Gender-Neutral Children’s Clothing: Options Matter!

Abigail Walsh, M.A., M.Ed.

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In the past few years, we have seen a boom in gender-neutral clothing lines. Ellen DeGeneres made headlines when she collaborated with the Gap to create a not-so-girly line of clothing for girls, and later boys, citing the importance of “celebrating what makes you unique” (Clinton, 2015). Target, having already eliminated gender labels in their toy aisles, released a gender-neutral clothing line (pictured above) this summer (Whittaker, 2017).  John Lewis, a British retailer, recently announced that they would be labeling clothes as “for girls and boys” and “for boys and girls”, after consulting with Let Clothes Be Clothes, a group dedicated to ending gender stereotyping in the design and marketing of children’s clothes (Levine, 2017). Although each of these instances have been met with predictable backlash about political correctness, they have also been met with overwhelming support. These are just a few examples of companies that believe children shouldn’t be limited by the gender labels attached to their apparel. And we should be applauding these gender-neutral efforts, because gender appearance does matter.

As children start to understand the social categories of gender they seek out cues in their environment to inform what those categories mean (Martin, Ruble, & Szkrybalo, 2002). Gender-typed appearance, how feminine or masculine people dress, is a very salient cue to children about other people’s gender, as well as a representation of their own gender and gender identity. Clothing in particular, tends to be a fairly constant indication of gender, given how persistent these representations are in our society. Young children rely on physical appearance as an aspect of person perception, when differentiating others’ gender (Cahill, 1989; Zucker, Yoannidis, & Abramovitch, 2001). What we wear can also signify to others the social categories to which we belong (Feinberg, Mataro, & Burroughs, 1992; Freitas, Kaiser, & Hammidi, 1996; Freitas et al., 1997; Hutson, 2010). As such, clothing and appearance are closely tied to social constructions of gender in our society (Bartlett, 1994; Flanagan, 2008). If we desire to break down barriers associated with these social constructions, it would make sense to start with one of the most visible and identifiable markers of gender, our gender-typed appearance.

We also know that gender-typed appearance in childhood is associated with children’s gender-stereotyped cognitions. Studies have shown that wearing gender-typed clothing was associated with children’s gender-stereotypicality, how rigid they conceptualize the categories of gender, over time (Halim et al., 2013; Halim et al., 2014; Halim et al., 2016). One study found that children who believed gender to be important also dressed in stereotypical ways (Halim et al., 2014). A recent study found that simply having more knowledge and use of category labels (e.g., “girl”, “boy”, “lady”, etc.) was associated with dressing in gender-typed ways (Halim, Ruble, Tamis-LeMonda, Zosuls, & Walsh, under review). Knowledge of these categories has been tied to higher rates of gender-typed play in young children (Fagot & Leinbach, 1993; Weinraub et al., 1984; Zosuls et al., 2009, Zosuls et al., 2014), so it’s not surprising that there are similar findings with children’s gender-typed appearance.

This isn’t to say that children dressing in gender-stereotyped ways is necessarily a bad thing. Dressing in stereotypical ways is simply associated with conceptions of gender that are more stereotypical and rigid. These conceptions of social categories matter at a time when children are figuring out the limitations associated with each category (Martin et al., 2002). Removing gender-labels on clothing, or designing clothing targeted toward all children, helps to reduce these category-based limitations. Offering children gender-neutral clothing options may encourage children to think more flexibly about gender categories in person perception, and in the limitations, that come along with what boys and girls, men and women, are allowed to do in society. By expanding their wardrobe options, we may be expanding their minds.

~ Written by Abigail Walsh, M.A., M.Ed. 


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