Baby Blogging: Gender and Baby Clothes

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This is baby blogging, but it’s also a post about gender.  As most of you know by know, I have two little boys, and one thing I really like to do is dress them in cute little outfits.  Over the past few months, as I’ve perused the baby departments at numerous stores, I came to the conclusion that I like the clothes made for boys clothes better than I like the clothes made for girls.  It’s not that I don’t like frilly dresses and ruffles.  What I like about boys clothes is the bright primary colors that are more common in clothes marketed for infant and toddler boys and the themes used in both boy clothing and gender neutral clothing.  My favorite themes are usually animal themed clothes, and above all else I like ducks and frogs–probably because yellow and green are my favorite colors.  In my view frogs and ducks are generally androgynous, but many animal themed clothes are marketed for boys.  For example, dogs, dinosaurs, lizards, bugs, and turtles are often found in boys clothing. I’ve also noticed two other common sets of themes that I like in baby boys clothing–occupational themes and activity themes.  As I was looking through my little guys clothes, I noticed several outfits that had themes related to predominantly male (and mostly working class) occupations.  The outfits they are wearing above are firemen themed.  In the first picture, Mark’s shirt has a firetruck on it, and in the second picture Eli’s shirt says, “Chief Fire Dog to the Rescue.”  I’ve also see baby boy clothes with policemen, construction worker, mechanic, pilot, and soldier themes.  Activity themes involve clothes the promote going on safaris, hunting, fishing, eating, playing sports, and one outfit my little guys have promotes making robots (which could also be construed as an engineer’s outfit). 

What strikes me about baby boys clothes is how much they promote activity and paid labor force work.  Even as infants, we start to socialize baby boys into occupations.  You rarely find occupation themed clothes for girls.  Little girls clothes often have flowers, frills, and some animals (i.e. butterflies), but they don’t have occupational themes.  They also rarely have activity themes outside of shopping or cheerleading.  In fact, to me the worst subset of little girls clothes are those that say princess or diva.  Diva is oftten used in a derisive way to indicate that the girl is overly demanding, and unlike the fireman or construction worker a princess doesn’t earn her title–she’s born with it or marries into it.  Princess themed clothes also seem to play up baby girls looks–looking like a princess means looking pretty.  I’ve seen a few shirts that have messages about boys being handsome or cute, but those are much less common.

One of the reasons that baby clothes are so strongly gendered is that babies themselves are often androgynous.  If you put them only in a diaper, it’s often hard to tell what sex the baby is, but that androgyny doesn’t fit well into our gender polarized society, so this is where the clothes come in.  Those clothes have underlying and blatant messages.  Baby boy clothes have subtle and not so subtle messages.  They say–be active, be bold, enjoy the outdoors, and get a paid job.  It doesn’t seem that baby girls clothing has similar messages.

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32 Responses to Baby Blogging: Gender and Baby Clothes

  1. 1
    lilacsigil says:

    I have seen a lot of clothes for children of both genders with animals on them, though – in a rural area, a cow or a sheep on your t-shirt does symbolise an occupation! (My mother tells me that she dressed me and my brothers in gender-neutral clothes as infants, mostly bright green and multi-coloured knits, much to the horror of assorted old ladies! Go the 1970s!)

  2. 2
    Ben-David says:

    What cuties!
    Sorry – I lose interest in convoluted adult intellectual discussions when faced with a smile like that. I really don’t care what you dress them in…

    My youngest are now finishing grade school. I really miss having little ones around.

  3. 3
    vesta44 says:

    I wonder if a designer for baby girls’ clothes would even be able to sell them if she put things on them other than “traditional” female stereotypes : say female firefighters, policewomen, female farmers, animals other than butterflies or unicorns, etc instead. Would people buy those kinds of clothes for the baby girls in their lives?
    I have 2 granddaughters, and I would buy those for them, and if I had had a daughter, I probably would have dressed her in boys’ clothes, but I was a tomboy growing up (jeans and t-shirts for me for most of my teen years, and that continues to this day) and have never been a girly girl (I can change the oil in my car, replace brakes and exhaust systems, do minor plumbing repairs, and run a mean hammer and power tools). But I grew up in the 60′s and early 70′s, and my dad was a firm believer that a woman could do anything a man could if she wanted to, had the talent, and was willing to learn (I was).

