The Equal Classroom, Routledge 2019

Edited Lucy Rycroft-Smith & Graham Andre

Excerpt from Chapter 10: Gendered Clothes, by Francesca Mallen

  1. European Commission, Report on the equality between women and men (2008) p. 11

  2. Aston University Press Release, National Childrenswear Survey Shape GB (2011)  

  3. Complaint by Tonje Kleven Lung via Levi’s Facebook page (18 June 2018)

  4. Complaint by Lucie Burns to Land’s End UK via email correspondence (7 June 2018)

  5. Sonshine Magazine, Introductions: Childrenswear Buyer (24 May 2018)

  6. Pragma Papers: Market Snapshot UK, Baby & Children’s Market (2017) P. 8

  7. The Independent, Tesco called out for sexist marketing of children’s clothes (7 June 2017)

  8. Girly Glue, It’s never too early to be girlie, (2018)

  9. Sonshine Magazine, Introductions: Childrenswear Buyer (24 May 2018)

  10. Statista Statistic’s Portal, Market value of the children’s apparel and footwear industry in the UK from 2017 to 2021, (2018)

  11. British Retail Consortium, Responsible retailing: BRC Childrenswear Guidelines (2011) P. 3

  12. Wise Campaign, Women in STEM workforce (2017) 

  13. The Telegraph, Marks and Spencers criticised over sexist clothes range (22 January 2015)

  14., Make sexism in the design and marketing of childrenswear extinct (2015)

  15. BBC News, Aiming toys at just boys or girls hurts economy - minister (6 February 2014)

  16. Evening Standard, Row over M&S boys-only dinosaur shirts (22 January 2015)

  17. Correspondence between NHM customer services on behalf of Director of Public Engagement and Commercial Activities, and Let Clothes Be Clothes Campaigner (23 February 2015)

  18. Stem Learning, News - Skills shortage costing STEM sector £1.5bn (17 May 2018)

Despite picking the most ubiquitous pair of school trainers I could find, my daughter can’t squeeze her foot past the open laces. On our return trip, she races off to the nearest colourful offering she can see, the inevitable GIRL sign towering overhead. “Girls shoes are just cut slimmer - its the fashion!” smile staff when I compare a similar but visibly wider pair lifted from the boys section. Likewise,  basic school shoes embody the prevailing girls versus boys clothing culture in cut, shape, motif and messaging. The rise of trend-led school shoes, including wedges, heels and ballet flats should alarm even those with a basic understanding of podiatry (1), stereotyping girls as style focused rather than active children. Comfort should be key, yet we know children’s choices in clothing and shoes are being limited by gender coded designs and displays, built on traditional ideas about what it means to be male or female. If we are to strive for a more equal society, then equality for our children should be of paramount concern and start at a very young age.(2)


UK high street sizing guides are, almost without exception, the same for girls and boys up until puberty, and yet cut is radically different depending on which section you head for. A study of children in 2011(3) found children’s body sizes have increased in height, chest, waist and hips since 1990 - with only marginal differences between the sexes. However a customer buying a plain white t-shirt(4) from both the girls and boys section will end up with entirely different products. Urging retailers to be more consistent and up front about sizing is one solution, but school uniform is also facing it’s own “fashionising of childhood,”(5) carrying implications from adult designs and the sexualisation of girls, to toxic ideas about maleness to boys. Tech terms like “Airtred Soles”(6) with dinosaur treads are pitched in opposition to “Sensitive Soles” with flowers (so popular a signal for “girl” that some parents in the US use Girly Glue to stick blooms to their newborns heads.)(7) Pink out-sells other colours by up to 75%(8) (gender-coding is big business) but when responsibility to not “unduly stereotype”(9) childrenswear rests with a voluntary code - is it time for schools to step into this debate? By age 4 my oldest daughter could articulate that not only was Science a subject for boys, but that only boys were good at it - an idea that didn’t come from her parents. The drip drip messaging that girls and boys are inherently different by this rigid gender divide (including appearance, interests, aspirations and abilities) will inevitably have implications in the classroom.


In 2015 Let Clothes Be Clothes(10) led a campaign to highlight the exclusion of girls from Science themed clothing(11). With over 30 items of STEM relevant clothing on sale in the Boyswear department at M&S, this stood in sharp contrast to not one featuring in the girls section. Dinosaurs for all(12) attracted worldwide attention and bi-partisan support against growing concern that negative messages were impacting the aspirations and career choices of girls. The NHM collaboration with Marks and Spencer produced a range of fun-fact mini-exhibit T-shirts featuring Dinosaurs and Insects aimed exclusively at boys. The science community came out in support of the resulting demonstration (organised by Chi Onwurah MP(13), however, the museum felt that by targeting “specific societal groups,” M&S was merely following the childrenswear status quo. As a former Curator for a National Museum, I wondered at what point that kind of thinking became the norm. After all, children as young as 2(14) can spot which item belongs to which side of the strict gender divide. In the last Girl Guiding Attitudes Survey(15), 80% of those asked could identify what was an item of girls clothing, not what was marketed to girls. Likewise “maleness” is exploited by retailers through a litany of predatory teeth and claws, making Dinosaurs a universal theme. Young boys have little choice but to go with the options already laid out for them, responding not just to wider societal expectations, but also fear of embracing anything unacceptable. Widespread use of gender coding has given rise to the belief that our clothing options are following a natural order, but there is no scientific basis to this assumption.(16) Despite these colours performing a switcheroo after early trendsetters proclaimed blue a dainty colour and pink ideal for boys(17), the idea of a pink girl or blue boy brain has taken hold both in and outside the classroom.(18)

(Continued in book)

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