Aside from the age-old “girly” pink versus “boyish” blue dichotomy, the debate surrounding the presentation of children’s clothing has become particularly prevalent of late. There’s the recent announcement that John Lewis are removing gendered labels from their children’s range, and the H&M controversy, in which the clothing brand were criticised for choosing a black child to model their ‘’Coolest Monkey in the Jungle’’ hoodie.
This highlights the inevitable impact caused by slogans featuring upon children’s clothing, particularly when the increasingly contentious aspect of gender is considered. Just a quick scan of the options available on the popular market reveals key disparities in tone through the messages displayed in the boys’ section, and in those of the girls’.
Though unisex options are on offer in most high street shops, the gendered sections contain a far wider and more versatile selection of clothing. Focussing specifically on the t-shirt category, examining the slogans on boys’ and girls’ tops made for interesting reading.
Beginning with H&M, within the “4 months – 4 years” category, the text on girls’ t-shirts include nature-oriented themes: “I love rainbows”, “Bee amazing today”, and empowering messages such as “We are the future”. Similarly positive themes could be found in the boys’ section, with “I choose today” and “I will change the world!”, however a more active register was evoked in slogans such as “Chase your dreams”, as opposed to the more passive “Dreams do come true” within the girls’. In addition, where a simple “The Rolling Stones” band t-shirt complete with the logo is available for boys, the logo, paired with “I’m with the band” (my emphasis), is allocated to the girls; though this is not exactly divisive, it is not sending an equal message to all children, adhering to the harmful stereotyping of active, motivated boys and passive, submissive girls.
In the Debenhams range, boys had more dynamic, direct phrases such as “Sprint”, “POW!” and “Strong”, whereas girls’ slogans were rooted in fantastical themes, with “I should have been a mermaid”, “Flutter with the flowers” and “Dance with fairies, Ride a unicorn, Fly to the moon.” Such a contrast subtly places girls in a more imaginative yet removed position, whereas boys are characterised as more assertive, yet one dimensional.
This is reinforced in Mothercare, where girls are given messages that encourage common values and self-empowerment: “Bee your beautiful self” and “Beauty lies within” (nightwear), whereas boys are labelled with superficiality: “super cool!”, “Super awesome, chill out, good vibes”.
On the other hand, boy’s t-shirts also display slogans that are more vocational, with George at Asda’s “space dude, star commander”, Mothercare’s “I was born to be an explorer” and Debenhams’, albeit more figurative, “I’m the boss”. Girls, however, contain more complex phrases, containing French words (Debenhams): “Bonjour” and “Très cute”, and longer, more conversational sentences: “I’m a girl, what’s your super power?” (Matalan). On this level, girls are expected to be more sophisticated, whereas boys appear to have greater career prospects.
In short, children of different genders are being presented in largely different lights through the clothes that they wear, which is a potentially damaging prospect.
Though these disparities are subtle, from a limited sample and may not always be construed to portray negative qualities, the very fact that they could be overlooked is the reason why they are dangerous. At such an early stage in their development, young boys and girls are being assigned specific and contrasting roles, which may expand into greater issues as they mature. Small, seemingly insignificant features such as this are far more likely to slip under the radar, which is why high street retailers should take greater care in how they choose to characterise children’s clothing.
Author Laura Foster-Devaney on Twitter: @DevaneyFoster
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