Children’s clothes – is it time to go non-gender specific?

Just before Christmas giant retailer Marks and Spencer announced that its toys from now on would be gender neutral. As the company stated on Twitter,  following a campaign by Labour MP Stella Creasy – “Hi Stella, we’ve listened to customer feedback and by spring next year all of our toys will be gender neutral. Thanks.”  The branding has changed and it is now possible to buy a girl’s item for a boy or vice versa without it actually being labelled, but my hunch is that as most small children can’t read the labels this is more aimed at parents. The girly toys will still be bought for girls and the cars, trains, fire truck items will still be bought by boys. The “Tiara slides” or “Emily Button cross stitch set” don’t really need the word “girl” on them, do they?

Girls toys from M&S
Emily Button stitching set

But what about the clothes? Look at the M&S website (or any large apparel company) and you will see the merchendise is immediately divided into men and women’s wear, and boys and girls. Why? I personally feel that babies would look nicer in non-gender specific clothes. The colour coding of little babies strikes me as not just silly but also not very stylish. Everyone wants to know the sex of your baby – even the in-utero kid has its testicles identified – but is it really essential for babies to be dressed in blue or pink? And then, at around three months the boys go into dungarees or tiny jeans, and the girls get dresses.


Or maybe jeans with pink ponies on them? This is not a post against girls wearing dresses, (or boys either, as it happens). What I am really saying is that there is no need for this to be taken to extremes. It would be nice to have a wide selection of clothes for the under twos (and maybe up to the teenage years) which would be just as suitable for either sex. I am sad that little boys are pushed into navy, dark green and grey when they look adorable in purple, pink and turquoise. I am irritated that little girl’s trousers are not simple and plain but covered is sickly logos. Why can’t the T-shirts and jumpers just be in a range of nice colours without a truck or little Kitty on the front?

The reasons why I object are

  • Colour coded children are treated as a specific sex – oh isn’t she pretty? He’s big, isn’t he? (first few months)
  • most children’s items are only in two colours (pink or blue)
  • comfort in wear is sacrificed so the child looks cute (this goes for structured trousers such as jeans as much as it goes for frilly dresses)
  • children soon learn to react strongly against the “wrong” clothes – (“eeerrrg – those are boys shoes”, etc)
  • it encourages children to seek gender-specific items themselves as opposed to choosing clothes with appropriate functions eg waterproof, warm, clean, comfortable
  • for parents with boys and girls it makes hand-me-downs more difficult and adds to the expense (pink potties for heaven’s sake!)
  • in many cultures men wear full garments that are gendered but include “non-trousers”

As I had a daughter first and ended up with some pink items which  I used on my boys until they were old enough to object (sorry for telling the world about this, George and Gus!). I tried hard to put my children in colourful clothes – searching out anything other than navy or pink in charity shops and jumble sales, and of course making up items in nice fabrics. I also encouraged the children to make their own decisions about clothes and one of my sons, aged around four or five, put on a dress. This item was the sort of dress a boy might choose. It was a grey sweatshirt dress with a Mickey Mouse design, somewhat like an elongated version of the picture below, flared to the knee. I don’t know if he particularly wanted to wear a dress, or if he was attracted to Mickey, or if he wanted to be more like his sister. But he had short hair and wore the dress with typical boys shoes. It looked fine to me, and I “allowed” him to go out in it. We got a fairly strong reaction and I overheard lots of comments like “Is that a boy in a dress?”.

Grey Mickey mouse sweat shirt
Mickey Mouse sweat shirt

If you look around you can find a few items other than boys versus girls clothes. Kit has quite a few sleep suits in coral, purple, turquoise, green and red which would are entirely suitable for either sex. Hurrah! It is neither possible nor desirable to prevent children taking an interest in dolls or trucks, but let’s dress them in what looks beautiful rather than simply labelling them as pink or blue.

Old lady with little baby
Kit in turquoise with Great Grandma

What do you think? Time for a campaign, Stella?

7 Responses

  1. amaryllislog

    I completely agree. Sadly the average or norm would have such issues with gender neutral I think. I love that you let your son decide what he liked even if the public couldn’t understand. We need less sheep and more unique thinkers in this world.

  2. Stephanie

    A very thoughtful article, Kate. Love the pictures of Kit in those colourful sleepers! Friends of mine recently indicated that as they plan to have another soon could we give gender-neutral clothes that could be used for the second if it’s a boy (their first is a girl). I thought this was great. Interestingly though, they often take their little girl out in blue and white sailor-type outfits and the father gets upset that people assume she’s a boy. I knitted her a yellow sweater, as I thought that might do for both.

  3. J Russell

    Hello! I have a daughter, and a son, and frankly, the second I discovered I was having a boy, I decided to only buy neutral gender colours for my girl, i.e. khaki, blue, red, orange or yellow wellington boots/crocs/clothes, so my son could then wear them too. It just doesn’t make sense to buy the same item twice! As a parent, it only took me weeks to realise that retailers should really only be producing clothes in pumpkin orange. Considering that any ‘outputs’ from babies/children, from whichever end, end up turning clothes orange, it would keep the stain remover person of the family happy, as well as ticking the ‘mutual gender/sharing appropriate’ box. Yay! It’s a double win for parents! But not for retailers…they lose out on the additional sales a sibling of a different gender brings, as well as losing the sale for replacements, when bleach stain removal process inevitably ruins clothes, where a pumpkin orange might simply have saved/disguised the stain in the first place…! Ok, now it makes more sense….orange clothes would ultimately reduce overall sales…they may have been one step ahead of me all along!

  4. Brenda Marks

    I love J Russell’s idea of pumpkin orange clothes. And I agree that the goal of clothing manufacturers is to sell clothes, so it’s in their best interest to reduce the re-use of clothes. This reminds me of books I’ve recently read about the fast fashion industry for women. Apparently this applies to children, too, and that makes sense after even a short consideration.

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