Capitalism Hates a Hand-Me-Down

four lunch boxes marketed for "boys" or "girls" only

Old Navy divides even lunch bags into “boys only” and “girls only.” 

Until I became a parent almost eight years ago, I had never thought much about gender in children’s clothes and toys.

I grew up in the early-80s burst of bright solids and stripes for everybody, of dolls marketed at boys, and of that awesome Lego ad that assumed girls build stuff too. Fast-forward a few decades and we’re in a different reality. Like so many parents of my generation, I was genuinely surprised by how gendered simple things like clothing options, toy packaging, and book marketing are now. The world of children seems to be more openly sexist than it was twenty years ago. Popular blog Sociological Images has a whole collection of “sexy toy” makeovers and the world of kids’ clothes is distinctly divided into pink and blue.

Adults support that difference by claiming it’s just “natural”: little girls naturally want to be fancy princesses and pretend to clean the house, while little boys naturally want to ram their trucks into other people’s heads while definitely not wearing nail polish. Many adults also think the small-people exaggerated gender performances are cute. The result is that my husband can wear a pink shirt to work and think butterflies are neat without anyone batting an eye, but our preschool-aged child quickly learned that he wasn’t supposed to like—or wear—pink, purple, aqua, flowers, butterflies, ruffles, or anything else bright or pretty.

Products manufactured for children today are typically either for girls or for boys. This is overwhelmingly true of clothes. Shopping online at Old Navy, I quickly learned that you cannot simply view all the available pajamas. You must choose “girl” or “boy” before you can see any products at all. This pink vs. blue divide is reinforced by surreal “girl” versions of what seem like totally gender-neutral objects: a pink Scrabble set, for instance, or a sparkly globe. That way, if you have both daughters and sons, you get to buy two of everything! Capitalism hates a hand-me-down.

Shopping across the “boy”/“girl” aisle helps, but it’s an imperfect solution. At least in my family, we aren’t any more enthusiastic about our sons wearing “I’m Too Pretty to Do Homework, So My Brother Has to Do It for Me” or “Pretty Like Mommy” t-shirts than we would be if we had daughters. 

t-shirt reads: my best subjects (not math)i'm too pretty to do homework shirt

Three shirts that recently sparked pushback from parents—the one on the left was sold at Children’s Place and the other two were on sale at J.C. Penney.

Nor do we love the idea of our children (of any gender) wearing sexually objectifying clothes, whether they’re “girl” clothes that highlight nonexistent breasts and waists or “boy” clothes bearing boys-will-be-boys slogans like “Lock Up Your Daughters.” Crossing the aisle only helps if there are decent options on both sides of the aisle. Too often, there aren’t.

But we’ve muddled through with solid colors, stripes, and plaids, avoiding licensed characters like the plague. We’re lucky to live in a big city where we can buy high-end brands on the cheap at consignment shops and thrift stores: fancy children’s clothing lines like Tea and Hei Moose often include beautiful and sturdy gender-neutral options, but that doesn’t help much if you can’t afford them.

While we’ve been muddling, though, some other awesome parents have chosen to DO something. Irritated parents have written and signed petitions, met with company representatives, and organized to create change (like the parents who got JC Penny to stop selling those “Too Pretty to Do Homework” shirts). Others have reacted to the pink and blue world of children’s products by becoming entrepreneurs.

More and more mothers, especially, are taking DIY to the next level by creating product lines, not just clothes for their own children. Some have created gender-neutral designs and shopping experiences, while others are working to change what “girl” or “boy” clothes can look like. They all resist the sexist and limiting status quo. They’re all motivated by a fierce determination to create healthier ranges of options for their own children—and for other people’s children, too.

Here are 5 parent-entrepreneurs to check out:

1. Jill and Jack Kids is the brand new project of philosophy PhD and parent Jenn Neilson. When Neilson was pregnant, she went baby clothes shopping and couldn’t find what she was looking for. What she saw, instead, was a shopping landscape that “taught children that there is only one right way to be a boy, one right way to be a girl, and that you have to pick one or the other.” So naturally she’s launching a new children’s clothing line, complete with a bright orange t-shirt that proclaims “Half of the T.rexes were girls.” My eight-year-old heard about this and said, “Yeah, because I’m always wondering, how do people think they reproduced? Males shouldn’t get all the credit for reproduction.” Thank you, dear.

2. Handsome in Pink has offered gender-stereotype-challenging children’s clothes since 2007. Creators Jo Hadley and Helena Simon have known each other since they were wearing kids’ clothes themselves: they met in kindergarten. Both are emphatic about how individual and changing their own children are, not easily shoved into “girl” and “boy” boxes. The company’s mission statement says: “We believe that colors (such as pink and purple) and active imagery (such as firetrucks, tool belts, and electric guitars) belong to everyone and should be mingling, not dividing up along gender lines. The way we see it, there should be more sharing of clothes among girls and boys.” I do love sharing!

3. Indikidual is an organic cotton “unisex capsule collection for all kids aged 3 months to 7 years,” which is to say, I can’t afford it. But it’s gorgeous, fun, and nonsexist. Creator Syreeta Johnson worked as a children’s clothing buyer before having a child; her solution to the work/parenting crunch was to quit her full-time job and develop this line from home. It’s gender-neutral and super-playful because Johnson’s daughter blew her away with energy and a powerful personality from the get-go.

