I was on a London bus with a buggy recently. A mother got on with her two children – a girl, around seven years old, and a boy in a buggy. She was wearing a hijab – floor-length covering from her neck to the tips of her toes, a scarf wrapped around her hair, only her face and hands exposed. Her little girl was jumping around in jeans and a T-shirt. On her jeans was woven the word “sexy”.
From their conversation, I hazarded the mother was not a native English speaker; the meaning of the word emblazoned on her daughter’s clothing probably lost. But what wasn’t lost was the horrible irony of the mother’s attire in juxtaposition, and the patent inappropriateness of such an adult word, with all its adult twists and tangles of meaning and misuse, embroidered on jeans made to fit a small girl. It made me remember the jokey present a friend of mine was unhappy to receive on the birth of her son: a baby-grow that read ‘MILF’ (if you’re not familiar with this acronym, it begins ‘Mother I’d Like to...’). Freud, eat your heart out. The proliferation of mini-adults walking (or being wheeled around) the streets with adult graphics on their clothes that they can’t read, never mind understand, is something much debated. And yet it’s not just overt sexualisation that is the problem: what is more pernicious, because it is has become so accepted, is the distinct genderised clothing for the sexes. Pinks and purples with fairies and flowers for the girls, and “boy” colours – the ubiquitous blue, along with the dullest of greens and beiges – with monsters and dinosaurs for the boys.
The idea that a colour is synonymous with gender is a funny one, but somehow the colours of the rainbow have been appropriated by big brands who have divvied them up according to male or female. Abi Moore, co-founder of the Pink Stinks campaign says: “Big business is very powerful and it runs the show. Money talks. By creating these new lucrative markets there are boardrooms full of people rubbing their hands together with glee.”
At the very least, it’s annoying when you’re shopping for a child, and at the worst, it’s a statement on what your child is allowed to be (girls are usually allowed to be princesses and… no, that’s about it). If I dress my daughter in a yellow top and jeans, people always refer to her as “he”. I don’t care about people getting the gender wrong – it is hard to tell when they’re that age – but I do care that a bright, yellow top seems to say “boy” rather than “girl”. Since when don’t girls wear yellow?
Which is why I like what Kate Pietrasik, the designer behind the new children’s unisex clothing brand Tootsa MacGinty, is doing. She has worked with Tommy Hilfiger, Quicksilver, Roxy, Jack Wills and others, and lived in France for many years before returning to her native London with a baby daughter. “Shopping for girlswear in the UK was really different to being in France,” she says. “Everything here was pink or with very stylised images of princesses.” It didn’t sit well. But it seemed to fit with the segregated aisles she saw in toy shops, and the children’s birthday parties she went to, where the girls seemed to wear Disney-style outfits exclusively, and the boys had power tools across their chests. Looking back at photographs of friends and family when she was growing up in the Seventies, Kate confirmed to herself that it hasn’t always been thus. So she put her foot down.
Tootsa MacGinty (one of her daughter’s nicknames) is influenced by classic rather than consumerist style, and the idea that clothes for children should be built for sturdier purposes than the changing vagaries of style. The theory is that Tootsa MacGinty garments are ready-made “hand-me-downs”, to be passed from sibling to sibling, or friend to friend without that“worry” of something looking “girly” or “boyish”.
“They’re just children’s clothes for children,” Kate says. They rival the popular Scandinavian brands such as Swedish company, Polarn O Pyret, which predominately sells striped clothes and colourful trousers (available in the UK from houseoffraser. co.uk) which, though pricey, have become popular with parents who are trying to steer away from “fashion” and dress their children in bright colours. As the only British all-unisex children’s brand, Tootsa MacGinty, with its patch appliqués of British animals and childish graphics, has captured the imagination of trend forecasters and bloggers, as well as many independent boutiques across the country, which have already started to sell the clothes before the online launch.
This is not about forbidding girls to dress as princesses, or outlawing pink. And it’s not about rendering children genderless: the recent case of baby Storm, who is being raised as neither a boy nor a girl, seems too shudderingly close to a social experiment. We just don’t have to teach our children that their gender means they’re confined to being anything, or banned from wearing certain colours. And despite everything that went before, in this apparently enlightened age, that’s what we’re teaching them. Now that feels too much like a social experiment, and I’m not too keen on seeing the results.
Tootsa MacGinty (tootsamacginty.com) will be available to buy online from Monday