When I was small I distinctly remember having fights with my mother about wearing dresses. While some other queer friends have recounted similar fights, my desire was not to reject dresses that were foisted on me, but rather, I deeply desired dresses while my mother wanted me to wear the more practical and much warmer option of track pants. After lots of fighting (screaming? Tantrums? It’s a kindergarten memory blur) we compromised: dresses over pants. Sartorially questionable, but enough for me to feel like I was wearing the “right” clothing. I think the obsession might have dovetailed with a girl from school asking if I was a boy, and me running home chanting to myself “I’m a girl I’m a girl I’m a girl”.
Despite my awareness, now, of the clear cultural pressures informing my desire, I still love dresses.
I once even created a blog detailing all of the 47 dresses in my closet, the stories behind all of them, and a record of wearing them all in a single month to raise money for charity (which culminated in me wearing a giant gold 1980s prom dress on a teaching day).
Recently, I bought a dress online because it reminded me of one that I wore to my uncle’s wedding when I was around seven or eight. Of course what I loved then – blaring floral design in primary colours and a 1990s design – doesn’t really translate into my style now. I refer to it as my “Pavlova Mum” dress, the kind of dress you wear when you’ve just baked a pav for the BBQ. Dresses have become symbolically central to my psychic grappling with identity and femininity and I suppose that the “Pavlova Mum” dress-naming hints at my anxieties about becoming a parent who lives in the suburbs. Though, my partner pointed out that it is also reminiscent of the final gown in Midsommar, which makes me like it a little more.
I’ve spent over a decade of my academic career unpacking and untangling my relationship to femininity, thinking through how femininity can be queer, and the confusing and messy space between cultural expectations of femininity and the desire for feminine embodiment. I thought I had come to some kind of resting place with this tension, which might be summed up something like: yes to the capacitating joys of feminine expression, no to the incapacitating expectations of femininity. But I’ve been plagued by these questions (ESPECIALLY thoughts about dresses) since I spent the last year raising a now one-year-old.
I am watching the world “girl” her in real time. Babies are, unsurprisingly, quite genderqueer little creatures. Often balding post-birth, they are little potatoes that are becoming human. They are learning to use their bodies (to know that they even have bodies), which are growing at an astonishing rate. Babies are all about transformation, becoming, and capacity. The gender designations of “boy” and “girl” seem wildly arbitrary in these early times. Yet. Walk into most children’s clothing stores and you will see the segregation of clothes by the gender binary. Shop attendants will ask you the gender of your child. Parents are sold headbands to cover their bare baby girls’ heads. Since watching the latest season of The White Lotus I have been HAUNTED by the line that Jennifer Coolidge’s character Tanya utters as a kind of self-explanation for her passivity and unhappiness:
“You know, when I was a little girl, my mother used to dress me up like a little doll. And I was always a little doll, waiting for someone to play with me“
In an attempt to align with my theoretical values around femininity, when it comes to clothes – questions of gender presentation and how the world “reads” you – my intent as a parental dresser has not been gender “neutrality” but rather gender experimentation and options. But try as I might to go shopping for baby clothes with the mindset that “anything goes” I have struggled, deeply struggled, to shop from the “girls” sections of shops. Unless you’re second hand shopping or looking at a designer children’s boutique (often online, very high price points), this is what those sections look like in real terms at chain stores in Australia:
|“FOR BOYS”||“FOR GIRLS”|
|Fit||Loose, long||Tight, short|
|Colours||Dark or neutral – e.g. black, green, blue, grey||Pastel or bright – e.g. pink, white, yellow, purple|
|Sunsmart||Frequently||Rarely (e.g. short sleeves)|
|Fabrics||Hardy||Often delicate (e.g. loose weave knit)|
|Prints||Dogs, elephants, giraffes, dinosaurs, lions, crocodiles, trucks||Unicorns, cats, flowers, rainbows, ladybirds, rabbits, fruit|
The above table is based on my own observations but I’m not imagining it: a study recently conducted in Germany studied 20,000 items of children’s clothing and found that shorts “for girls” are shorter and slogans “for boys” were about being active while “for girls” were about emotions and dreaming. Sometimes these differences are benign and are simply signifying colours, but at other times they are extremely ideological (as the jumpers from the “boys” and “girls” sections of a popular chain below demonstrate).
The thing that I tend to get stuck on the most however is how impractical clothing “for girls” is. Watching my child learning to walk, it is obvious that dresses in particular can be quite incapacitating. “Girls” shorts are shorter, pants tighter, sleeves more clumsy or not covering enough in the sun (as another example below illustrates).
Many a shopping trip has ended with me in a rage, and only purchasing dull clothes from the “boys” section. Of course you can just shop for whatever clothes you like but the point is the very madness of the division in the first place.
That there are these gendered differences in children’s clothing is not new news. It’s a point so obvious to anyone that cares about gender that it feels banal to be bringing it up (again). Yet, I am compelled to bang the proverbial drum of my keyboard to shout look! Are you seeing this! Why is it still like this!
When I’ve shared these thoughts online however, many people are also fixated on the colours and patterns. The pink! The prints! They say. I’ve also found myself internally screaming at frills.
I have to step back and remind myself of my own writing, and theorising on femininity. Because it’s rarely the pink or decoration that is the problem. It is the question of what these clothes capacitate. In an ideal world the segregation of clothes by gender would be abolished, and everyone would have access to pink and frills (though not baby headbands they are simply choking hazards please throw them in the bin) and no one would have to trip over baggy laced sacks while burning their shoulders in the sun.
Then I have to step back, again, and remind myself of my love of dresses.
I brought up this conundrum with a friend and she told me not to overthink it, that my child would assert her own desires with clothes at some point. I’m just acutely aware that none of this is in a vacuum, and I am woefully brought back to the same position my mother was in when I fought with her so hard, a concern for practicality.
I’ll make sure there are dresses on offer. They might just require pants underneath.