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My first shopping expedition with my daughter was a disaster. It was something I’d been looking forward to since I found out I was pregnant with a girl, and at age four I thought the time had come. To say our tastes differed somewhat is an understatement. I liked all the pretty, sparkly, frilly things in the girls’ department; she marched straight to the boys’ section and chose a pair of bright green corduroys and a long sleeve black T-shirt. We both left the store empty handed and in a sulk. After giving myself a good talking to about nurturing and encouraging her independence, I decided to try again.

This time she chose a pair of boys’ navy pyjamas emblazoned with cars. I smiled through gritted teeth, handed over my credit card, and made my husband promise if anybody asked we would say they were hand-me-downs from her brother. But then I began to question why I was reacting this way. Had I been programmed by the marketers of children’s fashion to believe my daughter should only wear pink outfits decorated with kittens, rainbows and unicorns?

This type of gender stereotyping goes back decades, but it hasn’t always been the case. In the 1800s both boys and girls wore white dresses until the age of six or seven, when they also had their first haircut. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that pastel colours, in particular pink and blue, made an entrance, but they were not gender signifiers until just before World War 1, when it was decided that pink – the stronger colour – was for boys, and blue – considered to be more dainty – was prettier for girls. Today’s colour dictate wasn’t established until the 1940s when manufacturers and retailers interpreted and responded to consumers’ preferences. By the ‘80s it became big business when the pink-blue divide stretched to nappies, linen, décor and toys.

According to American historian and author of Pink and Blue: telling the boys from the girls in America, Jo Paoletti, children only become aware of their gender between the ages of three and four, and do not realise it’s permanent until age six or seven. So how much of this gender stereotyping is being forced on them well before they even understand it? Clinical psychologist Dr Jana Lazarus of Change Matters in Kalk Bay says: “Children are like sponges and will pick up on the expectations and attitudes of their significant others. That’s why it is important to give children the space in which to be themselves. If you want to, dress your little girls in pink when they are babies, but honour their personal preferences as they start voicing them. Forcing a particular look on your child can indeed make them feel that ‘blue for boys’ is some kind of life rule. And yes, this is similar to other preconceived ideas like housework is for girls, and boys don’t cry.”

Enter the age of social media, and arguably the greatest factors affecting children’s fashion today: social media and young celebrity influence. According to international market research company Technavio, the childrenswear sector is expected to grow more than 6% by 2020, far exceeding the anticipated growth in both the women’s and menswear sectors for the same period. MD of Ackermans Charl Cronje says: “The advent of technology and rise of social media have also been huge contributors to this growth, specifically in the pre-teen category. Thanks to social platforms such as Instagram and technology such as smartphones, satellite TV and tablets, children now have immediate access to international trends. This has led to an increasingly discerning and style-conscious young customer, with the pester power to sway their parents’ purchasing decisions.”

According to retailers, one of the 2017 childrenswear trends is the mini-me – drawing inspiration from celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and her daughter North, kids want to wear the same styles as mom and dad, and there is a demand for smaller sized versions of what adults are wearing. Another is the activewear trend, which has seen “athleisure” become massively popular among parents, and children have followed suit, enjoying the comfort and functionality of the clothing.

So amid all these fashion decisions, is there still room for good old-fashioned superhero costumes, princess crowns and capes? Johannesburg-based pre-primary teacher Taryn Brooke believes it’s essential that children get to dress up. “The world of dress up plays a huge role in fantasy and imaginative play, which are vital for a child’s development. To put on a crown and fairy costume or a superhero outfit provides children with the opportunity to step out of what they are comfortable with, gain confidence and become whatever they want to be, all the while learning valuable skills such as problem-solving, social skills and working together.”

Cape Town psychologist Saskia Wolfaardt agrees. “For younger children, fantasy is an important part of getting to know the world, and they may play out some of these fantasies through dressing up. They are playing – not choosing an identity. It is also important for children to feel they can differ from you – that even though pink is your favourite colour, green can be theirs. This helps them to find their own place in the world with confidence.”

While acknowleging the importance of dressing up, most nursery schools ban fantasy clothing from being worn to school. But this is largely for practical reasons. Brooke says: “capes, high heels and long flowing pieces of material hanging off princess dresses are seen as dangerous and could hook on to jungle gyms as kids race by.”

Six months down the line, I can say that apart from the occasional wrangle I allow my daughter to choose her clothing, and I very seldom see her in something I personally would have chosen. When I do, I make sure I take a pic for Instagram. Now I just need to come to terms with her latest request to chop off her lovely long hair.

What to wear to school?

  • You can be sure your child will come home covered in glitter, glue, paint or mud so don’t dress her in anything fancy. Buy long-lasting clothes that can handle being scrubbed and soaked to get rid of stains.
  • Elastic waistbands, while not trendy, are best for young children who are still learning to go to the toilet on their own.
  • Choose an appropriate fit – clothes that are too big or too small will not be comfortable and will get in the way of their concentration.
  • Proper shoes – flip-flops and strappy sandals are cute, but can cause children to trip while running and playing.

Amy Mac Iver