Why the Future of Kids' Fashion is Gender-Neutral
Looking beyond blue and pink.
In 2015, Target announced it would remove the “boys” and “girls” labels from its toys section. The decision caused a stir, to put it mildly. For every news outlet that praised the retailer for making its toy section more welcoming to all, another claimed the decision was a political move that would only serve to harm children. But, praise and backlash aside, Target was simply responding to a market that is no longer interested in confining girls to pink princesses and boys to blue trucks.
Other retailers quickly followed suit. Like Target, UK retailer John Lewis made headlines earlier this year when it announced it would remove the “boys” and “girls” labels from its clothing. Meanwhile, River Island recently revealed it would create its first unisex children’s range for its RI Kids Studio line, launching this December. For new childrenswear brands entering the market, like Haus of JR and Bash + Sass, going unisex is a viable and socially aligned strategy from get-go.
The decision to champion gender-neutral children’s clothing is starkly in line with a public discourse that is focusing on gender-neutrality at large. The Church of England has urged children to explore their gender identity without judgment, and even the New York City subway is dropping the phrase “ladies and gentlemen” in favor of more neutral terminology. In line with the shifting times, the world of kids’ fashion is finally catching up to a new generation of parents – and their kids – who aren’t so concerned with adhering to a strict gender binary.
Haus of JR
“I think it’s important to give kids choices,” says Irene Lee, who launched unisex line Bash + Sass in October. “Clothing is a way for anyone, adult or child, to express themselves and feel good about themselves. There are plenty of girl and boy-centric options out there, but they might not be what every kid wants.”
Target may have been responding to pressure from consumers in its decision to go gender-neutral, but for many of the founders of today’s emerging kids’ brands, the decision came more organically. And often, they’re responding to the needs of their own families rather than external pressures.
“The collection was inspired by our boys,” Ruth Cozens and Leanne O’Shea, co-founders of Tobias & the Bear, say. “Three years ago, the ‘blue tractors for boys, pink butterflies for girls’ style of dressing was everywhere, and we really wanted to dress our boys in something a little more stylish.”
Sophia Tran was also trying to fill a void in the market for her own kids, who didn’t necessarily respond to the hyper-feminine or masculine children’s clothing on the market. Her search for more straightforward pieces led her and her husband to found Haus of JR, which is named for their daughter Jordyn and son Ryder. “Jordyn was definitely not the girly girl and my husband and I were all about elevated basics,” she says.
And though Tobias & the Bear’s founders were thinking of boys when they developed their line of printed leggings, they quickly saw how well their pieces lended themselves to a unisex approach. “Shortly after launching, we realized that parents of girls were also buying the designs – just as bemused at the pigeonholing. And so, very organically, the collection evolved into a unisex line. We’re not about being prescriptive, we just like offering what we believe is good design,” recall Cozens and O’Shea on the evolution of the brand.
The same philosophy extends to children’s toys as well. Toca Boca, which is based in Stockholm and San Francisco, takes an open-ended approach to developing its “digital toys.” The games aren’t about winning or surpassing levels, but playing and exploring, and consequently there’s no gendered division among the games. Indeed, the strategy seems to be working – since 2011 its products have amassed 200 million downloads.
“To us that came very naturally. It wasn’t a weird way of looking at kids’ toys. It was about making products for kids – not girls or boys,” says Toca Boca’s president and COO Caroline Ingeborn. And when designing digital toys, it’s much easier to break away from the traditional confines of the boys and girls sections of physical retailers. “The app store is not blue or pink,” Ingeborn notes.
Toca Boca expanded into brick-and-mortar shops this year with the launch of its line of physical toys and kids’ clothing and chose Target as the exclusive retailer owing to the company’s removal of gendered labels from its toy section. Target still divides its kids’ clothing by gender, however, but Toca Boca believes its clothes can be worn by any kid despite the label. And the brand found a way to subvert expectations – included in the “boys” section is a coral pink T-shirt with a cute sloth cartoon.
But the shift toward gender-neutral fashion for kids isn’t simply a radical invention of the digital generation. For years, babies were given the same white clothing to make washing easier and it wasn’t until the twentieth century that the colors blue and pink even began to take on a gendered connotation. A 1918 article on kids’ clothing reads, “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.” Only in the post-World War II era did pink become codified as feminine and blue as masculine, and by the 1980s, manufacturers of kids’ products realized they could convince parents to buy the same products twice if they segregated items into strict boy and girl categories.
Today’s parents are perhaps a bit savvier, and see the value in investing in pieces that can be easily passed around through siblings of different genders. As many of the creators of today’s kids’ brands are parents themselves, they understand the practicality in taking a gender-neutral approach to childrendswear. “We knew we wanted a big family, so creating pieces where a sister can hand down an outfit to her little brother and have him look just as cool was what we had in mind,” Tran says of the concept behind Haus of JR. Lee echoes a similar sentiment about her minimalist pieces for Bash + Sass. “Kids grow so fast and can only wear things for a short period of time. They’re easy to pass on to other families and friends who appreciate the same style concepts.”
As these brands have noticed, after stripping away the pink and blue trimmings there isn’t really much of a difference in the shapes and cuts of casual boys’ and girls’ apparel – just look at the new KITH KIDSET collection for example. “Kidswear is a relevant place to think about unisex clothing because that is where body shape is less different – it is capturing a zeitgeist moment but it’s also highly practical,” River Island’s customer director Josie Cartridge says.
The kids’ market isn’t just responding to the practical concerns of parents, but is also taking its cues from an adult fashion world which is increasingly embracing unisex styles – especially streetwear brands. Though the streetwear scene has been criticized for excluding women, pieces like hoodies, sneakers and T-shirts are already widely seen as unisex, a fact more and more brands are beginning to capitalize on. Just this month, Oklahoma City Thunder player Russell Westbrook released his unisex line Honor the Gift. In July, A$AP Ferg developed a unisex denim line with Agolde and in October, Aleali May released her Air Jordan 1 design for both men and women.
Practical benefits and trends aside, the brands at the forefront of the trend also recognize the wider effects gender-neutral options can have on kids. Ingeborn believes a shared experience through toys or clothing can help children better empathize with each other. “There’s a lot of pressure on kids. It’s about choice. It’s about feeling that you’re represented,” Ingeborn says. “If we have the same play experience, then that unites us.”
“Just imagine going into a clothing store where menswear and womenswear were divided into color and themes such as princesses and action heroes. This would cause an uprise, so why are we conditioning our children this way?” asks Siobhan Joseph, director of KIDD-IN London. KIDD-IN’s clothes are all about discovery, letting kids decide how they want to express themselves. The brand rejects labels – even the terms gender-neutral or unisex are too restrictive, Joseph says. “We aim for freedom of expression, creativity and style without the early pressures of social understanding and labels.”
For many parents, the ultimate positive outcome is letting kids make their own choices. “Making toys gender-neutral simply means we’re giving children more opportunities,” Cozens and O’Shea say. “But you know, it’s also ok if a little girl only wants to play with dolls, and a boy only with cars. Let them choose. Let them be kids.”