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A decade ago, I was a fashion-loving 20-something expecting my first child, a daughter. In all the uncertainty and nervousness I felt about parenthood, the one thing I felt totally prepared for was outfitting that baby. Shopping for kids is fun — those cute, teeny-sized clothes. Of course, if it had been that simple, this wouldn't be a story, would it?
Where my aesthetic leaned more punk, I was met with frilly, princessy everything; an extremely gendered style selection starting from a baby's first days. It wasn't until my eldest turned one that I experienced the retail joy I had hungered for, on a shopping trip to babyGap. There was a toddler range emblazoned with images of an adorable bulldog wearing a fedora, who happened to look just like my other baby, a bulldog puppy. The color palette of muted gray and navy was cool and understated, and I bought everything I could afford — pieces that have since been adored by all four of my girls throughout the past decade.
The catch? It was all from the "boys'" section.
At a time when fashion (and everything else) is making strides toward inclusivity, acceptance, and a richness of expression to match the many ways humans express their identities, this progress is rare to find in the kids' section. And that's just silly.
Queer-owned, size-inclusive brands are collaborating with major retailers to expand the meaning of inclusive and accessible fashion — including making products specifically for non-binary and gender-nonconforming people. Meanwhile, the pandemic has seen us all get a bit more experimental with our style: We've been witches, prairie-dwellers and dyed our hair pink, blue and everything in between — and that was just to hang out at home. Vogue put a man in a gown on its cover! Yet kids' clothes look much the same as they did when I first went shopping for them a decade ago.
It's easy to brush off my frustrations. These are just clothes, after all, and as a society, we love to deride fashion as frivolous and superficial. (The number of times some readers have told this very publication to 'stop getting so political' when we dare wade into the style and substance of people in power is borderline ridiculous.) But kids' clothing is about more than just garments: Clothes are instrumental in helping children form their identities and express themselves. Consider the popularity and power of playing dress-up, which not only encourages creativity and communication, but can improve productivity and perseverance — one study dubbed this phenomenon "the Batman effect." There's financial significance, too: A new report forecasts the global childrenswear market will reach $325.9 billion by the year 2027. All that money, and kids are still being made to choose pink or blue? Batman or Elsa? Come on.
Research into the consequences of living in a system that equates femininity with skirts or masculinity with a specific color makes for grim reading. According to Emily Kane, PhD, the chair of the department of sociology at Bates College and author of The Gender Trap: Parents and the Pitfalls of Raising Boys and Girls, kids typically start to understand gender categories and identity by age 2 or 3 as a way of making sense of the world around them. Interestingly, it's often through outside influences, like a stranger's critical comment about a child not conforming to a gender stereotype, which will shape a child's understanding of gender expectations.
Kane's book came out nearly a decade ago, but she sees many of the same issues still at play, although she acknowledges the increasing recognition of trans childhoods as the biggest change from then to now — another key reason that dividing kids' clothing into "boys" and "girls" sections is problematic.
"In a way, [children] never get a chance to find out what interests or tendencies they might have if we start color-coding, sorting, and categorizing them before they even have any chance to tell us anything themselves," Kane says. Her research (and other social science studies) points to everything from occupational segregation to wage gaps down the line as issues that are inadvertently reinforced by concepts like hyper-gendered clothing and toys. It's not too far-reaching to see how T-shirts branding girls as "Cute" and boys as "Boss" show the different values we place on women and men in our society.
Gendering kids' clothing from such a young age, and so dramatically, can have other negative ramifications: a December 2020 report from the Commission on Gender Stereotypes in Early Childhood, from the Fawcett Society, warns that projecting gender expectations on our children can lead to mental health issues, relating back to lower self-esteem in girls through to higher suicide rates in young men.
"Clothes are things and things do not have gender," says Lindz Amer, creator and founder of Queer Kid Stuff, an LGBTQ+ and social justice media platform and community. "We project human gender onto garments and it gate-keeps certain forms of expression by telling people, kids especially, that masculine clothes are made for boys and feminine clothes are made for girls, when the human experience of gender and expression is so much more complex than that. It's not just unproductive and unnecessary, it's actively harmful," they add.
While we're still busy obsessing over getting the kids to dress (and adhere) to rather rigid gender binaries, adults are increasingly starting to seek out gender-free clothing options. According to data from inclusive, gender-free brand The Phluid Project, 86% of Gen Z people shop across gender lines. Younger millennial parents are also open to shopping across the aisle, so to speak, with 24% of those aged 23-30 saying they are supportive of gender-neutral kids' clothing.
