The design and retailing of baby and toddler clothes represents a substantial part of the clothing industry. The British market is dominated by the multiple stores such as Marks & Spencer, F.W. Woolworth, C & A, Boots the Chemist, British Home Stores and Little-woods, and supplemented by specialist ones, particularly “baby world boutique” UK Ltd and Stephan, as well as department stores such as John Lewis and House of Fraser. The latter sell more up-market “baby clothes” by companies such as Heskia and Team-sport, and they compete as much with the numerous small specialist shops selling foreign “childrens clothes“, particularly French and Italian, as with the multiples. Attention to design is increasingly important to retailers in order to differentiate products, particularly in terms of “kids clothes” significantly at the lower end of the Market.
Many of the shops produce brochures and catalogs promoting their baby and childrens ranges, and they also advertise and fund expensive features in women’s and parent/mother to be magazines. This article examines the design and promotion of baby and toddler fashions (particularly for girls) in relation to representations of gender identity through a case study of recent company promotional catalogs and brochures, particularly those produced by the Boots and Chemist chain. As I will show, gender differentiation, along fairly conventional lines, is clearly discernible in both baby and toddler clothes. Not surprisingly this differentiation of children by means of gendered clothing both reflects and reinforces traditional gender representations and identities already dominant within our contemporary society.
For most of these “childrens clothes” manufactures and retailers, the visual images which are used to promote and sell their products are of increasingly critical importance in a highly competitive marketplace. Both the images and the specific designs communicate powerful ideas about ‘ideal’ lifestyles, appropriate consumer (and class) aspirations and gender identity. Although for many parents of a new born baby, there are greater priorities than deciding how to dress it, there is increasing pressure, especially on women, to dress small “kids clothes” is fashionable. All those months of anticipation and the actual period of pregnancy prepare prospective parents to consume. It is very difficult to resist the ‘baby industry’. By the eighth month the mother, in particular, has generally given up on herself as an active consumer of clothes and has reduced most matters of personal dress down to one essential question is it comfortable? For her, it is a welcome diversion to shop for “baby clothes” and baby paraphernalia. For those able and prepared to spend, there is plenty of choice.
However, for many parents looking for and buying “baby clothes” is more than a diversion. Aided and abetted by grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends it is part of the process of beginning to give an identity to the awaited baby, and trying to make sense of its likely needs in relation to one’s own expectations, particularly in terms of the baby’s sex. The most frequently asked questions, is still ‘what do you want , a boy or a girl?’ And, after the birth, ‘is it a boy or a girl?’ But it is about more than the baby’s ‘identity’ – to some extent a reflection of that of the parents – indeed, the well-dressed baby or child is an attractive adult accessory, a cuddly status symbol.
At the forefront of people’s minds is the sex of the baby and associated with this are their perceptions of the importance of communicating this in dress. In choosing baby and children clothes, people recognize the power of design (color, pattern, style and type of garment) to signify gender difference with a clarity not usually evident in their reading and understanding of other aspects of design. However, as with adult dress, it is not a question of gender alone. Although some may reject the ostentatious display of money evident in Italian baby equipment taste and style by buying from select shops which stock hand-made, ‘ethnic’ or ‘heritages’ goods. In provincial towns and cities in the North and the Midlands, taste and style are possibly more restricted because of fewer alternatives to the national chains, multiples and department stores. In these outlets design status is closely aligned with price: ‘how much’ competes with fashionable design knowledge as an important selection criterion.
Significantly, large and expensive items of baby equipment such as cots, buggies, prams, and changing tables are not strongly gendered. Cots and changing tables are usually white or natural wood colors, and buggies and prams are often grey or dark blue – neutral colors used for equipment which has to be selected before the baby’s sex is known and which is often used for more than one baby. The gendering comes with the accessories which include cosy-toes buggy quilts, col linen (duvet and bumper covers), and of course, cot toys such as mobiles. Other highly desirable items for new babies are lavish suits and dresses which are often combined with hand-knits featuring complex stitches, ribbons and bows. The sheer impracticality of these white (gender-neutral), festooned, garments defies comprehension except in so far as their meaning is way beyond the mundane concepts of ‘machine wash-ability’. ‘The whiter than white wash’ which Phil Goodall has described elsewhere takes on a new significance when thinking of the maintenance required for five or six possible outfits worn in one day by a new-born, vomit-prone baby. These ostentatious creations, masquerading as “baby clothes”, are statements of love and represent a positive commitment to the baby’s future in the commodity that is of necessity foremost in the minds of many parents, money. Above everything they are symbolic of the desire to give the baby a good start in life!
