The UK retailer John Lewis has been subject to controversy in recent days, regarding what many news outlets have named ‘a gender neutral clothing range for children’. Many commenters are arguing they have gone too far, but what have they actually done? John Lewis have not launched genderless clothing campaigning, they have simple removed the tags labelling an item as ‘Boys’ or ‘Girls’. The label now reads; ‘Boys & Girls’ or ‘Girls & Boys’ regardless of style and colour that would usually be intended for either boys or girls specifically. The signs dividing the boys and girls sections, in their stores, have also been removed. Changes have not been made to their online store.
In the wake of the debate, John Lewis released a statement from Caroline Bettis, Head of Childrens Wear, explaining the move;
‘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’.
Interestingly, John Lewis actually changed their labels at the end of last year and a press announcement was not made at the time. A news story circulated recently which lead to the above statement and the onslaught of comments regarding such a change. Many took to twitter to condemn the retailer for this move, some even vowing never to shop in John Lewis again. Of course, Piers Morgan had something to say on the issue, announcing on twitter that ‘Britain is going officially bonkers’. Some are arguing that the move will ‘confuse’ children.
There were positive comments about the progressive move, with many applauding John Lewis for understanding the complexities of gender. A group of parents, who run a site named ‘Let Clothes Be Clothes’ were among those praising the retailer. The group calls for ‘retailers in the UK to support choice and end the use of gender stereotypes in the design and marketing of children’s clothes’.
While John Lewis are the first to remove gendered labels on children’s clothing, they are not the only retailer to move in a similar direction. Zara released a 16 piece, adult ungendered collection online in March 2016, though Zara’s range kept it simple with shades of grey, white and black. Their collection was also dominated by white t-shirts, hoodies, jeans and shorts. Selfridges also launched a campaign, ‘Agender’, in 2016, created by designer Faye Toogood.
Clarks came under fire in the last month, in regards to their ‘Back to School’ shoe range. They were accused of sexism, in regards to the range of shoes available for boys and girls. The boys shoes were deemed sturdy, with labels such as ‘Leader’, while the shoes advertised for girls were not designed for outdoor activities, as many were ballet pumps, and carried the tag of ‘Dolly Babe’. The controversy arose when Jemma Moonie- Dalton posted on facebook that;
‘In the boys’ section the shoes are sturdy, comfortable and weatherproof with soles clearly designed with running and climbing in mind. In contrast, the girls’ shoes have inferior soles, are not fully covered and are not well padded at the ankle. They are not comfortable and are not suited to outdoor activities in British weather’.
While many retailers, as above, have taken an androgynous move with their clothing lines, with items of clothing being gender neutral (white t-shirts etc.), John Lewis has kept traditionally ‘girly’ clothing in the collection with dresses, shades of pink and even a pair of sparkly runners. John Lewis have given a choice, by removing the assumption that, for example, skirts are strictly for girls.
It is important to remember the retailer is not forcing you put a child in a particular item of clothing, they simply do not want to reinforce particular gender stereotypes that already exist. It also allows the child more freedom to chose what they want. As Ciara Sheppard from Glamour magazine argued;
‘Of course lots of children are lucky enough to have loving parents who will let them wear anything regardless of whether it says ‘girl’ or ‘boy’, so the view that gender labels are redundant anyway makes sense. But some kids don’t have that luxury, and it’s these children that John Lewis are looking out for’.
So far in high street fashion it is seen as socially acceptable for a woman to wear men’s clothing, yet the opposite is not true. Will this change? Or will the high street follow the high end brands, as they usually do with regards to trends? In the luxury fashion world, men and women’s clothing have become interchangeable. Jean Paul Gaultier put a man in a skirt back in 1984. And Jaden Smith wore clothing designed for a woman in a Louis Vuitton advertisement in 2016.
John Lewis’ move was unique because it focused on their children’s range of clothing, unlike other brands that catered towards adults. Due to this, I believe the controversy was greater, meaning John Lewis’s move was even braver as they must have anticipated the backlash.
Yet, John Lewis is an upmarket retailer. Their prices will certainly not suit every budget. It will be interesting to see if any less expensive retailers or brands follow suit.