My daughter is annoyed by something that happened at the shops. “Mum I have to tell you what I saw!” She huffs as she buckles her seatbelt in the car. I’m distracted and not really paying attention as I exit the carpark of the shopping centre, but ask her nonetheless what happened. “I was looking for hoodies and saw that they were half-price in the men’s section compared to the girl's,” she says indignantly. “Why do girls have to pay twice as much for the same thing?”
I was surprised by how annoyed she was getting by this, but I also recognised that over the years my daughter had become increasingly frustrated by the delineation between girls and boys clothing.
When she was younger, she wore dresses and flouncy skirts teamed with flowery hairbands – and trust me, this wasn’t my choosing but hers, as my daughter had been choosing her own clothes since she was 18-months-old. But somewhere around the age of eight, she changed.
I remember the exact year she turned off so-called “girlie clothes” because I ended up donating a stack of unworn size eight dresses to charity as my daughter didn’t want to wear them.
I remember the exact year she turned off so-called “girlie clothes” because I ended up donating a stack of unworn size eight dresses to charity . Instead she started wearing shorts and jeans combined with t-shirts, and not long after that she began to notice not only a price difference between clothes for girls and boys, but also that the designs in the boys section were more her style.
I have long recognised how ridiculous it seems that the old-adage, pink is for girls and blue is for boys exists to this day. My sons for example, wore hand-me-down pink clothes till they were old enough to complain about it.
Imagine my surprise however when I discovered that in the early 20th century, pink was a colour designated for boys, while blue was for girls. As Britannica Encyclopedia highlighted, pink was considered a more masculine "strong" colour while blue was more feminine. A June 1918 article from the trade publication Earnshaw's Infants' Department, for example, said, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger colour, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”
Before the 20th century, most children growing up in the West wore dresses up to the age of six - and yes that was the case for both boys and girls - as the picture of a young Franklin Roosevelt highlights.
In the 60s and 70s there was a return to unisex clothing for all children, as historian Jo B. Paoletti told the Smithsonian magazine. "One of the ways [feminists] thought that girls were kind of lured into subservient roles as women is through clothing,” she said. “‘If we dress our girls more like boys and less like frilly little girls . . . they are going to have more options and feel freer to be active.’”
It wasn't until the mid-80s that gendered clothing, with pink deigned for girls and blue for boys, became popular and it seems to have stuck since then.
In a series of tweets that went viral last year, writer Kate Long highlighted that it's not just the colour of the clothes but the difference in the messaging for boys and girls that comes through in the clothing sold to them.
She found that while boys clothes were full of motifs of superheroes, technology and dinosaurs, girls were pushed messages of rainbows, princesses and love hearts.
The responses to these tweets highlight how there's a growing realisation about the subconscious impact this sort of messaging is having on our children.
And it seems there's growing momentum for a return to unisex clothing for children. Recently, fashion designer, JW Anderson, told the Sydney Morning Herald, how he's moving away from 'girls' and 'boys' clothing for his new collection for kids. “It’s important we are neutral in terms of how we tackle childrenswear because ultimately it has a huge effect on the future of our children,” he said.
Slowly but surely it seems brands and retailers are waking up to the impact gendered clothing has on children. In the meantime my daughter is still on the lookout for the perfect hoodie that isn't twice the price as the one for men and boys.