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Boys’ clothes are not fun and there are none of them.
Every now and then I get in the mood to buy my sons (2 and 5) some fresh duds. I’m not overly concerned with having stylish children, but like most moms, I think my children are cute and special, and I want their clothes to reflect that. Unfortunately, the lack of options sucks all the joy out of the shopping experience.
I flip through the Boden catalogs that come to my house about 10 times a week. Compared to twice as many pages of girls’ clothes, which are decorated with animals, colors, and patterns deemed “girls only,” dropping $35 on a pair of sweatpants (which come in gray or green) doesn’t seem worth the trouble of placing an order. It’s the same at other retailers: A quick look on the Nordstrom website lists 932 boys’ items for sale in sizes 2T-7, compared to 1,522 girls’ items in the same size. Old Navy has half as many pages of toddler boy clothes as for toddler girls.
One can conceivably understand why gender norms would dictate a certain division of style, but what explains the discrepancy of inventory? How come if I had daughters, I would have a larger clothing selection from which to choose? And why is shopping for girls’ clothes considered such a treat while boys’ clothes is a utilitarian experience? I want options beyond the predictable solids and stripes, the sharks and the dinos and the superheroes. After all, it’s me, not my sons, doing the shopping.
We’ve all seen old photos of children from the era when boys and girls alike sported curls and dresses — at what point did we start deciding that children had to dress differently? Jo Paoletti, author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America, studies the history of gendering children’s clothing. The establishment of the no-frills boy ideal occurred around the same time pink and blue found their current gendered strongholds — when early 20th century scholars like G. Stanley Hall, who pioneered the field of child psychology, began positing theories like that boys would become inclined toward homosexuality if they identified too much with their mothers and not enough with their fathers. Hence it was advised that mothers of baby boys dispense with ribbons and bows post-haste. “In the early 1920s, it was fairly common to have embroidery and flowers and ruffles on boys’ clothes, but by the 1940s that was considered pretty much feminine,” Paoletti told me.
Fast forward to the 1980s, when the ultrasound took off. Previously, most newborn clothes came in gender-neutral colors, but once it became possible for parents to know whether they were having a little boy or a little girl, you could buy clothes — and pacifiers, bottles, and room décor — in pink or blue, getting the separation of boy versus girl off at an even earlier age.
Then in 1984, the Reagan administration dismantled protections against marketing to children. Sociologist Elizabeth Sweet told National Geographic in January, “Toys and children’s entertainment became heavily intertwined, and manufacturers developed shows based on toys — like My Little Pony and Transformers — that followed niche-marketing wisdom by appealing to just one gender.” Those of us who grew up in the ’80s may recall simpler days when everybody basically wore the same Mickey Mouse shirt. Nowadays, Mickey lives in the boys’ department and Minnie lives in the girls’, imbuing an otherwise meaningless errand to buy undies with cultural weight.
The difference in marketing is part of the reason why European children’s brands, like DUNS or Mini Rodini, seem to be more successful at avoiding the boy and girl style binary we see in the States. Not only are there stricter regulations on how children get advertised to in Europe, you also see more women in political power and better benefits for working moms. “Anywhere you see countries that have a greater focus toward gender equality, they tend to be much more aware of how those stereotypes and early influences can impact kids,” says Amandine Liepmann, owner of the “gender equal” clothing line Mitz Accessories, which has a lot of overseas fans.
There is a push in the States to start removing gender labels from children’s items that don’t need them, but when it comes to clothes, the “gender-neutral” effort often means blah colors and blah designs. However, a selection of clothes that don't scream “boy” or “girl” are increasingly important to parents who don't care to adhere to prescribed gender norms, especially parents of children who may be trans or non-conforming.
Companies like Mitz Accessories are addressing this with cheerful patterns that shoot for a true blend of “boy” and “girl,” so a typical pattern will be bright yellow construction trucks against a purple background. However, Liepmann does notice a certain resistance to putting boys in traditionally “girly” colors. “We get a lot of homophobic comments [on our website], much more so than with any other girl posts,” she says. She notes that it’s more acceptable to introduce a girl to something traditionally masculine, but “when you do the opposite: a boy can like the color pink or cats — boys love cats! — it seems like their heads explode.” In a survey of her Kickstarter customers, Liepmann learned that the two biggest deterrents keeping parents from buying pink clothes for their sons were fear of disapproving dads and fear of mean kids. It’s understandable — we want to protect our children, even if the thing we’re protecting them from is dumb. One day my son wanted to wear a pair of tights to school, but was worried about being made fun of. A girl can be a tomboy without the same stigma of a boy appearing girlish.
