After the issue of gender neutral clothing was taken up by a twelve-year-old, I’m wondering if we should just let that generation solve it.
Holland has a new television star. Her name is Julia, she is 12 years old and half the country applauds her while the other half thinks she is crazy. This is because Julia has managed to do something that most adults would love to put on their CV: change the world of economics and the content of her favourite store. That store is called the Hema, a very Dutch mix of Target and David Jones, and with 700 large branches, one of the biggest retail chains in the country. Two years ago Julia sent them a letter that she also posted on Facebook. In it, she asked the Hema to have a serious look at the way it presented children’s clothing. She was fed up, she wrote, that the only undies she could buy as a girl were pink, with either little hearts or cutesy puppies on them. She wasn’t that kind of girl, she added. Why not give tomboys her some more appropriate things to buy? And come to think of it: why make distinctions between boys’ and girls’ clothing at all? Why not let children make their own choices instead of pigeonholing them into pink and blue?
Last week, the Hema told Julia and the rest of the Netherlands that it would be doing just that. From early next year, gender distinctions will disappear from its stores. Instead of separate boys’ and girls’ departments, there will only be one: kids. There, boys will be able to buy skirts and dresses; and girls, undies and t-shirts that are not printed with flowers, butterflies and kittens. Pink will still be available, but for everybody, following what Purchasing Director Trevor Perren called a “growing demand” from customers. Of course, there was a backlash, with people getting themselves in Abbottesque rages about political correctness gone mad. For Julia, it was far more simple. She thanked the Hema for being ‘brave’ and treating her like a proper human being.
The Hema is the second retail chain in Europe to restyle its children’s departments in a gender-neutral way. John Lewis, one of the bigger players in the UK, did so earlier this month. It also introduced a unisex clothing line for children, saying that it did not want to “reinforce gender stereotypes” any longer. Both initiatives came after growing dissatisfaction with the messages that are being conveyed to boys and girls through the clothing that is available for sale. In the UK, for instance, there was a scandal not that long ago about a National Trust property where the gift shop was selling pink hats for girls with the text “Future footballer’s wife” on them. Then, of course, there is the H&M collection. Boys can buy t-shirts with a rocket and the text “Mars mission”. It even has technical particulars about the planet, like what its moons are called and how long a day lasts. Girls, obviously, can never aspire to become scientists, so their t-shirts are marked “You are lovely”. In Holland too, shops are full of messages that sound like they have come from the 1950s. Boys get to “travel and never stop exploring”, or are taught that “fear is a reaction, courage a decision”. The best clothing manufacturers can do for girls is to advise to “never stop smiling” and tell them that “it is cool to be kind”. GAP sees them as “social butterflies” while boys can become “little scientists”. The Hema itself told boys until recently they were rock stars, while girls were, of course, princesses.
Birth rates were falling and clothing manufacturers were looking for a way to keep selling. By maximizing the differences between boys and girls, a lot of clothes could no longer be handed down from brother to sister, thus necessitating parents to buy more.
To us, it might seem that gender differences have always been around, especially where children’s clothing is concerned. Not so, writes Jo Paoletti, the author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America. Paoletti has spent nearly 40 years researching and writing about gender differences in American fashion and concludes that the pink/blue phenomenon is only a few decades old. Before the end of the 1950s, there was no specific children’s clothing. During the 1960s and ’70s unisex was in, inspired by feminism. It was only in the early 1980s that stores introduced gender specific clothes en masse. The main reason for that was economic, not ideological at all. Birth rates were falling at the time and clothing manufacturers were looking for a way to keep selling. By maximizing the differences between boys and girls, a lot of clothes could no longer be handed down from brother to sister, thus necessitating parents to buy more.
Retail chains are not usually, of course, trendsetters. They are in the business of making money, so the smartest of them listen very carefully to their customers and follow their needs and wants. The Hema and John Lewis are no exceptions. The real leaders in this field have been educators, like Jamie Barry, headteacher at Parson Street Primary school in Bristol. A few months ago, he introduced gender-neutral school uniforms, because it “made basic common sense. Why would we define our children by the clothes they wear?” Barry now allows girls to wear trousers and boys to wear skirts and dresses. Boys have so far declined is beside the point, he thinks, because it was first of all “about creating a culture of acceptance. Children should grow up seeing and experiencing equality, before any stigmas are created.” Barry is not the only one, by the way.
Davendish Road primary in Didsbury also stopped “pigeonholing” its children, as did secondary school The Priory in Lewes. Here, headteacher Tony Smith said it addressed “the current issues of inequality”. Of course, clothes are only small fry in the world of gender differences and stereotypes. But they are very visible, and, as we know, words and images are powerful in making us think a certain way. So people like Jamie Barry and Tony Smith are important in giving both boys and girls more options in life. But my personal hero is quiet, understated, courageous Julia.
With girls like that, our future (m/f) looks bright.