How did dressing your baby become a political act?

Dress your baby in pink and people will see a temperamental prima donna. Dress him or her in blue and they will see a boisterous little chap with a fine set of lungs.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

It’s a good job that newborn babies can’t talk. They have this way of looking at you that suggests they’re still in touch with some higher, prenatal wisdom, one which can only be drummed out of them with the help of Cbeebies and Milkshake. In the meantime, you just don’t want to know what they could be saying. They totally see through the institutionalised performance of “motherhood”. They don’t buy any of this “attachment theory” crap. And they probably hate whatever it is you’re dressing them in.

Dressing your baby is, of course, a political act. The clothes you choose will affect how your baby is received by the world. Your baby cannot object; he or she can’t even sit up, let alone negotiate press studs. So it is up to you to manage the impression he or she will make.

Say your infant is throwing a ferocious tantrum (probably something to do with the existential angst that comes with leaving the sacred womb). Dress your baby in pink and people will see a temperamental prima donna. Dress him or her in blue and they will see a boisterous little chap with a fine set of lungs. Dress your baby in beige or yellow and they’ll ask “is it a boy or a girl?” before making up their minds.

It didn’t always use to be like this. As Cordelia Fine notes, until the end of the nineteenth century “even five-year-old children were being dressed in more-or-less unisex white dresses”:

The introduction of coloured fabrics for young children’s clothing marked the beginning of the move towards our current pink-blue labelling of gender, but it took nearly half a century for the rules to settle into place. For a time, pink was preferred for boys, because it was ‘a decided and stronger’ colour, a close relative to red, symbolising ‘zeal and courage’. Blue, being ‘more delicate and dainty’ and ‘symbolic of faith and constancy’ was reserved for girls. Only towards the middle of the twentieth century did existing practices become fixed.  

In the blink of an eye we have gone from a world in which children were seen as sexless, gender-neutral mini-adults to one in which children are treated as separate beings, albeit ones who demonstrate the validity of gender itself. And now we’re at the point where gender-neutral children’s clothes – or “clothes” as they used to be called – are marketed as the cutting-edge alternative to “traditional” categories which weren’t even in place a century ago.

Retailers such as Babies R Us, Gap, Verbaudet and Mothercare now label a segment of their infant clothing ranges as “unisex” or “gender neutral”. These seem to be aimed at people buying clothes for babies not yet born, in instances where one does not yet know which colour to match to the infant’s genitals (you just can’t risk getting it wrong!). There are other ranges which take things a step further, pushing gender neutrality as a noble end in itself. For instance, Sewing Circus describe themselves as “the original handmade unisex children’s store”, boasting that every single item they sell is suitable for boys or girls, while Tootsa MacGinty do not have separate sections for boys and girls. I think the clothes in both stores are lovely, and the absence of any gender segregation wholly laudable. Nonetheless, they are more expensive than anything I’d want my child to throw up in, which then raises the question, what makes these clothes gender neutral when most things on sale in Primark or Tesco are not? Isn’t it all about the labelling? Girls’ clothes are only girls’ clothes as long as we say they are.

Until they hit puberty, there is little difference in the average size and shape of girls’ and boys’ bodies. Thus it is somewhat bizarre that parents can end up agonising over finding the right “neutral” outfits for them. Why should yellow dungarees be a progressive choice for our sons any more than a Disney Princess dress? If we are so annoyed about boys’ clothing ranges stocking only images of trucks and cars, why don’t we venture over to the girls’ section? Why do we need to have something which specifically states “not just for girls or boys,” thereby implicitly fixing rather than challenging the other two categories?

One could argue that it’s just another market segmentation strategy. Tootsa MacGinty point out that because their clothes are unisex “you can merrily pass them on to siblings and friends.” Didn’t thrifty mothers use to do that with all children’s clothes? I certainly have (slightly resentful) memories of wearing my brother’s hand-me-downs. When I told my mother that his blue vests were a bridge too far, she insisted they were unisex. These days I’d have been able to counter that they clearly weren’t since they did not come from a suitably progressive store. Now that gender neutrality is fashionable – apparently Kim Kardashian “loves it when North wears gender-neutral clothes” while soap star Helen Flanagan’s baby shower was “a Bee themed soirée made up of the gender neutral colour yellow“ – we cannot go back to saying that it simply means “wearing any old stuff.” It has to be a separate, specific purchase (thank god there is at least a way of creating your gender neutral nursery on a budget).

I think, however, that it also goes deeper than that. In a world that is supposedly more equal, gender stereotyping has gone underground. We tell ourselves that we treat babies the same, regardless of whether or not we know their sex, but research suggests otherwise. Fine describes how even self-described progressive parents end up implicitly stereotyping their children, conversing more with girls while overestimating the independence and physical capabilities of boys. If we are doing this to our own offspring, how can we expect strangers to resist the pull of subconscious categorisation? We are left with few options: don’t ever reveal your baby’s sex; dress your baby in beige, yellow or white; confuse people by putting your baby in the “wrong” clothes (and then deal with the fact that people will take your noble political statement for either ignorance or sheer bloody mindedness).

A stranger once got extremely annoyed with me upon discovering that the “beautiful baby girl” on which she’d complimented me was in fact a boy. It was as though, by putting a pink bib on my son, I’d played some kind of cunning trick, fooling people into responding to my child in an inappropriate  way. And perhaps she had a point. Clothes do manipulate responses. Both my partner and I have noticed that when one of our sons wears dresses or hairclips, we feel he is more delicate and vulnerable, and we’re slightly less likely to notice how funny he is and more likely to hone in on his prettiness. These are subtle differences – at least, I’m not aware that we treat him differently as a result – but they are there nonetheless. Gender is a language we can critique, but it is not one we can easily opt out of speaking. It is not just that we cannot control how others see our children; whatever our personal principles, we cannot always control how we see them ourselves.

It is a measure of just how far we have gone down the “gender everything” road that it is more acceptable to dress a baby boy as a tiger or an octopus or a Christmas pudding than in anything with a hint of pink. You know where you are with a baby disguised as a bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup, but a boy who’s wearing things that are explicitly marked out as “for girls”? How is one supposed to respond to that? I think our confusion says a lot about how scared we are of letting go of underlying beliefs in essential difference. However much we tinker round the edges, we must always have this article of faith to fall back on. That’s no doubt one of the reasons why our newborns look upon us with such disdain. They were not born believing such things, but just like us, they cannot find the words to express it.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.