“You’re perceived as weak if you’re wearing something feminine,” says Liepmann. “The mentality, somewhere deep in the psyche, is that the best thing you can be is a boy.” The funny thing is that men’s clothing is often more fanciful than boys’ — it’s much easier to find a pink dress shirt or a charming floral necktie for men than for boys. Paoletti traces this back still to our latent American panic over feminized boys. It’s only when boys become men that they can sport showier clothes, with the inherent message of “‘I’m so secure in my masculinity I can wear this,’” she says. “The meaning of it changes on the adult.”
Once the premise has been established that boys like — or ought to like — utilitarian pieces meant for adventure and getting dirty, it’s clear why there is such a bigger selection of girls’ clothes: the mighty accessory. Lale Ketcham, who runs the Chicago boutique Windy City Bebe, points out that with girls’ clothes, you can buy the dress as well as the tights, sweater, and headband that go with it. “Unless it’s, like, Ralph Lauren that has the belt and the sweater and the polo, most boys’ clothing is separates,” she says. “That’s the pant that goes with all the tops in the collection.”
Besides Mitz Accessories, there are actually plenty of retailers that sell boys’ clothes that move out of the camouflage short and Captain America T-shirt lockstep. “The number of requests for little boys’ clothes coming in have surprised me,” says Anica John, CEO of the SMS-based kid clothier Kid Things. “I knew that I needed to get some brands that do boys’ clothes really well so it would be fun to shop for them.” She cites brands like Appaman and Andy + Evan as ones that carry more imaginative boys’ looks.
Marie Tillman, who runs the online clothier Mac + Mia, says her client base is about 60/40 girls to boys. Like Ketcham, she sees a bigger market for girls’ accessories, but says that boys are catching up. “We found some great smaller vendors for boys that make braided leather bracelets and sunglasses and cool hats, a ton of opportunity for boys outside just your standard socks and belts and things like that.”
Online platforms like Tillman’s and John’s might have a leg up on selling gender-neutral clothes. Ketcham, who runs a brick-and-mortar store, sometimes sees her customers react quizzically to clothes like neon-colored hiking boots or a peach sweatshirt with navy Jackson Pollock paint drops that don’t read immediately as “boy” or “girl.” However, when a stylist is doing the choosing, parents don’t even necessarily know they’re getting gender-neutral clothes, says Tillman. “Our stylist may pull [something] from the boys and send it to a girl, or vice versa.”
In the name of research, I nobly ordered (and paid for) a box from Mac + Mia for my two-year-old son, a little worried that he would get clothing that was a little over-the-top and hip for my taste. To my surprise and delight, I loved everything I received (but sent back a cute belt, because life is too short to be spent putting a belt on a two-year-old.) My favorite piece was a pair of Rose Pistol fire engine red shorts with yellow buttons on the back pockets. These are subtle details, but I loved that they were red but not Nantucket Red (I have an aversion to that color) and, unlike 99.9 percent of boys’ shorts, weren’t cargo or drawstring. I promptly ordered another box for my five-year-old and we kept everything, including what we refer to as his “cool guy” hat from Huxley (accessories!) Contrary to the stereotype that boys don’t care about clothes, the big kid admired himself with a proud smile in the mirror and struck some power poses for the camera.
Real talk, I spent most of the paycheck I was to receive for this piece on the boys’ clothes. And most parents don’t have the time and money to go chase down the most fashion-forward, gender-challenging boys’ clothes. The issue of gender norms in kids’ clothing may not exactly be a burning one for all American families, especially those in more conservative areas: All the indie retailers I spoke with cited a strong customer base of younger moms in urban outlets who parent in a social media-oriented world.
On top of that, many of us are subservient to the styles bequeathed to us by gifts or hand-me-downs, not to mention children’s terribly inconvenient nascent tastes of their own. “I wish I could have light-up shoes,” my son sometimes complains, and I agree that it stinks and wonder when he’ll catch on that the only thing preventing him from getting them is me.
Make no mistake: Crossing gender lines can still be outright dangerous in today’s world. However, there is evidence that slowly, the old belief of “feminine equals weak” may be abating. “The conventional wisdom is going to fall apart,” says Paoletti. “‘Guys won’t go see action movies if they have female characters.’ Actually, they do.” However, she warns, “in the same way white supremacy still exists, gender bias still exists.” But she’s heartened by the changes she’s seen in the 10 years since she began working on Pink and Blue. “You can find clothes for girls that have dinosaurs and space motifs on them, which you couldn’t find 10 years ago.”
Tillman has seen knockoffs of the brands she carries in large stores and thinks it’s a sign that larger retailers are willing to be more imaginative. “I think they’re taking inspiration from smaller brands,” she says, so perhaps there will be a gradual trickle-down effect of boutique style. Liepmann is also encouraged by the trends she sees as more millennials — who seem to be more chill about a boy wearing a cat shirt — become parents. Plus, something even cooler she’s noticed is the growing number of dad shoppers who come to Mitz. “Typically it’s a dad whose son loves the color purple and will say ‘Ooh, I can buy you a purple shirt.’ That’s fantastic.”