Gender marketing leads children down the pink or blue path, alongside a dualistic litany of motifs and slogans, but how do designers decide who gets what? We take a look at this years Christmas must-have - the animal onesie!
They're cuddly, they're warm, their comfort levels are ... higher than any normal two-piece - yes! as we start the slow, up-hill trudge towards Christmas, its onesie's at the ready for those chilly, darker evenings; but whats with the oddly gendered animal onesie's? Lions, Tigers and Bears, oh my! for boys, domestic bunnies and kittens (cute!) for girls - often tragically pinkified for added girl factor. That's girl and not GRRRLLL btw. Surely animals (regardless of sex I should add) can't be so easily genderneered into a girl or a boy stereotype, all animals for all kids right? Similar to the treatment of our friend's the Dinosaur and the Unicorn, far too many retailers push the perception that boys, as natures little monster, have a natural propensity towards teeth, roaring and general blood-shed mayhem, and girls to domestic pets, like caged bunnies. Here's a few giftee's being pitched for Christmas 2019...
As creepy costumes go, Canis Lupus has the bite to provide the trick if your treat isn't forthcoming, and designers at John Lewis didn't fail to add some sharp teeth to the hood on this one - ominously marketed as a boys only onesie. Wolves feature heavily in myth and popular culture, but have a grim association for being big and bad, which is a message we often see in slogans aimed at boys, such as "here comes trouble." George at Asda goes one step further, offering a "TERRORIFIC" grey and a black wolf onesie in their boys section, for "your little monster."
The wolf has become a common feature in boyswear, alongside sharks and carnivorous dinosaurs - with gums exposed and fangs a-blazing, but for a onesie that very genuinely likely to traumatise youngsters, I nominate this Brown Bear Onesie (for boys, obvs) at George, Asda. Its not hard for anyone who has seen Werner Herzog's Grizzley Man to feel the real presence of a genuinely terrifying killer rather than say, Paddington or Pooh. Aimed at children from 24 months, this ferocious all-in-one is, perhaps to alleviate some of the fear, described as "for your little bear to snuggle up in" or more likely, eaten whole. Contrast this bear to another brown bear onesie, this time for girls and sold at Peacocks. Notice any major changes? Its not as if EITHER are an accurate or new representation of Ursidae Arctos, but two very different interpretations of facial characteristics and colour - note the girls version has eyelashes, a heart nose and an insipid grin.
What should a design intended for both girls and boys look like? I'm not sure, but wouldn't it be great to see childrenswear designers throw aside the shackles of gender stereotypes and work using positive principles to guide clothing in childhood. Rather than the continuation and enforcement of sexist ideas about children, why not make clothing fun instead, comfortable, durable and engaging. Why work with negative assumptions when you can actively promote equality and unity. It isn't hard to do, and is illustrated perfectly here from this marketing shot by Marks and Spencer's. Great right?
Then there's the infestation of pink rabbits, all without exception, sold as the acceptable and go-to girlswear purchase. From a retailers perspective, it sort of works, its just easy to pick and pay for an item a trusted retailer is telling is for your female child. I remember when my oldest was four and I needed to buy her a raincoat, I ignored the blue one and went straight to the pink one, reasoning "its pink, she will definitely like that one" because? She's a girl, and I just didn't question the fact that a. she had a choice, b. she may like a different colour. This thinking is definitely compounded by the fact that customers are faced with not one set of gender stereotypes, but two. If you avoid the pink rabbit aisle, your only other option is dull, grey, toothy wolf. That's not a choice.
I do however find the John Lewis Girls Pink Rabbit Onesie more than a little beady-eyed creepy, a cross between Month Python's Rabbit of Caerbannog and the bunnies Anya from Buffy the Vampire Slayer was always so worried about. John Lewis, who in 2017 famously stated they "did not want to reinforce gender stereotypes" through their childrenswear, sell girls pink unicorn, girls pink llama and girls pink deer onesies with "Little girls will love this!" states the description, and I'm sure they will, but so CAN boys.
