Written by Justine Brooks

Voices

More unisex kids’ clothes, please

Pink, pink and more pink. High heels for babies. Slogans that make you want to gouge your eyes out with a spoon. Justine Brooks gives the silly frills of girls’ clothes a dressing down.

clothes at a flea market
This week something I found really disturbing came up on my newsfeed. It was an advert for baby high heels. Little tiny soft satin shoes with high heels. They reminded me somehow of the tiny little shoes worn by Chinese women with bound and mutilated feet.

Wondering if I’d had a sense of humour failure, I checked the comments. No. There were scores of outraged people ranting about the hyper-sexualisation of girls and how wrong these little shoes are.

Unfortunately, this is just one more symptom of the way little girls get dressed up and made up as little women (albeit I’ve never seen something aimed at SUCH young girls). It’s a habit that we’re stuck in, and one which is reinforced by most children’s clothing retailers. And surely these ridiculous booties are just more of the same.

Just before my daughter was born I found a stash of baby clothes in a local charity shop. Some of them were new and still had labels on, some barely worn. My love of foraging and vintage was instantly transferred to my unborn child, whether she liked it or not.

A couple of the babygrows were blue and there was also a blue snuggly thing that she could wear in the pram. “What’s his name?” people would ask. I’d explain she was a girl and there’d be a sense of confusion, even outrage – as if they were thinking, “Why on earth would you dress your baby girl in blue and confuse us all like that?”

Was I ruining my daughter’s life? Was I supposed to make her wear gender specific clothing? I persisted – marine stripes, a Dalek T-shirt (pre-dating her obsession with Doctor Who), primary colours, boys’ and girls’ clothes mixed up.

“Children need loose, soft, comfortable clothes that don’t restrict them in any way. In which case, why on earth can we barely find anything other than skinny jeans in the girls’ section of kids’ clothes?”

And then something happened. She decided all by herself that what she wanted to wear involved the following: pink, lilac, frills, silk, satin, lace, chiffon, voile. Ahh. Her own personal style (or perhaps it was an early rebellion) evolved and my guilt dissolved.

OK, so some of us women might be predisposed to a bit of embroidery and embellishment and my daughter aged five fell firmly into that department. However, I’m not convinced that it’s all nature. There are other forces at work.

I absolutely resent the way purveyors of children’s clothes persist in polarising garments into masculine and feminine. And my blood boils as they dress little girls up as mini-me fashionistas: this season a load of ‘cold shoulder’ style tops available everywhere for five-year-olds. No! Five year-old girls do not need ‘cold shoulder’ tops – they need a sturdy T-shirt and some loose comfy jeans!

Had my daughter continued on the unisex route I first set her on, she would have found it mighty hard to find anything to wear; she’s not sporty so sportswear is out. Interestingly, now she’s a teenager, her own style has morphed into something quite original, something which does give more than a nod to those early unisex styles. (Urban Outfitters features prominently and she’s always looking for the perfect pair of dungarees.)

Back to shoes. I’m often disappointed at school drop-off to see girls shuffling along in little ballerina flats that flick off their heels and offer no protection against weather or pavements or anything for that matter – they may as well not really bother.

I can guarantee a volley of Facebook posts around mid-August each year lamenting the lack of sturdy school shoes available for girls. For a shoe that is sturdy and not cringeworthy you’re basically left with a choice of DMs and… DMs. And at £100 a pair you probably end up buying them several sizes too big just to accommodate the inevitable growth spurts. (Yes I did.)

Children’s clothes have become fashion items, part of the consumerist culture of catwalk to high street, changing every season to reflect what’s in vogue. Although this isn’t a recent thing – anyone who grew up in the 70s will remember their mums dressing them in flares. In my case purple flares. With a matching waistcoat.

“‘What’s his name?’ people would ask. I’d explain she was a girl and there’d be a sense of confusion, even outrage – as if they were thinking, ‘Why on earth would you dress your baby girl in blue and confuse us all like that?'”

Some say the current fashions for children represent a backlash against the oceans of corduroy worn in the 70s and 80s in the days before Lycra, and yet we’ve surely gone too far. So much of what’s available for little girls now is skin-tight.

Why (oh why) are little girls wearing crop tops emblazoned with ‘kiss me quick’ messages, body conscious outfits, high heels? This sort of thing is not cute and it’s not harmless. It affects how boys and men treat girls and young women, portraying them as sexual objects rather than children.

Children need loose, soft, comfortable clothes that don’t restrict them in any way. In which case, why on earth can we barely find anything other than skinny jeans in the girls’ section of kids’ clothes?

A look at Tesco’s F&F Kids section on their website shows 103 items for girls, 82 for boys and just three unisex. There are some that slip through the net – here and there in Boden or for older kids in Zara’s Ungendered range – but reality shows that for every pair of ‘unskinny’ jeans on sale, there are 10 pairs of skinny jeans. And shorts? There aren’t any anymore. Only hotpants.

The whole issue of the sexualisation of children is complex and I admit I can’t do it justice in this mini-rant. You have to ask, why do kids want to wear these clothes? Let’s look in the mirror, or out of the car window on the school run. Mums in skinny jeans, skinny tops, high heels. On TV, women wearing figure-hugging clothes.

Children look to adults and adults are wearing body-con dresses with high heels. We can’t dress in a certain way and then bemoan our children wanting to do the same.

I’m not saying that we all have to slouch around in a tee and 501s. But perhaps when women can feel comfortable wearing clothes that are actually, y’know, comfortable, rather than ‘pretty’, ‘sexy’, ‘stylish’, ‘fashionable’, and shoes that we can run in if the mood (or need) takes us, then our daughters will be happy with that too.

@JustineFBrooks

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Written by Justine Brooks

Justine lives in beautiful north Leeds with her 12-year-old daughter and a lurcher called Lionel. She runs a PR and marketing agency and is writing a novel.