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Why aren't girls clothes functional? Navigating the gender divide in preschool fashion

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Published Sep. 20, 2018

e_SDLqHow adorable!" crooned the woman in line behind us at the department store. "And look at those lashes. How old is he?"

I looked down at my 3-year-old daughter, Lia, who was trying to scale the counter, and paused. It's not unusual for strangers to think my little girl is a little boy. People are used to seeing boys with tumbles of curls like hers — but a girl wearing boxy olive-green pants and a sturdy space-motif T-shirt has a way of throwing off the gender radar.

Lia's bucking of clothing stereotypes isn't her choice (yet). When her older brother started outgrowing his clothing, I put a lot of it aside for Lia. The hand-me-downs saved money and let us squeeze a little more enjoyment out of those tiny jackets and sweet sailor shirts. While I was happy if they also happened to de-girlify her wardrobe, I didn't set out to turn her into a pint-size fashion iconoclast.

But by the time Lia was a year old, I was buying most of her clothes in boys' sections. When she started walking, then running and climbing and jumping, I looked for clothes that were as functional as my son's: Pants that would buffer her knees against falls and have pockets to hold the rocks and leaves she picked up in the park. Substantial shirts that would shield her arms from the sun and mask grass stains and food smears.

Instead, I found girls' sections filled with lightweight leggings, scoop-neck tops, and embellished shoes. I scoured the internet for girls' pants with capacious pockets and reinforced knees, and found maddeningly few options.

I eventually realized that, even in an age of female fighter pilots and #MeToo, boys' clothes are largely designed to be practical, while girls' are designed to be pretty. Now when I shop for Lia, I hit the boys' section first. It's not just about avoiding skinned knees, but also the subtle and discouraging message that's woven right into girls' garments: you are dressed to decorate, not to do.

Some might think I'm being sartorially oversensitive. But what we wear matters — and not just as a projection of our personalities and priorities. An abundance of research has shown that our clothes affect how other people perceive us, as well as how we see ourselves.

A 2012 study by researchers at Kenyon College showed that adults thought fifth-grade girls who wore more sexualized outfits were less intelligent and capable than girls who wore more childish clothes. In another study, published in the journal Social Behavior and Personality, ballerinas who wore tights and leotards felt worse about their bodies and their performances than those who wore loose get-ups.

How we dress can even change the way we act. Studies have found that wearing more formal work clothes can get people thinking in a more abstract, big-picture way, and that adults become more focused when they put on lab coats — even if they're not scientists. It's not a stretch to think that putting our girls in tighter, frillier, flimsier clothes can imprint them with outdated notions about what they can and should do.

Though designs obviously vary from brand to brand, experts say that overall, the gender discrepancies in kids' clothes are very real.

"Especially in the toddler years, the boys have more pockets, they have more fun active clothes than the girls," said Francesca Sammaritano, a children's wear designer and assistant professor of fashion at Parsons School of Design. "There's leg room for bending your knees."

The differences in cut — boxier for boys, narrower and more revealing for girls — have nothing to do with differences in children's frames. Designers even use the same dress forms for both genders, Sammaritano said. "The body is the same, size-wise. You're growing and developing in the same way until you reach six years, more or less."

The gender divisions are a relatively new thing, said Jo Paoletti, a fashion scholar and author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys From the Girls in America.

"All you have to do is look at the last 30 years of consumer culture for children to see these stereotypes coming out more and more," she told me. One reason, she said, is the rise in the 1990s of third-wave feminism, which embraced traditionally feminine looks; another is the prevalence of tests that let parents find out a child's sex before birth, and have led to the trend of holding gender-reveal parties in pregnancy.

"Parents started reacting to that," Ms. Paoletti said. "But all it means is, it prepares you to buy all the stuff — and prepares you mentally to be able to raise a human being — according to cultural stereotypes."

A more insidious reason: With declining birthrates, clothing manufacturers have been hungry for ways to keep sales up. "If you can figure out a way to make it harder for people to share or hand down clothes, you're going to do it," Ms. Paoletti said.

To be sure, a few companies have made efforts to break gender ranks. There are unisex lines from new brands such as Primary and Svaha, and traditional ones like Carter's. Lands' End started selling girls' leggings with the same reinforced knees its boys' pants have; Girls Will Be makes shorts and pants with pockets.

But much of the industry still seems to be engaged in a color war.

I haven't enlisted. Pink isn't banned from our house; neither are flowery dresses. And Lia loves both — though she also recently asked me to replace the blue tee with a train engine on the front that she had outgrown. And I've begun mixing "girlie" colors into my son's drawers.

Increasingly, I find it silly that we have "boys'" and "girls'" clothes at all. I'd much rather buy my children clothes that speak to their actual interests rather than the interests they are presumed to have because of their genders. Why should girls be confined to pastels and kittens, boys to navy blue and construction-equipment motifs?

My 5-year-old son finds joy in rainbows, flowers and things that glitter. I've been scouring the girls' sections for a shirt for him — let me know if you see one without puffed sleeves.

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