The below images are also John Lewis, and I'm just going to leave this here. (Just in case there are any zoology enthusiasts reading this, note the "deer" has antler tips, yet the only female deer within the species of DEER to grow antlers are... Reindeer. No clue why one is asleep and the other looks seriously wired)
Then there's this, the completely new pink sub-species.
From left to right:
Girls Pink Princess Hippo Onesie at Matalan
Girls Pink Leopard Onesie at Next
Girls Pink Llama Onesie at John Lewis
Girls Pink Bunny Onesie, Bluezoo at Debenhams
Girls Pink Reindeer Onesie, George at Asda
Girls Pink Leopard Onesie, Boden
Girls Pink Bear Face, George at Asda
Girls Pink Borg Bear Onesie, Marks and Spencer
The colour pink itself is obviously not the problem, the fact that these are all for girls is. There is nothing feminine or female about the colour pink, from a science point of view there is nothing about girls and women's brains that leads them towards this one particular colour, nor has pink always been associated with girls. It is a fairly recent phenomena, loaded with ideas about girls that are simply not true, after all - there is more than one way to be a girl.
You can't fail to notice that unicorns have become the byword of anything in the girlhood stratosphere, in identical ways to the Dinosaur, who clearly stomped out of existence because they were all boys, right? (though being all girls worked out ok for the Jurassic Park crew.) The unicorns of my youth were synonymous with fantasy, popping up in films like Legend, or sheep-like bleating under the arm of bobby in Dungeons and Dragons. The national symbol of Scotland, that horn could do you some serious harm, and yet today's rendition of this most mythical of beasts is almost, well, sweet - sugary so.
Get your 80's fix with this gang from my childhood...
So, where did all the male unicorns go? Who decided ALL unicorns for ALL girls? When did it become unacceptable for boys to no longer like unicorns, I mean, its just a horse with a large phallic object on its head? What's next, Narwhals? (actually, I think that's also been added to camp girl)
Here's our run down of unicorn-onesie-world. GO
From left to right: La Redoute Girls Unicorn Onesie (Snouty), John Lewis Girls Unicorn Onesie (Dragony) and Next Girls Unicorn Onesie (a bit pig like)
Unicorn Onesie's for women too at Next, but not boys or men, and choose from three different colours at Marks and Spencer's (below)
It is NOT degrading for boys to like unicorns, pink or wear/do things that are traditionally linked with femininity and girlhood. It simply isn't, but we need to start this conversation with boys, and retailers have a huge part to play. We checked all the high street retailers on our list, George at Asda, Peacocks, Debenhams, Matalan, M&S, Next, John Lewis, Sainsburys, Tesco F&F, Nutmeg at Morrison's, Boden, Jojo Maman Bebe, H&M - even Argos, who for a second I thought, yes! The holy grail - no gender filters, but...
So how do we start to change things? Visibility is everything, but who makes that first step. We would like to see retailers move away from girl or boy categories altogether and just sell clothes to children, but some are clearly hesitant, fearing that perhaps society just isn't ready for something as radical as a boy in a pink unicorn onesie - but give us, parents and children, the chance to decide. It is fantastic that Marks and Spencer's have introduced the WIDEST range of unisex onesie's on the high street this year, with great inclusive photographs (although I do wonder how this translates in stores) and that is clear progress - for girls, but lets see some of those boy stereotypes taken apart too. For us, John Lewis were the worst for animal and character onesie's this year, with a clear split (with photos and titles) along lines of gender stereotypes - right down to boys getting superhero and astronaut onesie's. I find it almost offensive that when searching for space items on the John Lewis website, I came across this "I can be an Astronaut" Barbie alongside their "John Lewis Boys Astronaut Onesie"- note they offer no clothing for girls with a space theme (and are not alone in this)
We believe messaging also matters, and right from the get go kids are picking up on these ideas, these limitations. Talking to kids (and adults) is also an important step, get them asking questions - what makes this for girls/boys? Reach out for support too, you may be surprised by the response to a simple request for pictures of other boys wearing unicorn tops (which happened on twitter recently), just to show - its ok, you're not alone.
We've set up an instagram account for this very purpose, so please show your stereotype busting onesie snaps with us by using the hashtag #letclothesbeclothes, or follow us on twitter @letclothesbe