  4. 4
    Tanglethis says:

    Well, the nice thing about androgynous babies is that if you did have baby girls, you could vote with your wallet and buy baby boy clothes for them. I wore my brother’s clothes for most of my toddlerhood, and though I still turned into a princess when my family could afford to buy me my own, I think I’m none the worse for being mistaken for a boy as a young child.

    I think it’s worth noting the discrepancy as you’ve done here, and I think you’re right that distinctly gendered clothing is to “make up” for little people’s androgyny… but it makes one wonder why it’s so very important to know a child’s sex anyway. I suppose we wouldn’t know how to discriminate between them if we didn’t have the visual cues. Sigh.

  5. 5
    Lu says:

    Very interesting. I had a hand-me-down blue denim one-piece outfit (romper? suit? whatever you call those things) that my son wore when he was little; when it was time for my daughter to inherit it I embroidered her initials on it where the breast pocket would have been if it had had one, with a flower twining through the initials, to make it a bit more feminine. Now I feel slightly guilty. In general, though, she wore a mix of her brother’s hand-me-downs and hand-me-downs from her girl cousins, and I didn’t worry too much about the gender thing. When she got big enough to express a preference she went directly for pink and purple; at 12 she still likes rather girly clothes like those pseudo-maternity-tops that are all the rage for preteens right now, don’t ask me why. She’s not too big on dresses, though, at least not without something underneath them, as she likes to be free to move. Her favorite color is blue. She wears jeans a lot.

    You make a very good point about the images on boys’ and girls’ clothes. I don’t remember my son’s having a lot of work-themed clothing, although he did have at least one romper with baseball players on it, which my daughter wore in her turn. I have to admit that I did like dressing her in ruffly stuff now and then when she was little. (These days, of course, I have very little say.)

    She plays soccer and does ballet, her favorite and strongest subject is math, and (this week) she wants to be a marine biologist, so I don’t think we’re doing too badly.

  6. 6
    JaneDoh says:

    I totally agree with what you are saying. I hate pink, and my favorite color is green. I have a daughter who is almost 2. We bought mostly androgynous clothing for her, since we wanted to reuse in case we have a boy child in the future, and because frankly, we preferred the boy/neutral styles.

    People get genuinely angry when they mistake her for a boy. The interesting thing is that even now, when she is almost 2, people default to boy unless she is explicitly wearing something coded female, like barrettes in her hair, a ponytail, or floral clothing. And people definitely do treat her differently if they think she is a boy…

    I think it is so sad that gender encoding starts so young. That is what really pisses me off when people argue “it’s nature!” when talking about stereotypically male vs. female interests. How can we know when we as a culture started imprinting at 3 days old?

  7. 7
    Robert says:

    I love the Dr. Evil eyebrow in the first photo. “Give me ONE MILLION dollars!”

    Clothes shopping for my almost-six year old girl is likely to turn me into a feminist ranting about the patriarchy. The low-cost choices are:

    Junior Slut
    Sparkle Princess

    and…um…well, that’s about it. I’ve got nothing against Sparkle Princess, and neither does Miss Bug, but there’s more to life than that. Fortunately, she knows that, but it’s a constant uphill fight against the culture.

  8. 8
    Thene says:

    What gets me is, isn’t it generally mothers who decide what clothing their children will wear? The fashion industry decides what range of products are available, and decides how to create demand for it, but in the end the choice to make some babies look male and some babies look female is one primarily made by mothers. I recall my own mother being fairly upset when my sister and I drifted from ‘sparkle princess’ to tomboy, and trying to get me to wear skirts again – I was 9 years old, I guess. But then, I knew one father who was quite distressed when his four-year-old son decided his favourite t-shirt colour was pink; the man’s wife wasn’t fluffed at all, but tried to steer the child into soft reds to appease her husband. My feeling is that when it comes to appearances, gender policing is primarily a same-gender activity rather than an opposite-gender one.

  9. 9
    Madeline says:

    I was mistaken for a boy very often when I was a baby; my grandparents were convinced that I was going to be male (my parents chose not to learn my gender before I was born) so they bought all blue clothes for me. When my mother bought clothes for me, she chose mostly gender-neutral colors. I also wore exclusively boys’ sneakers until I was about ten, simply because they fit better.

