Gender Neutral Labels - Have John Lewis Got It Right?
“You don’t look at food and say it’s going to be eaten by a man or a woman, so why should it be any different for clothes?”
This week it was announced that John Lewis are relabelling their clothing ranges in order to make them gender neutral. They are by no means the first business to make this all-important move towards a gender neutral horizon, in fact we’ve been doing it in And So To Shop as a small independent retailer since we launched, but this deliberate stride forwards by a massively influential British retailer will change the climate for gender clothing from this point on. The message is starting to come through loud and clear - what we wear should not be defined by our gender, but by our style and preferences alone.
It will come as no surprise that influential decisions like this cannot exist without a bit of controversy. Yes, even something so positive as relieving stereotypes on children invites criticism from those who disagree. John Lewis have already been slammed for jumping on the band-wagon, and doing anything to shift a bit of stock. And whatever their genuine motivations for rethinking these very prescriptive labels are, it does not take away from the fact that we are progressing towards a time where gender will not make a difference to our place in society. It means we are no longer turning a blind eye to the fact that not all children are the same, that gender fluidity is a very real thing, and that children should not be categorised into little ‘tick-boxes’.
It has also been suggested that gender neutrality is nothing new in the world of fashion. The Autumn / Winter trends of the last ten years have continuously pushed androgyny to the forefront of the industry, to the point where even the girl-next-door types are tugging on tuxedo pants and embracing their masculine side. As much as this might have been heralded in the ranks of the sartorial world as a gender crossover - the blurring of lines between dresses and suits - there is nothing ‘gender neutral’ about dressing like a man. In fact, this is entirely the opposite. Selecting one gender for everyone to style themselves around can only be called ‘gender dominant’, and it could well be argued that this is an even further step away from separate styles for separate sexes. A world where women are encouraged to dress like men is just another way to appropriate male power. That military trend we all go crazy for as soon as September strikes? Ever wondered why we’re dressing like soldiers from a time where a woman’s place was in the home? It’s a constant drip-feed into the dangerous rhetoric that women have to dress like men in order to be taken seriously.
It’s the very opposite of what clothing should actually be about; expression. Style, and the way you dress yourself, is a way of showcasing your personality. Every little detail - from your earrings to your underwear - sums you up in even the most subtle of ways. And so of course, a girl who loves dinosaurs doesn’t want to be told that “girls wear pink” or to put on a dress when they want to wear dungarees. They want to display their love for dinosaurs where everyone can see it - right on the front of their jumper, as they proudly stomp around pretending to be a T-Rex. FYI, no-one feels like they can be a T-Rex when they’re stuffed into a pink dress against their will, that’s for sure. It’s expression in its purest, rawest form. You see, children are not old enough or emotionally mature enough to understand social conventions or the need for that approval we so desperately go after as we grow up. If children like something they want to live it, and love it - regardless of what the world thinks. And rather than celebrating this or even better, being inspired by this, we (and by this I mean society) stifle it. We stamp out their want to express themselves outside the lines of what society is happy to permit. For it is actually we who are afraid of judgement on their behalf. “Just wear this dress”, we plead with our five year old an hour before a posh wedding we’ve been invited to.
And we do it for their protection - we think it’s better that they hear it from us than some kid on the playground who has been brought up to believe that stereotypes construct society, not the other way around. Yet, sadly, whilst trying to protect their feelings, we are feeding into this commentary that there is one way to live and there is no such thing as choice.
Because, at the end of the day, it all comes down to choice. Something that most people reading this will not have felt they had when they were growing up. I was forced into dresses when I wanted to run wild in shorts. I had barbies even though these plastic dolls felt so alien to me, and I was called a ‘tomboy’ even though I still just felt like a girl. I admired my dad and I wanted to be just like him: playing football, sprawling out in front of the tv when the rugby was on, and working hard in the garden. Pink dresses just weren’t practical for these kind of activities and had I been allowed to choose my own clothes at this age, I’m pretty sure my wardrobe would have looked a lot more non-binary in terms of gender than it actually did.
I can even recall the embarrassing moment that I wore my new Nike Total 90 trainers to school for the first time, and during a game of rounders one of my peers yelled out “why are you wearing boys shoes?!” I wanted the ground to swallow me whole, or at the very least my shoes so I would never be able to wear them again and face the same humiliation. I’d begged my dad to buy them because I thought they were the coolest thing, but in those days girls wore black ankle boots, not silver sneakers. I felt guilty and anxious for breaking the mould that was set for my gender, all for a pair of shoes that were just the most practical for me to run around in.
So say what you want about John Lewis, And so to Shop or other leading retailers but this incredible leap forward will mean that in the future children won’t feel embarrassed about the clothes on their back or the shoes on their feet. They will be free to express themselves as they choose, giving them more room to discover who they really are. And as the millennial era grows ever stronger, with 68% of young people believing that gender is non-binary, it won’t come as any surprise if other areas of popular culture become victim to campaigns for neutrality too. And I for one will be championing every single one of them because I want my children to grow up in a world where the lines between genders are so blurred that they feel like they can be anyone they want to be - most importantly, be themselves! Who’s with me?!
If you want to support this move towards a more equal footing for both genders then please check out the gorgeous ranges of clothing we have in our Shop, and other retailers, and spread the word. Have those discussions with your kids, challenge peoples behaviour and think about the type of world you want to create. We have the chance to make a real difference.
Written by Charlotte Spain
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