Kids’ fashion kerfuffles make the news in two main categories these days. One is when boys scandalously dress all girlie-girl, from Halloween costume (going in drag!) to tiara to pink toenail polish. The other is when girls put on clothes that veer toward slutty. Here’s the uniting principle: that adults sexualize what the kids are wearing—or more aptly how the kids will behave because of what they’re wearing.
Having had sons with painted toenails (our own personal toemaggedon), I can say with confidence that my then two and five year-olds weren’t contemplating gay lifestyles. They were into color. And the fun of painting said little toenails with their godfather, who painted his on occasion (in case you’re wondering—and maybe you are—he isn’t gay, either). Having a three year-old daughter who tries every pair of visitors’ shoes that make it onto our mudroom floor—from work boots to sneakers to the very occasional high heel—I’m also confident she’s not lured by the desire to look sexy, although she does opt for glittery above plain and sturdy.
We can blame Abercrombie for that whole push-up bra-for-seven-year-olds misstep. Certainly. But the question is this: why does a company like Abercrombie think sexy, adult-like fashion will sell for young girls? Some fault permissive parents eager to be their children’s BFF’s rather than their parents. To me, a big problem is our sense of fashion itself; there’s some notion put forth that everyone really should dress alike—from tot to grandma—and for the exact same reasons.
I’m not talking about footed pajama envy on the adults’ part here. I’m talking about the peasant blouse or skinny jeans from size-still-with-diaper on up. When we, the moms, are eyeing the kids’ aisle for fashion that appeals to us—clothes-on-our-backs-us not isn’t-that-cute-for-our-kids-us—we are cruising for trouble in the form of a push-up bra scandal. It’s simple: the standards we apply to kids’ clothing should not be the same exact standards as the ones we apply to our own. When they are, it’s too easy to start looking for attributes that really need not belong to kids (like, sex appeal).
Before you get your Gap 1969’s in a twist, I am not for a moment saying that something like jeans and a t-shirt—uniform to many different generations—is the problem. I’m referring to this particular compulsion: to make the girls’ t-shirt have capped sleeves or the boys’ jeans to be cargo style or the girls’ bathing suits be bikinis or sport just one shoulder strap. I’m saying that too great a nod to the day’s fashions catapult children’s clothing away from practicality (and from timelessness and certainly from the flexibility of being at all gender neutral, which many parents of a boy and girl might appreciate since gender-neutral selections could result in one shared wardrobe purchased rather than a nearly de facto requirement of two entirely separate wardrobes).
Design historian Alexandra Lange contemplates how the feminization of baby clothes is one culprit of this problem: “What strikes me most about the girl baby clothes is the ornament. No sleeve left ungathered, no neckline unrosetted, no hem unruffled. The Carters leggings, 100 percent cotton, nice and soft, have ruffles across the butt — for a child who spends 10 minutes a day on her front, screaming for tummy time to be over.” These girly clothes are in part deemed necessary lest anyone mistake your girl for a (gasp) boy. A new product on the market makes clear how ridiculous this is: headbands with fake hair for baby girls not yet in possession of much. The advertising hook is about ensuring no one mistakes your girl’s gender.
It’s frighteningly easy to make little girls pretty. And it’s so easy to indulge in their interests—and even to fuel them—in prettiness. Not only is it easy to comment upon appearance, from aren’t you cute right on out to love your dress, barrettes, jewelry or shoes; it’s hard not to comment. Watch yourself if you are amongst little girls for a day: is much of what you’re remarking upon about appearance? Or actions?
It’s so easy to slide—I did, recently, through a particular bathing suit in the hand-me-down pile from a palette of pinkness to Disney Princesses (which I’d sworn not to let into my house). Without meaning to I’d slipped from cute non-commercialized clothing to commercialization-in-clothing. Is it possibly just as easy to slide from commercialization to… the push-up bathing suit top? Well, not so fast.
Here’s the thing: a reasonable rule of everyday childhood clothing might be its sturdiness so that the work of childhood—to play—can occur easily.
Once you put that principle on the backseat, you may fall prey to thinking that how a child looks—to your fashion sensibility—is more important than how that child gets to act. This rigid stratification of ‘boy’ clothing and ‘girl’ clothing could interfere with a freer notion of childhood itself. Isn’t it a surprisingly small step to start seeing clothes as multi-generational and from there lifting up any “rules” about kids’ and grown-ups’ requirements from clothing being quite different?
I think kids and adults often have different requirements of their clothing. I think the playfulness that lets little girls and boys experiment with dressing like fairies or princesses changes when costumes become clothing and when the aspirations of girls become emulating bigger girls—teens, ones with television shows and such—and those bigger girls are emulating sexy. I think it’s different when Disney markets—very successfully—a line of their own princesses’ gowns as wedding dresses (yes, for adults).
In all this focus upon appearance, we seem to forget that clothing doesn’t have to be fashion-forward to be wonderful. It can be… something to wear. And the burdens of flaunting an adult version of attractiveness can be lifted right off the kids’ backs. You might have to suggest to Suri Cruise high heels aren’t great playground wear, though.
Parents, far as I can tell by and large don’t mean to encourage their daughters’ slutty ways any more than they want their boys to be miniature tough men. Often they are—we all are—hostage to a consumer culture that places too big an emphasis on consuming… what’s new, what’s fashionable, what’s hip—and in so doing ignores some really important aspects of many things including good old unsexy childhood.