    It’s interesting to me how the choices parents make in dressing their children early on seem to have little or no impact on those children’s preferences later on. Today my wardrobe is very clearly that of a woman; I prefer skirts and dresses over pants and shorts despite being dressed in mainly the latter until I was able to make my own choices.

    From what I’ve read about transgender children, the same rules seem to apply. Children will gravitate toward the clothing that best expresses their identity, regardless of how they are dressed by their parents. As long as parents are accepting of their children’s choices once they begin to make them for themselves, I don’t think it will really impact the child whether he or she was dressed in blue or pink when he or she was too young to care. What matters more, I think, is how the choices we make for infants reflects upon our culture.

  10. 10
    Sailorman says:

    gendered clothes are bad. Gendered shoes are even worse. All i want to do is to get my daughter shows which will let her climb, jump, mudsling, and generally raise a ruckus. I would even be able to live with pink, but apparently at a very young age “girls’ shoes” start sacrificing function for looks. Grrrrr. Fortunately “boys’ shoes” fit just fine.

  11. 11
    sara no h. says:

    The clothing debate is one of the many, many reasons I’m relieved that we’re having a boy instead of the little girl we’d been hoping for. At least if he decides he’d like to be a sparkle princess I’d feel very little guilt over buying him glitter.

  12. 12
    Wendy Withers says:

    What I’ve noticed is that women usually buy the sparkle princess/ baby slut, diva, etc. clothes for their little girls, whether it is the grandmother, aunt, or mother. Men I’ve seen buying clothes for their daughters on their own usually go for plainer tees, boy’s clothes, or sports related clothes. I paid my way partially through college working at the campus bookstore, and women would buy little pink branded tees for their little girls and pompoms while men were buying little football helmets and the good old green and gold, often with their excited girls in tow trying it all on.

  13. 13
    FilthyGrandeur says:

    that’s why when i have babies they’re all being dressed in rockstar onesies. or just solid neutral colors. even older girls clothes are pretty bad (it doesn’t stop at babies). i work at Target, and almost threw up when i saw a pink sparkle t-shirt for girls that says “I got an A+ in talking.” i’m afraid for my future daughters…
    what comic was it that said watching commercials directed at little girls makes it seem like the feminist movement never happened? can’t remember his name, but his comment is spot on.

  14. 14
    Rachel S. says:

    Robert said, “I love the Dr. Evil eyebrow in the first photo.”

    Yeah, this kid steals the show from his brother all the time. He’s the baby of a thousand faces, and that crooked grin is one of them.

  15. 15
    Rachel S. says:

    You know sailorman, I agree with you about functionality. It really promotes the idea that girls are supposed to passively sit there and be pretty. That also transcends age–many adult women’s clothes are not functional either.

  16. 16
    Thene says:

    That also transcends age–many adult women’s clothes are not functional either.

    Don’t even get started on the shoes. Shoes and swimwear are the two most likely to reduce me to the Spluttering Feminist Anger setting.

  17. 17
    Ben-David says:

    Don’t even get started on the shoes.
    - – - – - – - – - – - – - -
    I don’t have girls, but when I go shopping for shoes with my boys, it seems that there are plenty of fully-functional sports shoes and sneakers with girly styling touches. A fuschia stripe down her shoe won’t keep her from hitting a killer serve.

    I am more likely to whisper “glad I don’t have a girl” under my breath when shopping for clothes… why on earth are midriff-wearing styles being sold to grade schoolers?

  18. 18
    paul says:

    We’re dressing the new boy in bright colors and funny prints and such, and the response from strangers is almost uniformly, “Oh, what a cute little girl!” This makes us laugh rather than get upset, but I’m not sure how universal the response is. (Which would make a big difference for designers.)

  19. 19
    Nineveh says:

    I wouldn’t be too sanguine about boys’ clothing, either. A lot of stuff in the UK comes in deeply unappealing colours – dull blue, sludge brown, camouflage khakis – and whereas girls’ T-shirts have Diva and Princess on them, boys’ have Trouble. Dangerous, physical troublemaker is no better a message for a 2 year old than sparkle princess is.

    My own theory is that manufacturers simply want to increase the number of parents who “have” to buy two sets of clothes if they have a girl and a boy, because the other clothes are unsuitable.

  20. 20
    Thene says:

    Ben-David – I agree with you, I love sneakers, but as an adult woman I have a hard time finding shoes to wear for situations where sneakers are not appropriate attire.

