Gender War, Aisle 3: Unisex Kids’ Clothes Stir British Backlash

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In the gender wars recently, British retailers have had trouble striking the right balance in the children’s aisle, either perpetuating stereotypes or going too far in the opposite direction.

The supermarket Asda came under criticism for selling T-shirts for boys featuring slogans like “Future Scientist,” while their T-shirts for girls proclaimed “Hey Cutie!” and “Ponies Rock.”

Last year, an 8-year-old British girl, Daisy Edmonds, became an internet sensation after her mother filmed her at a Tesco supermarket, railing against T-shirts she saw as sexist. Why, she asked, did the boys’ T-shirts say things like “Desert Adventure Awaits,” “Think Outside the Box” and “Hero” while the girls’ shirts were emblazoned with “Beautiful,” “Hey!” and “I Feel Fabulous”?

“Everyone thinks girls should just be pretty and boys should just be adventurous!” she said.

But now, some consumers are saying John Lewis has gone to the other extreme, after news reports that the chain has removed gender-specific labels altogether from its brand of children clothes. Instead it is putting “boys & girls” or “girls & boys” tags on these items, whether trousers or skirts.

John Lewis, one of Britain’s most storied retailers, said on Monday that it had scrapped “girls” and “boys” signs at its department stores across the country last year and had introduced unisex babywear earlier this year. Caroline Bettis, its head of children’s wear, said the move toward gender neutrality at its stores was aimed at overcoming stereotypes.

“We do not want to reinforce gender stereotypes within our John Lewis collections and instead want to provide greater choice and variety to our customers, so that the parent or child can choose what they would like to wear,” she said.

The new policy, praised by many parents and rights advocates for promoting inclusiveness and breaking outmoded norms, has provoked a spirited debate on social media and elsewhere.

Opponents of the change accused the store of succumbing to political correctness and threatened a boycott. “John Lewis ditches ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ labels for gender neutral line. What a load of PC Crap!” Bob Lister, of Poole, England, wrote on Twitter. He added: “Big social media backlash against John Lewis! Boycott!”

Andrew Bridgen, a conservative member of Parliament for North West Leicestershire and the father of two teenage boys, said he thought the move could prove confusing for parents. “This is the onward march of the P.C. brigade,” he said in an interview. “I wonder how many parents going to John Lewis will be looking to buy a dress for their 6-year-old boys? Men and women and boys and girls are biologically different despite rumors to the contrary. If you have sons, why do you want to waste time wading through the dress section?”

Piers Morgan, the British television host, added on Twitter, “Britain is going officially bonkers.”

There was also a backlash on John Lewis’s Facebook page. “I hope people vote with their feet and shop elsewhere,” wrote David Hollingworth, of Dereham, England.

But Let Clothes Be Clothes, a national parents group that has led the drive for gender-neutral clothing, praised the new policy, noting that resistance to the change was reminiscent of the antiquated era of the 1950s and chauvinists opposing women wearing trousers.

“Gender is not sex, gender is a set of ideas, or traditional values — formed over time — about the role of men and women in society,” the group said in a statement. “Retailers exploit these negative ‘stereotypes’ about gender to sell more clothes and make more money. By doing this they perpetuate gender stereotypes.”

The statement added, “John Lewis have basically said they’re not going to do that anymore.”

John Lewis began in 1864 as a drapery shop on London’s Oxford Street and has since transformed into a barometer of sorts for Britain’s aspirational middle class, with 48 stores across the country. In May, after Kensington Palace released a photograph of Princess Charlotte in a pastel yellow cardigan from John Lewis to celebrate her second birthday, the garment, decorated with sheep and priced at 18 pounds, or about $23, quickly sold out.

John Lewis’s clothing policy for children comes amid a global debate over the fluidity of gender and the need to update traditional sartorial and linguistic standards.

Students registering at Harvard University are now allowed to use gender-neutral pronouns such as “ze” or “they.” In Australia, the International Grammar School in Sydney recently introduced gender-fluid school uniforms, with options for both sexes including striped ties and tights. Canada recently decided to allow citizens to identify themselves with the gender neutral “X” category on their passports, following in the footsteps of countries including Denmark, Malta and New Zealand.

Dinah Spritzer, an American in Prague who writes about gender issues and is the mother of twin boys, said policies like John Lewis’s were liberating for both children and their parents.

“My 5-year-old son is macho, loves sports and trucks, but also loves pink clothes and nail polish, and this flummoxes some people,” she said. “If more stores do this, it will encourage parents and children to not feel ashamed of their preferences. The fear that you will feminize your child or make him a sissy is ignorant or obscene.”