That was the rule for dressing infants back in 1893, as one woman explained it that year to The New York Times. “Of course,” she said. “Why, if everyone chose a different color, baby clothes would be all mixed. Always give pink to a boy and and blue to a girl.”
It wasn’t until the 1940s that cultural norms flipped, according to the historian Jo Paoletti, who wrote the book Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America. The idea that pink is for girls and blue is for boys has been persistent in the United States ever since.
Today, parents aren’t just faced with a dividing line across colors, but a whole parade of animal mascots that are similarly separated by gender. Girls get bunnies, butterflies, and unicorns. Boys get dinosaurs, sharks, and bears. Girls get T-shirt slogans about sweetness, cupcakes, daydreams, and best friends. Boys have clothing emblazoned with text and imagery related to champions, airplanes, superheroes, and toughness. The ability to determine a baby’s sex before birth, a facet of prenatal care that’s only been routine in the Western world since the 1970s, has exacerbated these divisions. These days, it’s fashionable for many parents to hold “gender reveal” parties in which they announce the baby’s sex, long before he or she is born.
“When you think about how we arbitrarily divide up the entire world into girls’ stuff and boys’ stuff, none of those things make any sense,” said Courtney Hartman, the founder of Free to Be Kids and Jessy & Jack, two clothing brands aimed at offering more options for children. “There’s no reason boys should like dogs but not cats.”
As a mother of a boy and a girl, Hartman says the gender divide came into sharp relief for her when she was looking for matching pajamas for her kids. Both featured penguins, but one was marketed for girls and the other for boys.
“The boys’ penguins were fatter and wearing sunglasses,” she told me, “and the girls’ penguins were skinnier with eyelashes, rosy cheeks, and lips. I was like, ‘Man, those are penguins! This is messed up!’”
Until recently, finding alternatives to gender cliches in kids’ wardrobes was surprisingly difficult. But in the past decade, several small companies—mostly led by mothers, like Hartman, fed up with gender-assigned constraints—have cropped up to challenge cultural norms. Another entrepreneur in this space is Rebecca Melsky, who became frustrated when she couldn’t find any outfits featuring some of her then-2-year-old daughter’s favorite things—like trains, for instance—on clothing marketed for girls, at a time when her daughter only wanted to wear dresses.
The experience made her realize that she didn’t want to steer her daughter away from the dresses she loved, but she did want those dresses to incorporate designs that better reflected the full spectrum of her little girl’s interests.
“Before my daughter was born, my husband and I were like, ‘We are not going to buy her anything pink,’” said Melsky, the co-founder and chief operating officer of Princess Awesome, which makes dresses printed with trains, dinosaurs, the pi symbol, pirates, and other designs typically not found on clothing marketed to little girls. “As I was thinking about starting this company, I thought a lot about that. Why did I feel that way? And, later, why did I think that when she expresses a preference for pink and purple that it’s somehow lesser?”
Liking technology and liking the color pink aren’t mutually exclusive. (As a former little girl who likes both, I know this to be true.) Or, as Princess Awesome puts it on its website: “Because girls are awesome and girls get to decide what it means to be girly.”
“My [co-founder and business] partner Eva, her mother-in-law has this great saying,” Melsky told me. “You can’t tell children they have a choice, and then tell them they’ve made the wrong one.”
That’s also the message behind BuddingSTEM, a brand that makes science- and technology-themed clothing like leggings and dresses dotted with tiny rockets or apotasauruses. “You can be a girl however you want to be,” said Malorie Catchpole, one BuddingSTEM’s cofounders. “Wanting to wear tutus does not mean you can’t grow up and be a rocket scientist.”
In other words, today’s movement has extended beyond a resistance to pink or princess-themed attire among parents of girls, and is aimed more squarely at inclusivity and more broadly redefining what’s available for all children to wear. Jennifer Muhm, a co-founder of BuddingSTEM gives the example of her daughter’s recent birthday party theme: “Elsa in space,” which was just what it sounds like: a celebration of both outer space and the ice-queen from the Disney film Frozen. When Catchpole’s daughter turned 5, she opted for a “Darth Vader vs. Elsa” theme.
