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Gender-Free Clothes Are Radical and Valid

Children’s clothes at John Lewis

When retailer John Lewis ditched gendered labels on children’s clothing, a backlash soon followed.

John Lewis is the first major UK clothes seller to offer exclusively gender neutral children’s clothes. Labels read “Girls & Boys” or “Boys & Girls” on all items, from newborns up to 14 years. It has also launched a unisex line for children, with no more prescriptive pink for girls and blue for boys—just clothes for everyone.

Some embraced the store for its progressive and nuanced take on gender politics. But others were scandalised—calling it an example of liberal pandering or outsized political correctness (gone wrong).

It is undoubtedly a radical move—clothes have existed as a means of expressing gender for hundreds of years. But it is also a legitimate move, rooted in research that increasingly shows the hardening of unwelcome and damaging stereotypes as a result of relentless gender-based marketing on the young.

We have been here before, especially with toys. “Pink gives girls permission” was the title of a study that found the explicit gendering of toys leads to “different developmental trajectories” for girls and boys. It found that children aged 3 to 5 years were cautious when choosing toys not deemed acceptable for their gender, and argued that visual preferences for gendered toys may stem from verbal labelling (“that’s a boy’s toy”).

Labelled toys

It also found that even toys not typically associated with either sex were refused if labelled in opposition to the child’s gender—demonstrating how readily these expectations had already been assimilated, to the disadvantage of the child.

Lisa Dinella at the Gender Development Laboratory at Monmouth University, New Jersey, who was co-author of the study, argues that the gendering of toys informs the intellectual and emotional development of a child. Both genders lose out if you put kids on one track and they can’t explore, she says.

While play informs the development of creativity and dexterity, providing an essential formative role, clothes also act as objects of self-expression and identity. If a doll or toy soldier makes permissive a particular mode of being, so do the costumes we assume and the clothes we wear. Boys’ clothes tend to veer towards more mobile and utilitarian styles, while for girls they remain restrictive, embellished and decorative.

Caroline Bettis, head of childrenswear at John Lewis, cited “not wanting to reinforce stereotypes” as the reason behind the labelling decision. Those stereotypes can take hold very young. It is thought children begin recognising gender from the age of 1, even associating certain objects with a particular gender. From here it isn’t a huge leap to the gender gaps that harm society, such as girls believing brilliance is a male trait.

That’s despite neuroscientists increasingly dismissing the idea that there are fundamental differences in male and female brains. They include Lise Eliot, author of the book Pink Brain, Blue Brain. Drawing from years of research into neuroplasticity, she believes that while genes and hormones create physical differences, structural MRI scans display little disparity in areas of the brain most commonly cited as explaining “gender-specific” traits.

Gender identity doesn’t always fit the binary model—it is thought that as many as 2 per cent of live births are of babies who are intersex. Gender is more complex than external anatomy. Gender doesn’t necessarily match the sex you are born into. If sex and gender aren’t a perfect dichotomy—why should clothing be?

First published in New Scientist by Lara Williams.