Sunday, 25 March 2007

Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice

Saturday's paper had an op ed piece on 'princess' clothes for little girls. It caught my attention because female body image and all the surrounding issues are a preoccupation of mine and because once again I have a little girl to dress. It's one of the grama jobs to buy clothes, right?

Ever since Little Stuff came out of the three to twenty-four month class, I've had a harder and harder time finding clothes that I want to buy for her. Her parents like bright colours and practical stuff and I most emphatically agree. But a lot of the little kids' clothing outlets seem to stock pink with ruffles and pink with glitter and ruffles and ruching and flowers and gathers with glitter and sequins and … yuck! As Little Stuff would say. Not that she would say it about the clothes: she likes pink and glitter. But the over-elaborate clothes are a nuisance to wash, and the glitter rubs off and the pale colours show dirt, and that's just the first reason that I don't like them. Also in the toddlers' selection are very short skirts and tee shirts with messages on them, I guess so that the under fives can look like their big sisters who are trying to look like the pop tarts. What's annoying is that further down the racks in the selection for little boys are tough, practical pants and shirts with cute designs on them. Too much camouflage stuff, but more choice of reasonable play clothes.

Almost exactly a century ago my mother and her sister posed for these formal portraits, poor little things. I imagine their daily play clothes were not such a production, but my mother used to describe the process of getting the curls and bow in place for church and even the fact that she remembered it so clearly speaks of the misery of it. Almost sixty years ago I was a little girl who rebelled against long hair and braids and white dresses with embroidery. My mother always loved trousers and allowed me to wear them (and jeans) a lot, but I still, as a teenager, had to wear gloves and a hat to go into the downtown shopping district because that was expected of well brought up young women and it would reflect badly on my father if I were not dressed 'properly'.

Thank goodness those days are gone, I guess, but the pendulum sure has swung a long way the other way. I can deal with the piercings and the incredible tee shirt messages -- that's just adolescents being themselves. But acres of jiggling flesh hanging out of low slung pants is just sad. And the little girl copies, fluffy and impractical, are more than annoying. What are we saying to little girls when these are the clothes on offer? I know what skirts and ribbons and all that said to me -- they said 'Don't run, don't get dirty, don't dream of climbing that tree! Smile and be pretty and obedient and sweet." I am so, so lucky that my mother didn't buy into it and helped me survive the fifties. (Although she did draw the line at letting me get into the bathtub in my new jeans and wear them wet until they shrink-dried skin tight.)

So, the question is -- how do we make sure today's little girls don't get sucked in by this decade's sartorial disasters, with all the accompanying misbehaviour by the so-called stars who are wearing the stuff and setting the styles? The latest dolls make Barbie look absolutely harmless by comparison. The lyrics of a lot of the music, at least the ones I can understand, are not too salubrious either. I worry that the clothes are saying 'Ooh, you are so sweet and cute and not to be taken seriously!' And, 'Ooh, you look just like Britney and can you sing her song?' Not to pick on one apple out of the whole bad barrel, or anything, but that poor woman is seriously in trouble. Am I wrong in thinking the copy cat clothes are giving the wrong message?

I am sure there is a portion of the pink thing that is just little girls being little girls. Her mother and I let Little Stuff pick out her own Christmas dress in December. And out of a small selection of garments that would fit and would wash, she selected a little number in pale pink with furry trim and sequins on the front. She liked it because it felt soft and furry, she said, and because it was pink. Fair enough. She also got white Mary Janes and tights with a lacy design to go with the dress, because grama likes girly stuff too. I hope to goodness it doesn't warp her tiny mind, but I have some evidence it will not. She is choosing her own clothes and dressing herself now and she routinely picks out jeans and a shirt. I guess we only have to keep her out of the bathtub in them.

There's a book called The Language of Clothes by Alison Lurie that has some interesting theories about what we wear and what that says about us. One premise is that we all 'read' clothing, unconsciously as well as consciously. It follows, then, that whatever we wear says something to the people who look at us. The papers, for example, are all describing what Barbara Amiel Black is wearing at her husband's trial and discussing the meaning of her clothing choices.

Some choices send pretty obvious messages. Pink ruffles say something like 'Look at sweet little me' and on a woman my age would be a matter for both laughter and pity. Pink ruffles on a little boy would condemn him to much the same judgment. On a little girl, the outfit gets her treated as if that is what she were saying, and to my mind too much of that is not a good thing. And there are ruffles and worse than ruffles. Dressing up and playing tea party, I believe, is fine as one of a series of things to do, but dressing as a tiny pop tart should be limited to Hallowe'en, if then, because in our climate the kid would freeze solid.


  1. Thanks for your lovely comment on my site.

    I am SO glad of late that I have only boys. I just knew there would be reasons that would make me feel less sad about never having had a girl!

    The clothes thing, for sure, but also little girls' cattiness. I'm happy I'll be missing out on that, too.

    Welcome to the 'sphere!

  2. PS On quite a few of your "blogs I read" links, the links go nowhere, because you've input http twice, e.g., "http:http..." Thought you might want to know. Blogger is extremely temperamental and sulky.

  3. Gah, score at the end of the third quarter, blogger one, mary zero. Thank you, slouching mom, I have now fixed them. I hope.

    I had two girls, with grandmothers and great grandmothers, all of whom produced girlish garments. When I had to buy them things I went to the cheapest store I could find and bought generic jeans, etc.

    When they hit high school, we had a problem because they wanted brand name jeans. They got jobs. I was lucky in that their teen years coincided with a fad for wearing reakkt big, sloppy tops. Dad's sweaters, army surplus arctic parkas, etc.

    I don't tie cattiness just to girls. Some of both sexes, in my experience as a teacher, have bitter tongues.

  4. WonderBaby is certainly seeking out the pink all on her own. The glammier and the flashier the better.

    But that's where the difference is, I think, from that photo of your mother and her sister (which I LOVE, btw) - WonderBaby chooses this. It may be a different story if/when she's 'choosing' low-slung jeans (gah gah gah gah) but for no I can't fault her her flair.

    Thanks for suggesting that I come read this!

  5. To Her Bad mother
    Yeah, I do think it's fine when they choose it. Little stuff still grabs her brothers' Mardi Gras beads whenever she can, and has a pink stroller very much like WonderBaby's. Who is Absolutely Adorable, just in passing.

    What worries me is how the little girls get treated by adults when they are done up in the pink glitter, and what they learn from how they are treated. I come from an era when this was a big issue, and maybe I'm still channeling the white satin hairbows, but "Oh, she is just the sweetest little thing" scares me. I had to fight so hard to get free of it, and I had to fight pretty hard to keep my daughters free of it. Although they had lots of beads and dress-up princess clothes to play with at home, and they also got pretty dresses from grandmothers, I kept their everyday clothes plain and unisex until they were old enough to choose for themselves.

    I just think that it the last, maybe, two years the girls' clothes are OTT.

  6. This is one of my big fears for my daughter and for myself: how to walk the fine line between respecting her choices and making sure she chooses well. I keep hoping that the example I set will be enough. Who knows?

  7. Ah, yes. I agree with you. I hated being strapped into clothing that I was supposed to "keep pretty" while brothers and male cousins were out mucking about. I seek out clothes for Mme L that are practical and fun and colourful. Luckily, she isn't drawn to that stuff the way some kids are, so we are not in opposition.

    It is incredible to think that your mother could recall that misery...and scary to think, "What am I doing that she'll complain about 60 years later?"