You might have noticed that my son, the model and muse for boy wonder had (until recently) long hair. You might have also noticed that our designs don’t conform to the usual boys fashion offering. So, you can maybe guess that I feel quite strongly about stereotypes in kids fashion and it is just as much of a problem in boys fashion as it is for girls. But what is the problem with it you may ask? Well, plenty I believe!
Although there has been a move by some big brands like John Lewis to move away from gender stereotyping it is still widespread and pervasive in most fashion outlets.
The main problem that frustrates me as a boys mum is the lack of choice which is what inspired me to start the Boy Wonder brand. The amount of clothing that is available in stores in comparison to girls is much smaller and with much less variety. A t-shirt from one shop can often be indistinguishable from another, with a very restricted colour palette and options of designs. This lack of choice stymies imagination and individuality, making boys often look like they are wearing a kind of uniform. It is still rare to see male children exhibit any style or look different to their peers and surely this comes from the lack of choice? The ‘box pleat rebellion‘, where boys from a school in Essex donned skirts as a protest at being forbidden to wear shorts, goes to show that they feel restricted in these choices that are enforced on them.
Colour is such a joyful thing, yet we seem to restrict our offspring to bland, insipid baby pinks and blues. Back in the 19th century pink was actually associated with boys and blue with girls. In fact surveys have found that babies and toddlers, boys and girls are more attracted to primary colours rather than pink. So why shouldn’t we break free from this and reclaim pink for boys without it being seen as a gay thing? As girls get older their range of fashion expands exponentially, whereas for boys it seems to become ever more limited and boring. So, when they are older are boys less interested in fashion because the options are so poor or is just because men aren’t as interested in fashion? I strongly believe that with greater choice more boys would develop their own style and feel comfortable expressing themselves through their clothes. If they were not surrounded by drab merchandised and sports clothing we may see a surge in boy’s fashion that would challenge that of girl’s sector.
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Re-enforcing ideas of what male and female means is very limiting to a young child who could be or do anything. The slogans, and even the trims and fabrics, that are used on children’s clothing can deliver preconceptions about what they should be. An angel slogan for a girl or a monkey for a boy has obvious connotations about how we expect different genders to behave. Many slogans suggest we expect boys to be adventurous, clever and rebellious, while girls should just be pretty. Fluffy fabrics and frills for girls suggest we want them to be cuddly and touchable and not practical and rugged like we expect boys to be. All these subtle signals are picked up by children and tell them how to react with each other too. If these messages are not challenged when they are young then it becomes a greater problem later on when dressing different from others is an invitation to be bullied.
The clothing we choose for our children and that they see on others informs their ideas of their own abilities, what we expect their roles to be in society and what they can achieve. Motifs and graphics such as cars, trucks, monsters and dinosaurs project what we expect boys to be interested in like engineering and science, whereas flowers, cute animals and hearts suggest passive interests and caring roles. Even animals are generally depicted differently with wild animals on boys clothes and friendly pets on girls. By inference boys should be bold and not cry and girls are should be kind. These unconscious messages can affect their self esteem too as our clothes are so strongly associated with our own identities. For young children learning to understand and express emotions this can be very damaging.
Kids shoes are a good example of how restricting gender re-enforcement in clothing can be with girls shoes often being pretty but flimsy and impractical whereas boys shoes have sturdy soles enabling them to climb trees, run and play. Skirts are colder than trousers and limit girls freedom to do cartwheels and handstands (unless they wear shorts under them). Even the pale colours for girls suggest we expect them not to get as dirty as boys. So, in reverse many parents don’t put their boys in lighter, brighter colours for fear of them getting dirty. How much of this is self fulfilling I wonder? If we accepted that any child could get dirty or want to climb trees then we would seek out different choices of clothes when shopping for them.
Every child is different and should be able to express that freely. Celebrities such as David Bowie, David Beckham, Harry Stiles and Jayden Smith have all been known to break with stereotype and express themselves in a non-conformist way yet it is still not mainstream or generally acceptable. As kids become teenagers their clothing often becomes that of their in-group like skaters or sports fans for instance. Girls who are not comfortable wearing skirts and dresses should be happy in themselves and not have to fit into a certain box just as boys should be able to have long hair without being teased.
I know it’s not easy steering away from these conventions, especially when the draw for kids to be like their friends is so strong. So, I adopt a compromise of allowing the occasional piece of (hideous) merchandised clothing while encouraging my son’s love of pink! (and persuading him to wear Boy Wonder pieces too!) Let’s break free from stereotypes in kids fashion! You might also like to read my post on the girl bias and another on embracing kids differences.
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