Parents seek gender-neutral clothes
NEW YORK — Pink for girls. Truck motifs for boys. A growing number of parents want to get outside those parameters when it comes to dressing their kids.
Kristin Higgins was adamant about not pushing “girly” stereotypes on her daughter, and painted her room in shades of green. Higgins later dressed her up in superhero costumes. But as her daughter got older, it took more work to locate items that broke the mold. For “Star Wars”-themed pajamas, she had to go to the boys’ section.
“It’s hard to find gender-neutral clothing,” said Higgins, 35, of Little Rock, whose daughter is now 6. “I want her to just get up and put on the clothing without thinking of putting on a costume, an identity.”
Shopping for her 7-month-old son, Higgins finds clothes mainly have pictures like fire engines or sharks. What about cats, cupcakes or hearts, she wonders.
For parents looking for clothes that defy gender norms, the options for back-to-school shopping are still limited — but they’re growing. Some big retailers like Lands’ End and Zara are making small changes to their offerings, while some frustrated parents have launched their own companies to make the items they wanted to find.
“There is really a sharp divide between what is considered girls’ stuff and what’s considered boys’ stuff,” said Courtney Hartman. She started Seattle-based Jessy & Jack, a collection of unisex T-shirts for kids that have robots and dinosaurs, and Free to Be Kids, where a shirt with the slogan, “I’m a Cat Guy” comes in blue, gray and yellow.
Companies like Jessy & Jack and a collection called Princess Awesome, where dresses have trains and planes, are among nearly 20 online brands that formed a campaign called Clothes Without Limits last year that they’re reprising for the back-to-school season. Still, many of the items are not cheap — T-shirts at $20 can be pricey for growing kids.
Bigger companies are offering some options, after similar shifts in the toy and bedding aisles to more neutral signs and products. Lands’ End launched a line of science T-shirts two years ago after a customer complained on social media that there was only one version for boys. As part of its new Cat & Jack brand of children’s clothing that kids helped design, Target offers unisex-fit T-shirts online with slogans like, “Smart & Strong” and “Future Astronaut.”
And fast-fashion chain Zara launched a collection in March for teens and older called “Ungendered” under its TRF line, which focuses on basics like T-shirts, sweatshirts and jeans. Experts and parents also notice that some images like dinosaurs are popping up on girls’ clothing under the Boden brand and others.
More has changed for girls’ clothes than for boys, but the vast majority of children’s clothing is still gender-specific, says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at market research group NPD Group Inc.
Martine Zoer, who founded Seattle-based Quirkie Kids because her sons wanted to wear pink, said that in response to her selling unisex shirts in that hue, she says she got emails saying “boys should not wear pink as it would turn them gay.”
A good portion of children’s clothing buyers are grandparents who tend to embrace more traditional ideas, says Cohen, who doesn’t expect large-scale change until the next generation starts having children.
“Once we get past the cultural discussion, that’s when you’ll see the (major) brands step out,” Cohen said. “No one wants to risk the chance of rocking the boat.”
Stores like J.C. Penney and Nordstrom say they listen to shoppers, but aren’t getting customer requests to blur the gender lines.
Those behind the new brands say they’re seeing the demand. Hartman said annual sales are pushing six-digit figures.