For parents of young kids, Amer has advice on navigating the "rules" around who wears what — and rule number one is continuing your own education around gender and clothing. "Kids like to parrot labels like 'this is for girls' and 'this is for boys' because their brains crave structure," they tell InStyle. "So help them by giving them a new structure to work with. Just don't be scared or intimidated by these conversations. Be open to learning alongside your kids." Luckily, this learning can happen while shopping: Change is coming.
Lilija Bairamova, founder of DTC Berlin-based Orbasics, an organic kids' clothing label that combines sustainability with gender-neutral basics, started her brand nearly four years ago when she couldn't find ethical and affordable gender-neutral options for her daughter. She felt it made no sense to differentiate between genders in kidswear because "the body shape is the same," for girls and boys. Clothes on the Orbasics website are categorized, simply, as "kids."
And while individual brands may be leading this change, some mass retailers aren't far behind. Nordstrom is one of few to filter baby and kids' clothing searches by gender neutral options. Target is another example of a retailer committed to inclusivity with a gender-neutral search option, where you can also find slogan tees like "My Mom is My Hero!" marketed to boys and girls. It's also been flagged as a retailer that regularly amplifies LGBTQ+ voices and causes.
"Every retailer and brand is exploring this space with a full understanding that this is part of the future, especially if you are interested in capturing young consumers and young parents' share of spend. The ones that win will be the ones that enter the space first and do it with thought, integrity and intention. Those that jump into it as a trend will lose credibility quickly," says Rob Garrett Smith, CEO and founder of The Phluid Project, which has collaborated with Target, Nordstrom and Sephora on de-gendered products, and whose items can be found in 5,000 stores across the country.
If inclusivity is a core motivator for younger consumers, sustainability is the other driving force (nine in 10 Gen Z consumers feel brands should be responsible for addressing environmental issues, according to McKinsey). It's a key reason Bairamova feels gender-neutral clothing is here to stay: "Gender-neutral shapes and colors make it a lot easier to share or pass down clothes," she notes. (Though if you believe any person can wear any color, that makes it even easier.)
While the versatility of gender-neutral fashion is one of its virtues, ironically, a lot of it feels too "neutral." While brands like The Phluid Project and Kirrin Finch challenge gender norms without compromising on style or sacrificing print and color, in childrenswear it can still feel like an either/or premise. H&M's gender-neutral baby collection, with its palette of oatmeal, beige and gray, seems to confirm the point.
"Modern-minded parents need to search very hard for fun, gender non-specific clothing, often finding brands from the Netherlands or Denmark and paying a premium. Currently, if you search 'gender-neutral' in kids, you'll find basics in gray, beige and white. It's super washed-out and boring," Garrett Smith says.
The larger issue to overcome in gender-neutral kids' clothing is often the parents themselves.
"Parents' own beliefs and fears are definitely part of the story of how this all gets reproduced over and over again, generation after generation," Kane explains, referencing those everyday judgments and fears that make parents believe gendering kids' behaviors is a way of protecting them, rather than limiting them.
"Clothes are just the tip of the iceberg here," Amer agrees. "If we don't open ourselves up to these possibilities, parents and caregivers restrict their children from discovering their full potential in their gender identity and expression. I won't downplay it, this is a lot of work for parents to undo their understanding of gender in this way."
Nordstrom is trying to change that with its latest BP. Be Proud collection, helmed by a queer designer, Shawn Serven, with a selection of LGBTQ+ community members acting as apparel consultants. It's geared to teens and older, designed for ages 14-22, with inclusive sizing and eye-catching colors, priced between $25-$59 (the new range drops June 14).
"We created the collection after hearing from our customers that there wasn't a strong assortment of fashion that was gender-inclusive and accessibly priced," a Nordstrom representative says. In the little-kids zone, Israeli-based kids' brand NUNUNU was an early-entry to this niche when it launched in 2008. It has since collaborated brands like FILA and even Celine Dion, and grown its size range up to include adults because its ungendered styles were so popular.
And then comes the final frontier of meaningful change: legislation. Rob Garrett Smith, of Phluid Project, co-authored a bill in California which seeks to ban department stores from categorizing kids' clothing and toys in separate "boy" and "girl" sections. It was introduced in February 2021; if signed into law, it will go into effect in 2024. The idea originated with a 9-year-old feminist named Britten Sires, who's been fighting to break down gender stereotypes in California ever since she says she felt awkward about wanting to get clothes and toys from the "boys'" section.
What's really "awkward" is an adult world where we can understand a diversity of pronouns, and fawn over a man in a gown on a fashion magazine, but we still have to select pink or blue for the little newborn baby hats in the hospital, or first-day-of-kindergarten outfits. Kids are creative. Expressive. And more open and understanding than adults in a lot of ways. Isn't it about time we let them dress like it?
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