The Dinosaur on the High Street: An open letter to Marks & Spencers

Updated: Nov 20, 2018

Published in January 2015 during the #Dinosaursforall Campaign

Dear Marks and Spencer,

Thank you for your open and prompt dialogue regarding the Natural History Museum range marketed to boys only, the reply below is by far our favourite (a genuinely refreshing reply from any customer service team)

As a Science enthusiast myself, I’m also a little unhappy to see that the range only caters for boys. Please be aware therefore that I have passed your comments onto our Kidswear Team.”

Since your Kidswear team isn’t customer facing, we would really appreciate more information on how you intend this range to ‘evolve’ (your choice of word) in light of our supporters’ “fair and valid comments”.  Evolve is in fact the perfect word, because that is what is needed across your Kidswear range.

Could you simply include NHM Dinosaur T-Shirts in your Girl’s category online and place a few lines under the large cardboard GIRLS sign in store? Why would that not work? Why would it look like it didn’t belong there?  The problem is visible across your whole Kidswear range, but this is a great place to start turning things around.

Last Spring Marks and Spencer agreed to drop its Boys Stuff and Little Miss Arty ranges, no longer packaging dinosaurs, cars and planes under the former. In a statement, M&S said:

“We offer a wide range of fun and educational toys, which are designed to appeal to children regardless of gender. We have listened carefully to feedback from our customers and by spring next year all of our toys will be gender neutral.”

Is clothing any different? The issue becomes more complicated when you notice that a lot of girls clothes are modelled on women’s fashion, they are in many ways not made for play in terms of movement, durability and theme. Take your current range of t-shirts aimed at girls – slim fitted, with stylised model characters and mobile phone motifs with  LOL and C U Later in “twinkling sequins for a glamorous finishing touch.”  You’ll spot nothing similar in the boys range, where T-Shirts look like, well, T-Shirts. T-Shirt: a short-sleeved casual top, generally made of cotton, having the shape of a T when spread out flat. The T-Shirts on sale in your girls’ section are nearly all slim fit and cropped, barely casual and more like a “T” holding its breathe. This sequinned lip top is designed to be so snug it wouldn’t have fitted my toddler (bored on yet another research trip) but is in fact labelled age 7 years. Note the t-shirts placed together in both photos are all the same age size, one from GIRLS and one from BOYS.

The 2011 Bailey Review, endorsed by the UK government, looked at the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood, with recommendations made for a voluntary code of practice to be led by the British Retail Consortium (or BRC) which you, Marks and Spencer, signed up to. It’s easy to follow and simple enough to put into practice, but unfortunately has no teeth, so it’s widely ignored. Here are the key bits:

Collections should enable children to be confident about their developing bodies and enjoy play and physical activity whilst maintaining modesty.

Why are M&S girl’s shorts SO short? Compare to the boys (bottom) which also have deeper pockets. Remove the issue of modesty, and ask WHY are all your girl’s shorts so much shorter than what you offer boys. Why the need to expose more of girls legs to the elements? (Where is the choice?)

BRC retail members recognise their responsibilities in providing clothing… in ways which do not unduly stereotype children

Boys are expert “fans of the Natural History Museum,” girls are offered “pretty” kitten t-shirts.

Online you state boys will be won over by cool graphics, whereas girls will never want to take off suchpretty prints. Or compare the blurb in your coats sections; notice how to the point the last one is. (Are boys less discerning than girls?)

COATS & JACKETS Keep her cosy and dry with our selection of pretty and practical jackets and coats. Including printed parkas, lightweight raincoats and denim jackets, there’s something for even the most discerning girls. COATS & JACKETS These smart and stylish coats are made with a host of clever fabric technologies to ensure maximum durability and long wear.

Consideration should be given to providing a choice of colours, including gender neutral choices.

First bras should be constructed to provide comfort, modesty and support but not enhancement. The padded Angel range of bras, available from 28AA (first size); is it moulded for support or enhancement? Due to concerns raised by parents during the Bailey Review, one of the recommendations states that every effort should be made to provide information on the first bra range’s that use moulded cups to avoid confusion. Last week I spotted this on your Facebook page:

Cara Howard to Marks and Spencer: “Just returned from a bra shopping trip for my 13 year old, disgusted to note that in your ‘Angel’ range, supposedly ‘first bras’ that every single one is padded and/or underwired. This is completely unacceptable. Young girls with developing bodies need to feel confident with what they have, not sexualised or made to feel inadequate. Not one single age appropriate, non padded or underwired bra for a 13 year old in the entire store. You should be ashamed.”

Swimwear should provide modesty… and be designed with children’s needs specifically in mind. Bikinis for youngsters are fairly common, and M&S has a few varieties of style, but this one – for ages 5 years and up – baffles me.  The top is designed around something filling it, surely? (again, an example of adult fashion for children) Could you see a boy being presented with something so flimsy?

In designing footwear for everyday use, the standard approach should be to provide a stable supporting shoe with a heel pitch (angle of foot) in general not more than 2.5cm… and avoid excessive heel height.

M&S sells some of the biggest heels for girls on the high street (though fewer styles than some), with current Faux Suede Boots (1-4) at a whopping 6cm heel, and these “comfy and stylish” Jewel Embellished Wedges (10Jnr-6) at 3cm heel height. Children’s feet are completely different to adults and don’t actually stop growing and developing until around age 14 – this means any damage to the foot, ligaments or posture caused by wearing heels, can be permanent. Again, could you see heels like this on boys shoes? Any why not… (is it because it makes running and playing difficult perhaps?)

Marks and Spencer isn’t alone in its dubious interpretation of tedious gender norms in kidswear, far from it, but it is a great example of a department that has backed itself into a corner. We can only hope that the evolved range won’t feature pink dinosaurs blushing and batting their eyelashes, on tops that are fitted or cropped, because that is the reality of your girls section. Please, M&S, go back to the drawing board and start treating children as children, rather than merely pretty girls and cool boys, or you will continue to discriminate. Girls deserve the right to play, learn and explore, just as boys should have the choice to wear kittens and butterfly tops. Children should choose their own interests.

So here’s a starting point. Why not look at girls and boys as part of the same species, with the same needs. Focus on play, on being active and comfortable, and engaged in fun and learning – after all, you have an entire National Museum collection to be inspired by! Start there, and design for all children. That means more colours beyond the dull blue and grey spectrum for boys too. Consider the most simple and exciting of ideas that boys may want to wear Hello Kitty, butterflies, rainbows and flowers too! Then, marketing NHM Dinosaur t-shirts and pyjamas to boys and girls will be like child’s play. Allow your Kidswear to evolve for all children.