Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Dressed for Success

A recent discussion on the Racialicious blog concerning some ludicrous toddler footwear from Old Navy led me to think about how children's clothing has become one of the most pervasive forces for gender socialization in Western culture, and how this may have come about.

From the first day ex-utero onward, the forms and iconography of the clothes that children are dressed in differ distinctly between boys and girls. This not only plays into the process of binary gender identity development, but also the teaching of what kinds of behavior are expected of each gender role. These implied behaviors can be perceived in the very forms of articles of clothing - the types of activity facilitated (and degree of modesty demanded) by trousers, as compared to a dress, establish the boundaries for action within which children feel comfortable. More overtly, but perhaps less direct in dictating behavior, the decorative images featured on clothing definitely promote different affective attachments and role models for boys and girls (one need look no further than the aforementioned Old Navy socks to see what kind of career is being held up as the male ideal).

Lacking any real functional purpose, why should these differences exist in the first place? Until relatively recently, distinctions between the clothing of very young boys and girls was practically nonexistant. I would speculate that the differentiation came about as a result of the industrial revolution, and the commoditization of these clothes; by promoting the idea that only certain forms of clothing were appropriate for each sex, and thus not interchangeable between bro and sis, manufacturers could to sell more units to each family. Of course, this marketing tactic wasn't a completely conscious, crass invention of the capitalists - it required preexisting, at least nascent, cultural ideas about child rearing. These two forces, commerce and the common sense, could then proceed to feed off of and reinforce one another, as they plainly continue to do today.

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