While little girls are often at the center of backlash against gender-oriented marketing, little boys also face real constraints, but they tend to get less attention. That’s part of why Hartman, of Jessy & Jack and Free to Be Kids, makes T-shirts that say “Love is my Superpower,” and “Kind Like Daddy”—meant to be worn by everyone, but designed with boys in mind.
“The reason it matters is, I don’t think we hold boys to a very high standard in society to be kind and loving,” Hartman told me. “And if you don’t hold that expectation, they’re not going to rise to it. A lot of that bad behavior is written off as, ‘boys will be boys.’ But if a little boy is wearing a shirt that says, ‘Love is my Superpower,’ people look at him in a different way.”
Big brands like Carter’s have designs that usually emphasize that little boys are tough, athletic, fearless, and adventurous—there’s more swagger than sweetness. “The message for boys is, you are into transportation vehicles, and fierce dinosaurs, and pirates, and you must play sports!” said Jo Hadley, the founder of the children’s clothing line Handsome in Pink. “It’s just this whole storyline that is as limiting for boys as it is for girls.”
Hadley launched Handsome in Pink in 2007 after her son, who wanted to wear pink clothes like his big sister, was repeatedly mistaken for a girl in interactions with strangers. “He was wearing a lot of his sister’s clothes, but there was a different language and treatment of girls, which I started to notice,” Hadley told me. “People were calling him a little princess and coming up to me and saying, ‘Awww, you have two sweet, cute little daughters.’ And it was really confusing for my son.”
So she asked him what kinds of clothes he wished he could wear. “He said, ‘I want a pink shirt with an electric guitar and a rocket ship and a firetruck and a motorcycle,’” Hadley said. “Those were the first four images I created in pink and in purple. My son was just over the moon. But the thing I hadn’t even thought about is that my daughter, who was 4, was equally just like, ‘Get those clothes on me. I want to wear those clothes.’”
So Hadley decided to make clothes for everyone, not just for boys. Her designs include a purple onesie with a yellow tool-belt design, a pink-and-purple T-shirt featuring a dirt bike, and a baseball tee that says “Girly Girl” in letters designed to look like a flexed muscle, a test tube, a tree, a drum, a scooter, and other images.
It’s difficult to overstate the cultural power that clothing wields. What a person wears isn’t just seen as a reflection of their style and values, but a window into that person’s identity. For children in particular, the link between what you wear and who you are is especially strong. “How kids express themselves is through their clothes,” said Catchpole, of BuddingSTEM. “We all do that, but it’s very literal with children.”
Beyond that, clothing is selected for young children by trusted adults, and kids pay attention to what they’re told is explicitly for them. “Unlike older children, babies and toddlers have little choice in their clothing, which reflects the attitudes and beliefs of adults,” Paoletti wrote in Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls From the Boys in America. Plus, a child’s outfit routinely becomes a focal point in conversations with other grown-ups: What pretty hearts you have on your shirt! or You must be as tough as that T. Rex!
“My eyes have just been opened to the inequalities for boys and for girls,” Hadley said. “It’s just damaging to our entire culture. From the very beginning, it reinforces the way that adults interact with children. Part of the mission with these clothes is to remind the adults that these kids are limitless.”
Some grown-ups, it seems, appear to be taking notice. In addition to enthusiastic responses from shoppers looking for more clothing options for kids, all of the entrepreneurs I interviewed said they’ve seen a change—albeit a small one, with still plenty of room to improve—among the makers and sellers of major brands of kids’ clothing.
Last year, for instance, Target announced it will stop separating toys and bedding into boys’ and girls’ sections. This year, Gap is partnering with the talk-show host Ellen Degeneres on a line of clothing designed with a goal of empowering girls.
“Even the worst offenders,” Hartman said. “Target has some horrible stuff sometimes. Carter’s has some terrible stuff. But they’re all starting to dip a toe in the water of going against stereotypes.”
“The way adults perceive children, and the way they interact with them, can totally change based on what kids are wearing,” Hartman added. “And that’s what tells kids what they’re supposed to be and what they can become.”