Row erupts over gender-neutral kids’ clothes

Neutral: What will removing gender labels mean for the kids? © Jeanette Kupfermann

Do clothes have a gender? John Lewis is labelling all of its kids’ gear as being for boys and girls. But elsewhere in Britain, a family is suing a school for allowing boys to wear dresses.

“The school environment is a place where children are children, and not to be subjected to a political ideology,” said Nigel Rowe this week. He and his wife Sally live on the Isle of Wight with their two young sons, whom they describe as happy, normal children.

But in the last year they have pulled them both out of the local primary school, after each became “confused” and “stressed” by another boy’s behaviour in their class. In both cases, a boy had chosen to start wearing a dress.

Now the Rowes are planning to sue, arguing that schools are not the place to deal with transgender issues.

Children’s clothes have become a hot debate in the UK recently. NHS referrals to a children’s gender clinic have increased sixfold in five years (although not all children who experiment with their gender when young will be transgender for the rest of their lives).

And last week, John Lewis announced that it would be removing the labels from its childrenswear. Instead of separating them into “boys” and “girls” sections, everything will be labelled either “boys & girls” or “girls & boys”.

“We do not want to reinforce gender stereotypes,” said a spokesperson.

The decision sparked a fierce reaction on both sides. In New Scientist, Lara Williams praised the store for making a “radical” choice backed by science; studies show that gender stereotypes are learned by children at very young ages, and that they are generally harmful to society.

Others were outraged. Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen slammed the “onward march of the PC brigade” in the UK. “If you have sons, why do you want to waste time wading through the dress section?”

And yet, separating children’s clothes is a relatively new invention in the West. For hundreds of years, up until the 20th century, children often wore the same white dresses until they were six or seven. And when pink and blue were introduced as common children’s colours in the 1800s, it took decades for society to decide which colour was for boys and which for girls.

Sugar and spice

“Good on John Lewis,” say some. Kids should be allowed to wear whatever they want; it is ridiculous to suggest that girls only like princesses, or that boys cannot enjoy the freedom of a skirt. Such ideas limit their imaginations. What’s more, they feed into stereotypes that can hurt us all. It is high time that unisex clothing returned.

“What a load of nonsense!” argue others. The parents and children who want gender-neutral clothing make up a very small minority; most families still like to put sons in shorts and daughters in dresses. It is confusing for children to suddenly remove the labels from their clothes; a century of tradition cannot be overturned so quickly.

You Decide

  1. Should all children’s clothes be labelled unisex?
  2. Are Nigel and Sally Rowe right to be concerned about trangender children in schools?


  1. Design three outfits for a three-year-old: one masculine, one feminine, and one gender-neutral. Which do you like best?
  2. Research the history of children’s clothing using the links under Become An Expert, and create a short presentation on how it has changed in the last 300 years.

Some People Say...

“Fashion has no gender.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
For centuries in Europe, white dresses were worn by all babies and children — the skirts were easy to lift up to change nappies, and the colour was easy to bleach after any “accidents”. In the 18th century, girls continued to wear this style until around 14, and boys began to start wearing breeches sometime between four and seven. Dresses were common for all young babies up until the 1950s.
What do we not know?
Whether society will return to truly unisex fashion in the near future. Unisex clothes are increasingly common for adults and children alike, but this often means trousers and shirts that can fit all body types. This is because it is still more acceptable for women to wear “masculine” styles than for men to wear “feminine” skirts and dresses.

Word Watch

This is when children feel their gender identity (“boy” or “girl”) does not match their biological sex (“male” or “female”). This is also known as having “gender dysphoria”.
According to the Gender Identity Development Service, which is the NHS’s only children’s gender clinic in the UK, there were 2,016 referrals of children between the ages three and 18 last year. This is compared to 314 referrals five years before.
Elaine Blakemore, a psychology professor at Indiana Purdue University, says children can tell the difference between genders as early as one year old.
For example, a study published in Science magazine this year found that, at age six, girls started avoiding activities which they were told were for “really, really smart” kids, leaving them to boys instead.
PC brigade
PC is short for “political correctness”, the idea that people are overly policing their own and others’ behaviour to avoid offending people.
Not until the 1940s was pink seen as for girls, and blue for boys. Until then, the opposite was often true.

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