Like contemporary men’s and women’s, baby and toddler clothes convey implicit assumptions about gender, as Elizabeth Wilson has argued: ‘Fashion is obsessed with gender, defines and redefines the gender boundary. But babies and children are even more vulnerable to the attitudes of others than are adults. Parents and relatives decide what the child will wear. Generally parents delight in dressing their offspring in the clothes which they have bought or have been given and, in the main, these are heavily gendered. Conflict across generations can occur when parents transgress gender boundaries; for example by dressing female babies and small children in dungarees instead of dresses. Significantly, it is less socially acceptable to dress boys in girls clothes than vice-versa ; even the ‘heritaged’ little Lord Fauntleroy look is a feminized version of regular boys clothes. Nevertheless for some parents, undermining and defying the establishment of rigid gender identities through their children clothes take on special significance as they observe the explicit and implicit assumptions about gender identity represented in them. Making sure little girls wear tracksuits and trousers becomes just as important as making sure that they play with tools and building bricks as well as with dolls. This strategy is just one of those adopted by certain parents to try to counter the early ‘negative’ effects of gender stereotyping in relation to femininity.
The design and advertising of babies and “childrens clothes” undoubtedly reinforces the gendering of the identities for boys and girls. Just as design prescribes particular gender roles and attitudes for adults, so it does for infants: ‘design practice and theory operates with specific notions of femininity, which formulates and organize women’s time, skills, work, our in-habitation of space and our conceptions of self in relation to others. Although writing generally here, baby and “kids clothes” provide an excellent case with the innocuous seeming garments, as an attempt is made, through design and advertising, to identify, differentiate and fix gender identity at a stage when it is precarious and only partially established. Characteristically clothes for female babies and young girls contribute to the formulation of certain codes of behavior, types of play, and social interaction which reinforce dominant ideals of femininity. Girl toddlers in particular learn to look at themselves, to seek admiration from others for their appearance, and to display their clothes. This is partly because of parental influences, partly the desire for peer group approval, and partly pressure from the design and retailing industries which generate desirable ‘female’ images for girls aged two years, two ,months or even two days.
The most striking characteristics of the visual images of babies and toddler used to sell clothes in magazines and company brochures is the wholesale adaption of contentions of representation taken from adult clothes but representations of “baby clothes” are shaped by the same process. Like the models promoting adult products, the babies and toddlers are beautiful, healthy, and predominantly white. Although the current Mother-care and boots catalogs include one or two black and Asian children, all the depictions of ‘parents’ are white. Parenthood is usually represented in these brochures by glamorous image of slim, youthful and stylish mothers who betray none of the usual signs of wear and tear resulting from caring who betray and children. Not surprisingly in this fantasy land of perfect families, all the mums look happy and fulfilled; there are few signs of women torn by the conflicts of work outside and inside the home combined with the relentless demands of childcare.
In conclusion, the representation of gender difference in the design and promotion of babies and “children clothes” is clearly recognizable from the first month after birth. Both babies and toddlers fashions replicate the conventions found in adult clothes which signify gender difference. Not only are types of garments, such as dresses or trousers, used for this, but also color, pattern, decoration and very importantly, the styling and display of the garments on baby and child models. It is these fashionable images, at the core of advertising and promotional literature, showing parents how items of dress should be put together which are particularly powerful. They delineate and, arguably, inscribe particular visual ideals of femininity and masculinity which from this study appear wholly conventional. Little girls are dressed decoratively using traditional dress codes and they adopt passive poses reminiscent of fashion models in contemporary magazines, whereas little boys sport functional clothes which enable them to interact with the environment in an assertive and imposing manner.
For those of us who are mothers of daughters, and who have ourselves gained pleasure and enjoyment from wearing clothes and creating fashionable images which, whilst coded in various ways as ‘feminine’, are also questioning, subversive and/or empowering, it is disconcerting to observe these affirmations of gender differences which seek to position them as powerless, ‘essentially’ decorative and waif-like. Hopefully, we will have the skill and subtlety to pass on to them ‘positive’ as well as ‘negative’ aspects of femininity as represented in dress and also the possibility of their subversion.
More and complete information about baby clothes @ http://www.babyworldboutique.co.uk/