As the back-to-school sales begin and consumers return to stores for the second-largest shopping season, some parents are bound to be frustrated by what can seem to be binary choices in children’s clothes. Jo Hadley has been one of them.
The mother of two co-founded Handsome in Pink in 2007 when she couldn’t find clothes in one of her young son’s favorite colors, pink. Ms. Hadley was frustrated that everything that was pink was also highly feminized, with lots of sparkles, butterflies, and fairies. Her son would wear these clothes in public, but often became confused when mistaken as a girl.
Handsome in Pink fills a “gaping hole in the clothing industry,” she says, by marketing traditionally masculine motifs, like electric guitars and motorcycles, on pink and purple shirts. To her surprise, her daughter, who had been so into mainstream girls’ clothing, enjoyed wearing the new clothes, too. “Girls don’t get the [same] imagery,” says Hadley, now the sole proprietor of Handsome in Pink. “They don’t get the adventure on [their] shirts.”
Hadley is part of a growing movement focused on breaking gender clichés in children’s clothing. Rejecting the usual divide between pink clothes for girls and blue clothes for boys, a small but growing group of parents is putting pressure on major retailers to start offering a wider variety of choices. Many, including Gap and Target, have responded with less gendered lines of clothing, toys, and, more. Additionally, many parents are choosing to shop with independent retailers or , like Hadley, create their own lines of clothing.
Why all the pink and blue?
A hundred years ago, gender neutral kids' clothes were considered the norm, according to Jo Paoletti, a cultural historian, professor in the American Studies department at the University of Maryland, and author of “Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America.”
It wasn’t until the 1920s and ‘30s that children’s clothes became more gendered as boys’ clothing started to lose elements that were redefined as feminine, like ruffles. Even through the 1960s, it wasn’t uncommon to have a white baby dress on hand as a neutral option for an infant.
“Manufacturers have made the decision to highly-gender things so that you can’t have hand-me-downs . The birth rate went down and they needed to keep their sales up by making it harder for [consumers] to reuse things,” says Dr. Paoletti.
That gender separation has come under closer scrutiny in recent years, however, as parents and researchers question what it means for children's self-perception.
Messages, motifs, and colors on children’s attire can impact their worldview, says Dr. Rebecca Hains, an Associate Professor at Salem State University and author of "The Princess Problem." “The way items are marketed to children impacts young children’s sense of who they are, what’s available to them, what’s appropriate for them, and what the possibilities are for themselves versus the limitations.”
Handsome in Pink is a member of Clothes Without Limits, a consortium of independent retailers offering up less aggressively gendered clothing options. Courtney Hartman, another member of the group with two independent clothing labels, started Jessy & Jack in 2014 to market clothing that “looks equally cute on boys and girls.” “When kids don’t see things on their clothes, it sends the message that those things are not for them, and I think that can limit who they feel they can become,” says Hartman.
Such clothing is often characterized as “gender neutral,” though Hartman says she doesn’t use the term to describe her wares because of the stigma around it. “Gender neutral kids’ clothes are sometimes interpreted as clothes for gender-neutral kids,” she says, instead of clothes that can be worn by both boys and girls.
Big stores catch on
The issue of highly gender-stereotyped and gender-segregated store aisles was spotlighted last summer when a mother tweeted that Target toy aisles were unnecessarily divided into “Girls’ Building Sets” and “Building Sets.” In response, the company announced in August last year that it would be removing gender labels from toy and bedding aisles. In February, the retail giant started selling a new Target brand of children’s bedding, Pillowfort, touted as a more inclusive collection that allows children and parents mix and match different elements and colors.
“Who are we to say what a child’s individual expression is? We really wanted to develop a [child’s bedding] collection that would be universal,” says Target’s senior vice president of design and product development, Julie Guggemos, in a February interview with the Star Tribune.
A similar shift is brewing in the children’s clothing sector, including from clothing lines designed and endorsed by celebrities. Actress and mother Jaime King launched a gender neutral clothing line in May with clothing retailer Gardner and the Gang, where each piece of clothing, featuring animal designs, could be marketed to either boys or girls. In 2015, Ellen Degeneres partnered with GapKids to market an E.D. line of kids’ clothing designed to forego gender clichés for girls and boys.
There is the possibility of a stronger trend as Millennials age and become parents. According to MillennialMarketing.com, Millennials make up 25 percent of the American population. One in four Millennials are parents, a number that will grow in the near future. On the whole, Millennials tend to be more open to the idea of gender nonconformity, or individuals acting outside of gender stereotypes, than previous generations.
Civic Science and the NPD Group gauged Millennials’ feelings on gender in a survey which asked if respondents thought it brave of Caitlyn Jenner, formerly known as Bruce, to come out as a woman. Out of all adult respondents, 31 percent agreed with the statement, but when looking at Millennials alone, a slightly higher number of Millennial men agreed with the statement (33 percent). The number of Millennial women who agreed with the statement was much higher, at 53 percent.
Marshal Cohen, a chief industry analyst at the NPD Group and author of the 2015 report which included the survey, wrote, “With a growing Millennial segment that finds sex and gender less relevant to their shopping, it seems time for mainstream retailers and brands to participate in the dialogue by offering more options.”
Though an increase in Millennial parents may lead to an increased demand for gender neutral or less-gendered offerings in kids clothing, retailers aren’t likely to stray too far from the status quo. Though more universal clothing options are cropping up at Gap, Babies ‘R’ Us, Target, and Amazon, they still are dwarfed by vast selections of that marked specifically for girls or boys.
“Moving forward, parents will enjoy having the choice of gender-neutral clothes for their children, but a majority of the market will still prefer dressing girls in pink and boys in blue,” Dr. Michel J. Weber, an associate dean of the Stetson School for Business and Economics at Mercer University, wrote in an email to the Monitor's Christina Beck last month.
Still, there are plenty of signs, big and small, of more fluidity. “While Wonder Woman’s tiara still features prominently among superhero costumes for girls, a recent search for her logo on a child’s t-shirt yielded as many red or blue as pink options, ” Susan Scafidi, founder and academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School, points out in an email to the Monitor.