Ideas about gender neutral clothes for my next batch of great-grandbabies interest me. Three of my granddaughters will present us with babies in the next few months. Two other babies were born at the end of last year. By June, I’ll have twelve great-grandchildren. How did happened so quickly? I should feel incredibly old, but here I am instead, writing an article about colours and shapes of baby clothes.
I’m not sure why this is only the second blog I’ve posted about my great-grandchildren. Being their great-grandmother is a source of great love and pride for me. Here’s a link to the other blog about them.
Two things prompted this blog. The first, a trip to Claremont Quarter with my daughter, Jenny. Two of her daughters and a niece will deliver soon. The second, the prompt ‘Flashback’, in an online writing challenge to which I haven’t even committed.
I’m sitting at the kitchen table, my trusty old Singer sewing machine in front of me. It’s a year in the mid sixties, a cool afternoon. Cut-out shapes of white cotton-flannelette (wincey) material sit at the other end of the table.
I’m making nightdresses for a new baby. When I’ve sewn the them, I’ll crochet a soft cotton edge around each neckline and sew a tiny spray of flowers (red, yellow and purple) on each one.
He or she will be born within a month. Until then, no one knows if it’s a girl or boy. Neutral clothing and nursery decoration prevail so far.
New matinee jackets embroidered with elephants, frogs, flowers and ladybirds, bibs and bunny rugs are ready, white and lemon and pale green. Small cast-offs from the baby’s older sibling have been carefully laundered and stacked in a drawer.
Already I’ve washed and folded the pile of new cloth napkins waiting until we return from the maternity hospital where I’ll stay for over a week after the baby’s born.
The current baby, my youngest child, plays under the table. The machine hums softly as I feed the soft fabric through it. Suddenly the mechanism roars and speeds up. I feel the pressure of a damp nappy on my foot as the child sits on it, compressing the control underneath. I yank the cord so that the machine stops abruptly.
Scenes like this were common in families then, saccharine as it sounds.
None of my friends worked outside their homes. We wouldn’t, at least until our youngest children went to school. We routinely bought fabric and made baby clothes as expected by our husbands, mothers and mothers-in-law. We passed the clothes on when our babies grew out of them.
In those days, responsibility for housework and childcare fell almost entirely on women.
What happened next
In those days, relatives, friends and family brought gender specific gifts for the new baby. Blue for boys, pink for girls replaced my gender neutral newborn preparations. And so began again, in subtle and not so subtle ways, the cycle of reinforcing gender specific preferences and behaviour.
In the late 1960s I read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. More feminist texts followed, including
- Sexual Politics, Kate Millett
- Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement, edited by Robin Morgan
- The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution, Shulamith Firestone
- The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer
My feminist education took off. In the early 1980s I completed a Graduate Diploma in Women’s Studies at Curtin University, and soon after began to teach (radical) Sociology of the Family at the same university.
My first grandchild was born in 1982. I sewed, knitted and crocheted for the new baby not knowing its gender. As she grew, continued to sew and knit for her. I (mostly) steered clear of pink, although it felt difficult to reconcile my need to celebrate this beautiful girl-child in the way I knew from my upbringing and my intense second-wave feminism.
Welcome to the world of gender neutral clothes
I entirely understand the wish of my granddaughters for gender neutral clothes for their babies.. First there’s the practical aspect. For example, when my kids were small, we dressed our girl-babies in frocks. When the poor little things began to crawl, the dresses got in the way. Our solution? Tuck up the dress and tie a knot in the fabric or else tuck it into the back of her nappy. Little boys enjoyed the freedom of overalls and T-shirts.
More importantly, when we’re teaching our kids that, ‘Girls and boys can do anything’, we need to reinforce it. We need them to know that they can climb trees and play on monkey bars and swim in comfort. They can study anything they want, do the jobs they choose without restriction. As youngsters, their clothes should echo our sentiment.
The photo below shows Claire-Helen and Bhen Linton with me, with Alexandra and Edward, rejoicing after a ballet concert in which both children danced.
The clothes we dress children in is one small sign of how we expect them to grow up. However, if we want them to be equal, then their clothes should echo that. Which means, of course, that girls and boys can wear all colours and types of clothes. They can also choose what to wear from an early age.
Shopping for gender neutral clothes
Jenny and I went to several shops to look at baby clothes. My first thoughts included ideas about how expensive everything seems, and how boring. I would hate to be responsible for putting together a ‘layette’ for a newborn. (Layette, such a delicious old fashioned word. I love it!)
Evidence of mass production of baby clothes at such volume alerted me to the commodification of this market, once such a personal area. Families still pass too-small clothes on to family and friends.
In spite of the discussion about gender neutrality, pinks and blues still feature everywhere. But so, also, did brown, fawn and greys in various shades and intensities. We saw a small smattering of navy and red, and some yellow and lilac. The helpful woman in my favourite wool shop at Crossways in Subiaco pointed me in the direction of sea-green as currently one of the most sought after colours in baby wool.
As for logos! I can’t imagine wanting to dress a baby in something with ‘Country Road’ or ‘Seed’ emblazoned on the chest. Like a living breathing advertisement for multinational companies who have commodified baby wear beyond belief.
When in doubt, do nothing!
I bought nothing.
Instead, I thought about the embroidered baby clothes I once made and decided to embroider some inoffensive items of clothing for the newborns. Singlets! Better still, I found some neat little cotton body-suits. More convenient than conventional singlets.
These will be the canvas for my labour of love. I’m so delighted that I can sew again. (See my blogs about Brain plasticity new science and chronic pain and Rediscovering craft the joy of making things.)
I’m still deciding about my project. The baby body-suits made in Australia are a blend of cotton and elastane. Those made of pure organic cotton originate in Bangladesh. The decision – a first world problem, but something I can contemplate. We still have a month until the first of the new arrivals puts in an appearance.