  21. 21
    Robert says:

    I have a hard time finding shoes to wear for situations where sneakers are not appropriate attire.

    When I am King, I will rule that sneakers are always appropriate attire, with the exception of weddings and funerals.

    You don’t have to thank me. I’m a giver.

  22. 22
    Lu says:

    At the risk of sounding like the resident Stepford wife here, I recently discovered Keens, which are the only shoes in the known universe that fit my feet comfortably. I have flat, wide feet — in my ancestry, a duck must have been somebody’s mother — and Keens have arch support. They also come in a wide variety of styles, some of which are suitable for business wear, unless maybe you work in corporate law. (No, I am neither a femmebot nor a capitalist shill (NAYY), and no, I will not provide a link. Google is your friend.)

    I’ve been lucky with kid clothes: my daughter gets most of her clothes as hand-me-downs from her four girl cousins, all of whom dress decently, and my son doesn’t care what he wears, so I dress him in no-brand sweats from Sears most of the time as they’re practical and easy to wrestle on and off him.

  23. 23
    Dave says:

    I don’t want to get in trouble here ,but you can tell by looking at the expression on his face that he is all boy!

  24. 24
    Silenced is Foo says:

    I tend to think that the themes in baby’s clothes are just back-propogation from childhood. That is, flowers and frills are what little girls like, so those are the themes they carried over into baby clothes. Likewise, firetrucks and sports are what little boys like, so they propagate backwards into baby clothes.

    Now, obviously, those are problems of themselves – no child consciously decides that they hate butterflies and like trucks – they’re all products of their environment. But still, I think that this is simply a peripheral extension of the core of “sexing” the kids, which happens when they’re older.

    That being said, when dressing my boy I was generally disappointed, personally. The girl’s outfits had a coherent sense of style – they would have nice design elements that were meant to flow over the whole piece, and were well put together. The boys, by contrast, generally followed a theme of “pick a grubby colour and vomit random elements of boy culture across it”.

    A girl will have a bouquet of flowers blooming from her waist across her chest. A boy will have a soccer ball, an iguana, and train randomly plastered onto his torso. I get the distinct impression that the people responsible for designing the boy’s clothing are phoning it in simply because it isn’t as much fun to work with continuous random combinations of trucks and sporting gear.

    And speaking of bright colours, I’m happy that brown is the color for babies this decade. I remember the days when everything a loud mess of primary colours and pastels. Just because my boy likes Fisher Price toys doesn’t mean he should look like one.

    Either way, the real fun involves plain white onesies, an inkjet printer, an iron, and some transfer paper.

    @thene

    “””My feeling is that when it comes to appearances, gender policing is primarily a same-gender activity rather than an opposite-gender one.”””

    Agreed, personally. Already had the conversation with the wife she was due. I told her that, if we had a girl, I was raising a nerdy tom-boy who could code and play sports and whatnot. She said that’s fine, as long as she got to dress the girl up in pretty dresses.

  25. 25
    Kai Jones says:

    Hrrm, I dress my grandchild as a gamer, not a boy or girl. There’s lots of cool baby clothing available to geeks: try Cafe Press and J!nx.

  26. 26
    Silenced is Foo says:

    I would, being a fellow gamer, but that stuff is too rich for my blood. My boy is all thrift-store, all the time. Most of the baby stuff in the thrift store has only been worn for a few months, so it’s in damned good shape. I can start breaking the bank on his clothes when he’s a teen and will actually care about such things.

  27. 27
    lonespark says:

    I am about to run smack into this, as we have a toddler boy and will have a baby girl in December. Growing up I was a tomboy who like dresses and hated pink. (The dresses I like were not frilly or confining, they were mostly either stuff from my parents’ Asian or African friends, or custom-made by grandmother.)

    I am saving a lot of DS’s clothes for the sister. They are mostly gender neutral, with colors fairly indistinguishable from my wardrobe or DH’s. Robots, dinosaurs, spaceships, trucks, and lizards figure prominently, along with The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Pooh. I know we will get dresses and pink stuff from relatives and friends, and a few pieces is fine, but I have the feeling we’ll be shopping quite a bit in the boy’s section unless she’s a lot bigger Fairy Princess fan than I ever was.

    Now we are bit more solvent than when DS was born, so there will probably be impulse purchases of baby-geek-wear as well.

