Anyone who has shopped for children’s clothes lately will know the horrors that await in many high-street stores. For girls, the palette is overwhelming pink and purple, dripping with unicorns and sappy slogans about the need to find one’s inner goddess. For boys, trucks and spaceship motifs are splattered across tops which typically come in blue, green, and dirty brown.
But complaints are not just aesthetic. Shoe shop Clarks was taken to task by one mother, Jem Moonie-Dalton, whose recent (viral) Facebook post complained that boys were offered shoes which were “sturdy, comfortable and weather proof with soles clearly designed with running and climbing in mind”. In contrast, she said: “girls’ shoes have inferior soles, are not fully covered and are not well padded at the ankle.” (Last week, Clark’s announced its 2018 range will be designed with an “entirely unisex approach”.)
No wonder many youngsters (and their parents) are utterly frustrated at the lack of non-stereotypical options. You might think the solution would be to make all clothing sections and changing rooms gender neutral: let children pick and mix their clothes like sweets. But plenty of parents and children find that idea problematic. When John Lewis became the first UK retailer to ditch separate “boys” and “girls” labels from its children’s clothing range earlier this month, some parents threatened to boycott its stores.
Naomi Isted, a stylist and blogger, does not believe merging clothing departments or ranges is the answer. “There should be clear boundaries between [boys’ and girls’] sections,” says the 38 year-old, who lives in Harlow, Essex, with her husband Haydn, a property developer, and their two children, eight-year-old Fleur and Rocco, two-and-a-half. “It is not practical for parents and can be confusing for children,” she explains.
However, Isted can see a place for additional unisex sections – whether online or in store – so that all children can feel represented. “My children are very different personalities and are both very much the stereotypical boy and girl. However, if either one wanted to experiment with clothes from the opposite sex I would 100 per cent encourage them to express themselves.
“There’s no reason why a girl can’t wear black/blue and grey colours – and there’s also no reason why boys can’t wear pink. My son has long blond hair which he sometimes wears in a ponytail or topknot and he is always called a girl – even though he is wearing typically boyish styles. So I don’t think there’s a need to over-analyse things.”
When Isted shops with her daughter, she says they head online for the most part. “It’s easier to sit down and look at clothes together without the distraction of going to shops. We can be very systematic.” Fleur already knows her own mind, Isted says: “When she needs something new like a winter coat, she’s clear on what she wants.”
This experience informs her opinion. “Online shopping would become a nightmare if all boys’ and girls’ ranges were merged. It would take ages to find the products you need.”
Jo Baldwin Trott, a stylist and mother of 12-year-old twin girls, agrees it’s time for stores to be more expansive in their ideas. “I feel high street stores need to develop new ranges offering teenage clothing which can appeal to both genders. My youngest twin is a ‘tomboy’ but gets a lot of grief from her sister when she is browsing the boys’ section. So an area which was attractive and ‘cool’ for both my girls to shop in would solve the problem.”
She points out too that as adults have embraced fashionable, unisex sports-style clothing, and feels it would make sense to offer this type of clothing to children. “Athleisure has become a staple of today’s adult wardrobes, so why not offer clothes that comfortable, stylish and able to be worn by boys and girls of a younger age, too?”
Many retailers would argue they are engaging with the issue already. “It’s important to challenge gender stereotypes,” says Andrew Sharp, CEO of baby and toddler shoe store Bobux. “Who are we to determine which style or colour of shoe should be worn based on a child’s gender?
“We recently changed how we work and nearly every shoe is now in both girl and boy categories. We keep the boy and girl structure because that’s how the majority of our customers like to shop, and while it can sometimes be tricky providing the right separate searches for girls and boys we try our best to provide a diverse range of colours and styles for both.”
But in our collective enthusiasm to make clothes gender neutral, are we in danger of turning all kids’ ranges into – effectively – boys’ ranges? Earlier this month, many parents at the Priory School in Lewes, East Sussex, were left frustrated by a new gender-neutral school uniform which insisted all students wear trousers – meaning girls lost the right to wear skirts. (It generated almost as much press as a recent story about ISCA College in Exeter, where boys wore skirts after being told they couldn’t wear shorts in hot weather.)
This is an issue Jennie Miller, a psychotherapist, thinks we’d be wise not to ignore: “On one hand, gender-neutral clothing is a great idea. Anyone who saw the recent BBC series No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? will have been struck by how all the kids behaved the same until gender-conscious adults intervened and treated or dressed them differently.
“But we have to be careful not to push girls and boys towards the ‘masculine’ ideal of dark coloured clothing with slogans about adventure.”
She adds: “It is OK for children to enjoy pastel colours, be interested in dance and wildlife, and wear messages around being gentle and kind. We need to be mindful that we don’t perpetuate the idea that these children are weaker and less important because of their so-called ‘feminine’ taste.”
It’s also impossible to ignore biology, says Jo Baldwin Trott: “As girls develop into the female body shape, we need to be encouraging teenage girls to be confident, no matter what their size, and help them to embrace this change.
“For clothing to become gender-neutral many items would need to eliminate female hip and waist shapes as well as allowance for chest size. I feel that it would be a backward step.”
Naomi Isted agrees: “Boys and girls have different shapes, just as men and women do. Retailers aren’t merging all men’s and women’s wear – so why merge boys and girls?”