Why I’m not bothered by the John Lewis relabelling of children’s clothes as unisex

A couple of days ago, John Lewis announced that it was going to remove gender labels from its children’s clothing. The store stated:

 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.

The Telegraph report that the Campaign group Let Clothes be Clothes, which highlights gender stereotyping in children’s clothing, said the move was ‘fantastic news’.

In typical reactionary fashion, certain sections of the Christian world determined this was beyond the pale and typical of the LGBT+ agenda being pushed upon us. I, respectfully, beg to differ. I do not think this has anything to do with the LGBT+ agenda. To say so is a similar category mistake as those who like to bemoan ‘political correctness gone mad’ whenever somebody mentions health and safety law.

In view, regarding the John Lewis move, is the sort of thing that got Clarks into hot water a few weeks ago. The BBC report:

Clarks has been accused of “everyday sexism” for a calling a girls’ school shoe “Dolly Babe”, while the boys’ equivalent is called “Leader”.

The girls’ shoes carry a heart-patterned insole, while the boys’ insoles are decorated with footballs.

And, similarly, this video. The girl makes a simple but valid point:

This move by John Lewis is something that has largely come from parents. It is not, fundamentally, about making boys become girls and vice versa. It has everything to do with the everyday sexism that seems prevalent in children’s clothing.

Beyond all this, it seems worth making a few further points. It is fair to say the bodies of prepubescent children are not the sort of wildly differing shapes that often exist between fully formed adult men and women. A t-shirt for a child aged 5 or 6 will fit similarly well regardless of the gender putting it on. Whilst clear and obvious bodily differences may come to the fore later on, necessitating different fits for different genders, it really isn’t an issue for children.

At the same time, it might bear taking off our cultural spectacles for a second. Since when does the material one wears or the colour one prefers say anything inherently about your gender? In Japan, I understand, pink is considered a masculine colour. Up until relatively recently i.e. the 1920s, it was not at all unsual for male toddlers to be dressed in what amounts to little more than a dress. In fact, through most of British history men wore – despite what Scots like to insist about kilts – what would today be considered either skirts or dresses. Few people look at a Muslim chap walking down the street in a shalwar kameez, or thobe, and think that a dude is wearing a woman’s clothes.

The point here is not that blokes should go out of their way to look like women or vice versa. The point is that nobody should feel compelled to abide by stereotypes of what a woman or man is supposed to be, how they are supposed to act or what they are supposed to be interested in. It is interesting that scripture gives very little in the way of prescriptive statements on such things either. And, of course, how could it if it is to be God’s inerrant word across all cultures for all time? Jesus did not, after all, go round in a shirt and tie (regardless of what some churches might like to think!)

That gender is determined ontologically by biology (and thus God himself) is, despite efforts to convince us to the contrary, beyond credible doubt. But that does not, therefore, mean that our biologically defined gender assigned to us at birth dictates that we must therefore love, or hate, particular colours, certain jobs, specific types of toys and play. Nor do these things determines whether we are clever, sporty, practical, inquisitive or anything else. Our gender does not determine the jobs we will be good at, the play we will enjoy, the personality we will have.

Given this, it strikes me as perfectly reasonable for John Lewis to make their clothes unisex. They are recognising that not all boys are into football and girls very often (and quite rightly) want to be seen as more than a ‘pretty princess’. My little girl has a pair of trousers that, frankly, don’t look vastly different to a pair of trousers my little boy wore when he was a similar age. Neither she, nor he, looked anything other than like the little girl and little boy they were when they wore them. But there is no denying the clothes they wore were often a similar style and fit and one wouldn’t have known what gender they were for save for the label on the clothes and the occassionally stereotypical pictures and colours emblazened all over them. Sometimes, when dealing with plain clothes, one wouldn’t know the difference at all.

I think the reaction of some is, therefore, over the top. This is not really part of the LGBT+ agenda; it is part of parents not wanting their children being stereotyped from the youngest of ages. It is part of parents not wanting their little girl parading the sentiment that they exist only to look pretty and their boys advertising the fact that they are true adventurers, the clever gender who will reach the top (unlike their pretty little counterparts who shouldn’t worry themselves with such high thoughts). If John Lewis removing the labels from their children’s clothes allows people to buy the clothing with the messaging that they want for their children then, I say, more power to your elbow.