Within a glance, anyone can distinguish the children’s sections of a department store. The distinction arises from a number of details–perhaps the abundance of pink and sparkly appliques signals to the girls’ section, maybe an array of cargo shorts and blue plaid button-downs in the other suggests that of the boys’. Racks of clothes for girls are barraged with glitter, sequins, and anything that shines. When did “tween girl” become synonymous with “sparkle-seeking consumer”? Then on the other side of the aisle, the boys’ section greatly lacks variety. From store to store, the clothing choices are the same: cartoon-printed t-shirts, khaki pants, and color palettes comprised of darker hues. Further, the children’s clothing market largely lacks basics–simple designs of a gender-fluid nature. Why does such a segregational split prevail, and why is children’s clothing void of “gender indication” so difficult to find? Today, kids clothes are miniature versions of adult designs, and with these designs come gender influence.
Feminine and masculine–this pair of narrow identifiers have acted as a regulatory system for every facet of life, including dress. The conditions, however, of the spoken and silent code of femininity and masculinity have been altered every era. Along the way, this code has been warmly welcomed, met with indifferent acceptance, and even uproariously challenged. Often, objection to gender norms is established through androgynous ensembles, a style many children have adopted. Despite the commonplace binary clothing situation, a revolt against feminine norms in the form of “tomboy” dressing emerged. The term “tomboy”–which dates back to the late 16th century–describes a girl who displays characteristics typical of boys. It encompasses style of dress as well as mannerisms and interests. Though tomboyish girls obviously enjoy aspects of masculinity in respect to dressing and pastimes, most adults still see these children as cisgender and straight. Of course, this differs from the way boys who demonstrate feminine attributes are viewed. In American society, tomboyishness is predominantly accepted, whereas many boys are still discouraged from pursuing “girly” styles and interests. This is illustrated in the fact that a non-insulting term (like “tomboy”) for feminine boys does not exist.
While the organizational divide of “boys” and “girls” sections in department stores is long standing, the popularity of dressing kids in tiny reproductions of adult clothes has not been continuous; certain time periods actually favored androgyny in children’s clothing. So how and when did this separation come about? Prior to World War II, both little boys and girls were dressed primarily in dresses and skirts–usually made of white cotton due to ease of bleaching out inevitable stains. And through the 18th
century, both sexes even wore stays, a corset marketed to promote good posture for women and children from 3 months old and up. While young children have been dressed in adult imitations throughout time, such clothes were for elegant occasions and, in the case of boys, pants were not worn regularly until around age 7, which marked a step into “manhood”–a process called breeching. Ultimately, the 1940s marked the modern mimicry of adult men and women patterns in children’s fashion. The mini-me costuming of kids continued until the 1970s, when gender neutrality in kids’ clothing became popular as result of the women’s liberation movement of the ‘60s. However, this switch back to youthful androgyny was not displayed with boys wearing dresses as before, but rather girls wearing pants. But this unisex utopia in children’s clothing was short lived because in the 1980’s designers introduced a hyper-feminine style of dress for girls in the form of ruffles, puffy sleeves, and a multitude of frilly creations. This instituted a surge of distinctly gendered merchandise that continues to drive the market of adolescent clothing today. The clothing industry has far reaching influence–from a young age through the entirety of adulthood, clothing continually acts as a societal pressure.
Many factors may affect a child’s development of style. Systematic enforcement is apparent in the separated sections in retail stores and gender-specific advertising. Beginning at infancy, children are dressed to display their gender–with bows on tiny bald heads or football print onesies. Of course, the gendered infant apparel is an outcome of the universal inquiry any new mother is asked: “Is it a boy or a girl.” To silently answer this question, babies are dressed to depict femininity or masculinity and, therefore, their sex. This act of gendered clothing– gendering fabric, hues, and patterns of clothing–has become societally ingrained to the point where it is hardly questioned. Aren’t these hardwired ideas of “girl” and “boy” clothing a bit ridiculous? According to a large portion of the American population, no. In 2010, there was a downpour of discussion on the topic of a celebrity’s child. Four year old Shiloh Jolie-Pitt was photographed many times wearing “male” clothing and appeared on the cover of a range of tabloids, even sparking debate regarding Angelina Jolie’s parenting abilities. All of this commotion was in response to a child’s clothing not aligning with certain societal norms (and in contemporary times, no less).
Childhood experiences have the ability to drastically mold adult personas, so youth experiences with clothing can surely act as a determinant of personal style. Indeed, scrutinized clothing choices during childhood have an effect on post-adolescence dressing, whether this meant being told “no” to something they wanted to wear because it was “for boys” or “boys don’t wear” that. After years of certain habitual practices, children may become timid to break a norm. This hesitancy can be exhibited through the taboo surrounding shopping in the opposite sex’s section of a retail store. Companies are aware of this reluctance and thus produce merchandise accordingly. For instance, the “boyfriend” style has gained widespread popularity. Clothing reminiscent of a masculine look and fit was promptly marketed to women bearing the title of “boyfriend”: boyfriend tees, boyfriend jeans, boyfriend flannels. While these styles could simply be attained by venturing into men’s sections, women enthusiastically acquire them from the comfort of their own portion of the store.
The most exemplary champions of aversion from the confines and expectations of gender are the young girls and boys who prefer androgyny to specific sections of department stores. Struggles can be abundant later in life, so kids should be allowed to spend their childhood simply being kids. Let giggling boys wear their mom’s eye makeup and polka-dotted shift dresses. Let wide-eyed girls wear short hair t and baggy basketball shorts. Let us not prescribe an identity, sexuality, or wardrobe for these kids. Do not just tolerate the incredible children who defy the rules of gender that so many of us have conformed to, but commend them for being uniquely and beautifully themselves.