4. Girls Will Be headlines itself as “your headquarters for girl clothes without the girly.” Sharon Burns Choksi came up with the idea when her daughter rejected “girly” clothes (“Why do boys get all the cool stuff?”) and even her fashion-loving niece couldn’t find anything that wasn’t “cutesy” and uncomfortable. Working with her sister and brother, Choksi offers shorts in various fits and bright, graphic tees and hoodies in sizes 4 to 12.

5. Quirkie Kids (“Pink Tees for Girls and Boys”) is the brainchild of Martine Zoer, working with fellow parents Liam Robinson and Emi Halvorson. This team offers awesome pink t-shirts and onesies emblazoned with line drawings of ice-cream-eating monsters and the like. Zoer’s time with her two sons made her realize how arbitrary and limiting gender rules like no pink for you! are—and how utterly unrelated they are to individual children’s preferences and personalities. So she set out to create different options.

Know about other anti-sexist parent entrepreneurs—or other great options for finding children’s clothes that don’t elicit feminist sighs and eye-rolls? Leave ’em in the comments!

Related Reading: How My Little Pony and Barbie Market to Horse-Loving Girls. 

Thanks to Jenn Neilson of Jill and Jack Kids for pointing me toward Handsome in Pink and Quirkie Kids while I researched this piece. I love how feminist entrepreneurs cheerfully recommend their “competitors” as we all try to create awareness and a different way to think about children. Feminists, you are the best.

Molly Westerman is a writer, book nerd, literature PhD, and parent. She blogs about gender and parenting at First the Egg and is currently working on a book for feminist parents. Follow her on Twitter at @mollywesterman.

by Molly Westerman
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Writer, book nerd, literature PhD, parent. Follow me on Twitter at @mollywesterman.

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9 Comments Have Been Posted

Another great gender neutral

Another great gender neutral company is Pigtail Pals and Ballcap Buddies. She blogs extensively on the harms of marketing to kids, has a large facebook community, and an affordable store. Love articles like this, thanks for sharing!

love gender neutral...but at what price

I like this article but all the companies there are links for are frankly really pricey. If we are talking about hand me downs and being inclusive to more parents linking to pricey childrens clothing does not seem ...well the best. If we want to push the bounds of gender and have it be something MORE parents could access maybe just buy gender neutral from companies that are affordable... or at resale places.

Economics of inequality

This is a very serious problem, but sadly it is one without a simple solution. The clothes are expensive because that's what clothes actually cost to manufacture if one isn't externalizing every possible expense and exploiting the labor of poor people (and disproportionately women) in the Global South. There is a similar problem with sustainably-produced food: what food actually costs to produce without serious exploitation is beyond the purchase cost of many people. The only suggestion I have (short of a global revolution that abolishes capitalism) is shopping at second-hand stores while ignoring and gendered divisions in their displays.


Have been writing about this for a while and created a brand as well called Princess Free Zone-- -- which also has tees for girls that offer an alternative to princess and pink. Am about to launch a new site for boys and girls. Can't wait.

Capitalism May Hate a Hand-Me-Down, but I Don't

These start-ups may have good intentions, but the prices they ask dictate their market: parents with loads of disposable income. Most of the people I know simply cannot afford $18-$30+ for a tee shirt, especially for children who are constantly outgrowing their clothing. This kind of thing is just outside our radar.
If you're poor like a lot of us are, and really want your kids to be individuals, take them to the local Goodwill and make clothes-shopping an adventure. Find hidden treasures. Buy stuff that fits, no matter what department it comes from. Myself, I buy from women's, men's, and even boys' sections (I'm short, and boy jeans are just the right length for me). While you're at it, buy some books for the kids - ones that don't play on gender stereotypes.

American Apparel?

I find it funny that a lot of these companies are supporting American Apparel. I don't like that store or how they choose to advertise.

I like the idea of shopping at thrift stores. There is so much unique clothing at second hand stores. It's a awesome for kids to express themselves and be taught the value of money. Reduce reuse recycle!

Tie-dye is a great option for kids, and it's a fun summer activity!

Redefining Girly

As the first commenter mentioned, Pigtail Pals and Ballcap Buddies is a wonderful company fighting back against gender stereotypes. One of the things that's really unique about their designs is that the scenes of kids playing together include both genders. Extremely hard to find elsewhere. Another unique thing is her two shirts "There are many ways to be a girl/boy" - these shirts depict different kinds of kids across each gender, validating all the style choices kids make for themselves and the hobbies they choose, whether they align with typical gender roles or not. Also love the book the owner wrote titled "Redefibing Girly". So many practical tips on talking to kids in a way that helps them understand the way society frames gender and the ways in which they can stand up for their personal choices.

love the companies, but they don't need "crisis" framing

I'm all for these parent entrepreneurs, but I haven't had horrible struggles in finding clothing for my kid. "Solid colors, stripes, and plaids" are in fact gender neutral, so I'm not sure what the problem is here that's keeping parents from dressing their children? Sexist slogan t-shirts are not the majority of kids' clothing. Yes, store websites will show you pajamas only after picking boys or girls. But they don't keep you from buying whatever you want. My kid has picked out his socks in both the boys' and girls' sections of Target depending on which area caught his eye. I promise they were fine with taking our money either way. :)

I don't think the "next

I don't think the "next level" after doing it yourself is doing it for other people at a profit.

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