Published on 04 October 2017
Dr Helen Driscoll, Senior lecturer and researcher in the University of Sunderland’s Psychology Department, this month discusses the fashion industry’s widespread move to embrace clothes that are considered gender neutral. High Street retailer John Lewis recently introduced gender-neutral labels on their childrenswear collections and replaced gender-specific signage in stores, offering parents and children a wider choice in what they wear. But the move, while commended overall for its approach, was criticised in other quarters, suggesting the gender-neutral labels are a “worrying sign of the times” and a symbol of political correctness. Dr Driscoll considers both sides of the debate.
“It has been argued that gendered clothing perpetuates gender stereotypes, and may give girls the message that certain activities and roles are not for them. For example, it has been suggested that shoes designed for girls are often less suitable for sports, and this may give girls the message that sports are for boys.
“There is some validity in these claims and it is important to ensure that clothing ranges for children are diverse enough to reflect different interests, and recognise that not all children have gender stereotypical preferences.
“That said, there is reason to believe that there are evolved sex differences which mean that, on average, boys and girls may have somewhat different clothing preferences. Women have evolved to engage in more ornamentation in terms of enhancing beauty and femininity because this provided an advantage in attracting the best mates. In the modern world, this may be manifest as a greater interest in make-up, and in clothing which enhances appearance and femininity. In contrast, men have evolved to display status and physical strength, and may therefore have a preference for clothing which enhances the appearance of these qualities. These preferences for different types of ornamentation, like many sex differences, may be evident early in life.
“Parents who try to steer their children away from gendered clothing may therefore sometimes find themselves faced with some arguments in the clothing store. It is worth questioning whether it is a good idea to give children who do choose gendered clothing the message that their preferences are not valid. Eliminating sex discrimination and ensuring equality of opportunity does not require trying to make boys and girls the same.
“However, none of this means that all girls have preferences for pretty dresses and all boys want to wear sportswear. There are clear individual differences. Culture does play a role in shaping preferences too.
“What we define as masculine or feminine is to some extent culturally defined. For example, assigning the colour pink to girls and blue to boys may be an arbitrary cultural means of labelling gender. However, we can also use the power of culture to ensure that neither boys nor girls feel confined to a narrow definition of what is appropriate for them to wear, and free to express their own identity – whether they prefer gendered or gender neutral clothing.”