  28. 28
    RonF says:

    What struck me when we had our kids was that my wife and the other women in the family seemed to treat them as live dolls, buying them all kinds of outfits and putting them in this and that and cooing over them. Me, I tended to look at an outfit from the viewpoint of “What will this look like after it’s been puked or shat on and washed a couple of times?”, how dirt- and abrasion-resistant it appeared to be and whether the stitching would win the tug-of-war between the child wearing it and the dog. God knows the kid doesn’t care what it looks like. Form follows function, I say.

  29. 29
    paul says:

    If ya can dress ‘em like clowns, why have ‘em?

    Meanwhile, a lot of manufacturers seem to have perfected the process of making baby clothes wear out by the time they’re outgrown, which sometimes means the stuff falls apart on first wearing. If you have a good circle of like-minded people to pass stuff around, the spendy stuff will pay for itself — our toddler has some pj’s and shirts that could go to another three or four kids after a year of wearing.

    (Manufacturers also seem to do interesting things with sizing depending on target market, which sometimes makes me wonder about infant nutrition levels in the US.)

  30. 30
    Mary H says:

    My twins were girl-boy fraternal, so we mostly bought gender neutral clothes so either one could wear any given outfit. People bought or donated a bunch of gendered clothes though, so we had them. The minute Katie could express a preference though, it was all pink, with purple as a close second. Teddy has never expressed a color preference for clothes.

    He’s very much living the life of the mind even as a 2nd grader. He is an encyclopedic sponge, and actually lectures other kids about whatever has caught his attention on a given day. His 1st grade teacher said their classmates ate it up, to the extend that she had to remind them that SHE was the teacher. Katie is wildly creative and loves science, and their first grade teacher told us she was a very good actress. I found an awesome Jane Goodall book for kids called “My Life with the Chimpanzees” that both of them are fascinated by me too!). I’m thinking of reading them an adult level book by her as well. Seven year old twins are a BLAST! It gets easier every year, I promise. :)

  31. 31
    Deborah says:

    Seven year old twins are a BLAST!

    I’ll second that! (Girl identicals, just turned seven.)

    The cross over point, where having two is easier than having one (we have an elder daughter too), is three and a half.

    Regarding clothes, I’ve run into difficulties trying to buy different, non-pink clothes for my twins. It’s a bit easier now that they’re older, because we can go to a store and pick out several pairs of jeans or tops or whatever, and the girls get to choose which one they would like. If they end up choosing exactly the same as each other, well, that’s their choice.

    But the reason choosing several items first, so that they make their choice of one thing from that group, is so that I can edit out the truly awful garments (fake fur, sequins, bare midriffs, sexualised stuff). It is hard to find clothes for them that aren’t glittery girl-girl stuff, or completely sexualised.

  32. 32
    Victoria says:

    I realise this comment is a bit late but I’m expecting my second child (I already have a boy, don’t know what the next will be) and have been discussing this issue with my partner a lot recently, so am glad to have read this. If we have a girl, we’ll definitely be reusing our son’s clothes. We hate all the “I’m a little princess” rubbish. Even with boy’s clothes, though, you have to be careful – while there’s a lot of stuff that’s just on being active and productive, there’s some which seems to endorse getting an early start on being a disruptive moron just because you’re male (hey, I’m such a noisy, messy, “boys will be boys” pain in the arse for mummy, isn’t it hilarious and adorable! Er, no). My partner even (a tad harshly) characterises one shop’s divisive approach as “daddy’s little jailbait”/ “mummy’s little wifebeater”.
    I think it’s untrue that most mothers today truly go for this stuff. Most I’ve met at baby groups hate it too (interestingly, a new range of clothes in one UK store, with black / grey clothes for girls plus a blue babygrow with “girl” on it is selling out fast). A big problem is surely that an awful lot of the baby stuff you get as a first-time parent comes from grandparents, who have to make a big deal of all this gender nonsense since they’ve lived/sacrificed their whole lives by/to it.
    One interesting thing I noticed today – I was trying to buy a nice top for my toddler son to wear to a Christmas party and it appears that Christmas has been defined by shops as more of a girl thing. I did end up with a nice reindeer print top, but there are loads more items for little girls (lots with rubbishy prints of simpery lists to Santa about how I’ve been really, really good and want a dolly and a horse … yeah, let’s teach them that this is how women get what they want from men …).