Threads With An Attitude!

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser
Issue 105 – March/April 2001

baby in bright striped outfitThe conventional palette of candy pink for girls and navy blue for boys has never appealed to me. Pregnant with my first child, I elected to postpone learning the gender until he or she was born, although friends and strangers alike expected me to be armed with this information months in advance. I sought out baby clothes that could be worn by any baby. Surprised to find that even clothing for infants was segregated by sex, I weeded through both girls’ and boys’ clothing to find things suitable for either gender. I chose nontraditional colors: red, white, black, brown, cranberry, purples, smoky blues. Among the items I chose was a navy blue cotton jacket lined in cream, with colorful buttons; a sweater knit with green and red in a strawberry design; and a purple fleece snowsuit with yellow stars and wavy piping. I was excited about having a baby, and I enjoyed buying these adorable, unfathomably tiny clothes.

During the first months after Ezekiel was born, he spent most of his waking and sleeping hours in footed white pajamas. To help keep him warm, he nearly always wore a cap: a black velour beret, a red-and-white striped cotton cap, a white and pale blue cotton knit hat with bunnies. His clothing did not telegraph “boy,” nor did it trick anyone into thinking that he was a girl; the unconventional colors merely communicated “baby.”

People were apt to call Ezekiel “she” due to his small size, his beautiful, large eyes, and the fact that his clothes were purple rather than navy. I casually corrected them, saying, “At this age, who can really tell?” Often I was met with indignation: “He’s too pretty to be a boy,” or “What a waste to have those eyes on a boy,” or “That’s not a boy’s outfit.” These remarks came from otherwise enlightened adults, many of whom applauded my husband for working at home so he could help raise his children. It was as if in adulthood aspiring toward gender equality was endorsed, while during childhood, the only option was to stick to tried-and-true hues.

Must boys really be restricted to rugby shirts and garments adorned with trucks or footballs? Other than solids, stripes are the main option available, if you do not go the route of dinosaurs or superheroes. My five year old is interested in gardening, books, and all things magical, things that are rarely, if ever, featured on boys’ clothing. Boys’ interests and passions, as depicted on T-shirts, are narrowly defined.

If you are a boy who likes flowers, forget about it; ditto birds, fairy tales, dance, even stars (except, perhaps, a constellation). Ezekiel adores a shirt I found on the girls’ side of The Gap that has a black and glittery silver spider on it–it is his “Charlotte” shirt (from Charlotte’s Web). When he proudly displays his sparkly spider, more than a few adult eyebrows have been raised.

Designs for boys shift very little season to season, save for adding the choice of cargo pants to wide-wale corduroys and classic blue jeans. Rugby-style shirts, baggy clothes, and bold colors–reds, blues, greens, yellows–appear to be timeless, practically immune to the vagaries of fashion. Boxy shirts and baggy pants are neither flattering nor practical on Ezekiel, as his small body swims in them. He looks better in shirts that fit more closely. French-cut shirts, either imported or employed for girls’ clothes, look great on him.

Girls’ clothes, on the other hand, are very often pint-sized cuts of the garments sold for teens and women: shirts that expose midriffs, bell-bottom pants, undersized backpacks. With Baby Boomer consumers and image-conscious X’ers having babies, maybe it’s inevitable that designers cater to their babies and children with cutting-edge couture. But I find glossy photographs of girls dressed in trendy styles, looking like little wannabe women (or is it the women who dress in wannabe girl garb?) disturbing. Often the clothes (close-fitting miniskirts, low-riding pants) aren’t terribly practical for the life work of children, which is to play.

It’s not that kids need to wear sneakers and sweatpants exclusively, but children’s clothes should, without condescending, encourage childhood through comfort, practicality, and appropriateness. It seems dangerous when girls are being pressured to concentrate more on their roles as young women than as young people, when their clothes nod toward fashion rather than toward the substance of their day-to-day lives. A friend recently lamented that her daughter requested overalls and jeans for school rather than the dresses her mother preferred her to wear. This girl complained that dresses hindered her outdoor play. Is it totally arcane to think that girls’ clothing should not keep them from enjoying playgrounds and running around a yard?

One recent children’s clothing catalog described corduroy for girls as “soft as velvet,” while the corduroy for boys was described as “rugged, nearly indestructible.” (The thread in both fabrics was exactly the same.) Aren’t there clothes that work well for use, that look great, and that do not scream a child’s gender so patently? I scour the racks on both the boys’ and the girls’ sides of the store or pages of a catalog. From the girls’ aisles, I recently bought a blue shirt with batik butterflies and polka dots on the sleeves for Ezekiel (at Gap Kids) and a plum fleece jacket for Lucien with deep purple, light blue, and aqua buttons (at a small boutique in Philadelphia). A friend buys her four-year-old son’s socks in the girls’ section, because he dislikes boring white tube socks, which are pretty much all that’s available for boys. By wearing girls’ socks, he has the rainbow to choose from.

After infancy, leggings become difficult to locate for boys, who are supposed to wear rugged bottoms, like blue jeans. Well-made cotton leggings are perfectly durable. It’s as if clothing makers refuse boys the same level of cozy comfort that they market for girls. I buy my kids solid-colored cotton leggings. I also buy them denim overalls and jeans, wide-wale cords, denim baseball caps, and fire-engine red turtlenecks.

While I will put my boys in girls’ clothes, I do have standards: I avoid ribbons, lace, frilly ruffles, little pink flowers, and sequins. In addition to bold colors, I seek out muted tones like olive or slate, which are not typically worn by kids. When my sons were babies, I found it hard to resist swathing them in sophisticated black, while other babies around them wore only bland pastels.

I’ve come across a couple of clothing manufacturers that do not bow to prevalent stereotypes. Cow and Lizard, a small, Vermont-based company, produces well-made, interesting, and comfortable clothes in offbeat hues; a good example is an olive green hooded sweatshirt with blue sailboats all across it. Hanna Anderson, which is primarily a mail-order company, offers practical, Swedish-designed, gender-neutral clothing, such as striped cotton shirts and sturdy sweatpants in clever color combinations.

I am not trying to raise my boys as girls. Lucien, who is now two years old, watches cars and trucks drive by our front window with rapt attention, while his older brother cannot differentiate between a dump truck and a bulldozer. If there’s a car on Lucien’s shirt, he will point to it with awestruck delight. What I don’t want is for tired stereotypes to be placed–quite literally–upon my children, so I’ve avoided clothes that shriek “gun-toting, football-obsessed, dinosaur-loving, macho little man in training.” As I flip through catalogs or comb store racks, I wish for more sturdy, comfortable, attractive clothes that have not been either dolled up or butched up. I want to see more–not necessarily all, just more–clothes that can be worn by boys or by girls, that could be passed from sister to brother.

Kids’ clothes should celebrate childhood as a time of exploration and play. Shielding my children from stereotypical expectations will, I hope, allow them more room to be comfortable with their unique selves. My kids potentially can achieve anything: They can become ballplayers or ballet dancers, chemists or chefs, financial wizards or full-time fathers. And although clothes may seem a superficial thing to consider, they are one of the first things people notice upon meeting you. Why not ask that clothes celebrate more fittingly the adventurous spirits and the inquisitive nature of childhood?

Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a writer who lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her husband, Hosea Baskin, and their two sons, Ezekiel (5) and Lucien (2). Her essays have appeared in Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies and Gadfly and are forthcoming in Jewish Currents and Southwest Review