Kids' clothing stores need to ditch tacky gendered T-shirts: Teitel
U.K. department store John Lewis announced plans to ditch gendered labels on its children’s clothing, but the majority of that clothing is tacky regardless.
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I can’t walk by a department store without looking for a piece of clothing for my one-year-old niece who I love more than anything in the world. The only downside to this compulsion is that I have to sift through the kids’ clothing section, an experience I don’t love, an experience not unlike walking the Vegas strip because you aren’t likely to see any colours that exist in nature.
First, there’s the girls’ section: the dresses and jumpsuits appear to have been vomited on by all four Teletubbies, and no matter how hard you try, you cannot escape the endless selection of graphic T-shirts that declare obvious truths such as “Fall is here!” and “I love my Mommy!”
And then there’s the boys’ section, one I always assume might be a little more dignified than the girls’, but is also filled with cringeworthy T-shirts and onesies. A few of my least favourites that seem to turn up everywhere I shop: “Milk addict” and “Mama’s little Farter.” If you were an alien sent to Earth to study human infants, you might conclude, based entirely on the outfits their parents put them in, that female children are happy dolts defined by an eagerness to please and male children are flatulent creeps. (The latter may be true about a lot of people, but must our children lead with this information?)
All this is to say, when news broke this week that major U.K. department store John Lewis announced plans to ditch gendered labels on its children’s clothing, and adopt instead the unisex label “Boys and Girls” for its kids aisle, my reaction wasn’t one of feminist approval (smash that gender binary!) nor abject conservative horror (preserve the status quo!) but rather, indifference. It’s well and good that a major retailer has eliminated gendered labels on clothing, thus liberating scores of prepubescent lesbians from having to beg their mums to “please let me look in the boys’ section now” (not to mention scores of effeminate boys who can at long last browse dresses and trousers at the same time). But I have to ask: what great use is the elimination of gendered labels in a clothing aisle if the clothes themselves aren’t subject to change?
If such a trend catches on in North America, and Winners, for example, ditches the gender binary in the kids’ aisle, I’ll still be sifting through embarrassing and demeaning graphic tees. The only difference will be that both the boys and girls selections will be hung together on the same rack or folded on the same shelf. This might make it harder for parents to find what exactly they are looking for, but it isn’t likely to change what they purchase and for whom they purchase it. In other words, even in a genderless clothing aisle, parents are still likely to buy pink graphic T-shirts that reference the weather (“Spring has sprung!”) for their baby girls, and blue graphic tees that reference lactation (“Milk Junkie”) for their baby boys. They’re still going to put little Heather in the bright pink pullover that says “Smiles Change the World” and little Max in an army green T-shirt that says “Weekend Warrior”.
So, while it may be admirable to advocate for the erosion of gender labels in kids’ clothing stores, I believe that doing so is ultimately meaningless if we don’t also demand that retailers cool it on the tacky gendered graphic tees and offer up instead some more ordinary clothing. Plain old jeans, sweatpants, T-shirts, and overalls with no subliminal messaging or catchphrases — kids' items that for some reason appear to be easily available at higher-end stores but are in short supply at affordable department stores.
Maybe there’s a way to move into a gender-barrier-free future by unearthing looks from fashion’s past. In the 1950s, for example, babies didn’t wear onesies that said “Daddy’s little Girl.” They wore onesies that said nothing. History wasn’t kind to those who cross-dressed, but people, generally speaking, dressed well. Progress is a good thing, but it would be nice if in the process of shedding the rigid gender norms associated with fashion’s past, we could revive some of its class.