of weight around to get noticed... and there's nothing dainty about that!

  39. Growing up, I always felt a little inadequate because I was not "dainty" and looked silly if I tried.

    I'm sort of glad we've left it behind as an ideal of femininity. However, its replacement, "sexy", is also getting a bit tedious.

    Women, and "femininity", are/is more multidimensional. It's annoying to have one aspect of femininity upheld as an ideal, especially if you know it's one you'll never reach.

  40. Dainty? Does anyone actually aspire to be dainty anymore? I know my mother moaned "I didn't raise any ladies" about my sisters and I (really, ma - were you trying to raise ladies, because I missed that part). I think our lack of daintiness was what she was missing. But, she was born in 1932 and back then dainty would get you somewhere in life. Is that true now?

    If you want to be dainty, I think you have to marry well, and forget about a career that makes you any cash. Dainty seems like an act to me - but perhaps it comes naturally to some. I believe there is a place still for grace, and charm, and good manners, etc - but dainty seems a little over the top.

    I think I'll agree with Terri and say that dainty is good in lingerie and hankys. I'd hate to have to deal with too many dainty women or men.

  41. 1.) I think it was the post-WWII attempt to shove women into more rigidly feminine roles that made daintiness something negative in our minds. It took something precious and turned it into a prison.

    2.) It's something that's considered great for women, but beneath a man's dignity. Rugged, cynical women are admired, but men can never do or wear anything dainty. It's flat-out ridiculed. And it's a man's world, where masculine traits are presumed to be better suited to just about any position of power.

    People might be delighted by dainty women, but they don't take them seriously.

  42. Dainty? forgot about that word completely. Today....when most females don't considered blowing someone as 'having sex' with them, Dainty is obviously long gone! Well.. you did ask!

  43. I love being dainty- soft, gentle, demure, and polite.
    My boyfriend loves my delicate nature, as do my family and friends- I connect with and nurture the best when I am expressing my femininity.

    I am not weak or dependent- I have a job, am attending university as a science major, take part in my favorite hobbies, and say what I feel is true. I do these things, or at least try to, in a tactful respectful manner. I do not attempt to bring more attention to myself than necessary, and I can honestly say my peers and colleagues treat me very politely.

    Being dainty is authentic to me. Daintiness is not just a style of clothing or a way to describe lingerie-it is an energy and a choice. And that choice makes my life extremely enjoyable.


Related Posts with Thumbnails