I made the cardigan in the photograph for a small friend of mine and I have to admit I am quite proud of it. The small friend is a she who likes owls (the multi-shaded wool is called ‘Owl’ by its suppliers) and I found the owl buttons online. I was even more delighted when they arrived and I discovered that they’d come from an online retailer based at Gedney, a small village close to my native Spalding.
This particular little girl owns very few clothes in pink. Her mother, whilst objective enough to include some pink in her daughter’s wardrobe, is determined not to turn her into a ‘princess’ and, in any case, I had other ideas for this project (pink not having been a very popular colour for girls during my own childhood, I should never have considered this colour as a must for any daughter of mine, had I had one); I like owls myself and have noticed that they tend not to shine brightly pink as they silently flit between the trees at dusk. And, if you follow me on Twitter, you’ll know that my chosen header picture there hasn’t a trace of pink in it. When looking for other garments with which to indulge the small friend, my worst expectations were quickly confirmed by what I found, that many are not only pink, but pink in a very sexist way. I’ve discovered (but not been tempted to buy) pink tops printed with patterns of cupcakes and hearts, pale pink coats adorned with dark pink bows and little pink socks with lacy ruffled tops. Most retailers of children’s clothing stock their racks with boy-girl equivalents and I’ve found that the boy equivalents are almost always much more interesting and, generally, much less narrowly stereotyped by colour. For example, at Monsoon, I found some beautiful long-sleeved T-shirts in green and gold, decorated respectively with wild animals on a prairie and a train packed with animal passengers. Some of the motifs were appliquéd or embroidered, making the fabric fascinating for a small girl already interested in all things tactile. I bought them for her: there was nothing overtly masculine about them and they were much more fun than the horizon-narrowing pink-iced buns on a darker pink ground topped with scarlet glacé cherries. Her mum has also bought beautiful boys’ clothes for her which look as good on her as on any boy. Based on my limited recent experience as a shopper for infants, I’m astonished that the racks of sickly pink fairy-frocks sell: I had fondly assumed that at least some of the clear message thinking women (and men!) have been sending for so many years now to the producers and buyers of children’s goods would have got through; I’d have expected to see the ‘pretty-in-pink’ clothes bunched in limp, unconsidered crowds during the sales. But in all the shops where I browsed, the pink princess outfits seemed to be disappearing like hot cakes – or cupcakes!
What I especially don’t understand is the logic behind dressing little girls in clothes like these. In the past, girls wore skirts and boys wore trousers or shorts (I belong to the first generation of girls to have made a big push first to be allowed to wear trousers and later to have them accepted as smart workwear), but there were few other concessions to gender except whether buttons were placed on the left or the right of the garment (a confusing convention that thankfully seems largely to have died out). Girls and boys wore the same styles and colours in coats, jumpers, cardigans, shirts, vests and socks. Only swimwear and footwear were different, and then not always: small girls often wore the same (hideously uncomfortable when wet) knitted swimming trunks as boys and stout lace-up shoes in the winter or bar-sandals in the summer were fairly universal. Granted, colours were often drab (browns, greens and greys didn’t show the dirt, swatches of cloth and hanks of wool were often left over from the making of adult garments) and choosing ‘unisex’ clothes may partly have been inspired by the domestic economics of hand-me-downs. I acknowledge there was also quite a lot to put up with before the advent of man-made materials and truly waterproof clothes. Most children had only one school coat and often had to wear it damp on the day following a downpour. All but the wealthiest grew heartily sick of their clothes before they grew out of them: two school skirts, two jumpers and two or three shirts, plus a dress ‘for best’, was the norm and, although I didn’t think of it then, this must have meant mothers, and sometimes fathers (not all fathers ensconced themselves behind their newspapers when they returned home) were engaged in a constant round of washing and ironing. I’m not trying to hark back to some kind of golden age.
But still, as far as our clothing went, girls and boys were pretty much equal. I certainly never wore anything that suggested that my future would be focused on baking cup-cakes and wearing lipstick (though I happen to enjoy both), nor did my brother’s clothes indicate that he was destined to be a footballer, astronaut or mechanic. I make these points tongue-in-cheek, but underlying them is a very serious principle indeed: that of achieving true equality between the sexes and removing the glass ceiling once and for all. How are the women and men of the future going to be inspired to exercise a completely free choice, electing to become engineers or hairdressers, electricians or fashion designers, bus drivers or nurses – or indeed, bakers or make-up artists – because they’ve thought about it and this is what they want to be, if at the age of a few months they have already been placed in a gender pigeon-hole created by parents in cahoots with clothing manufacturers?
I began by saying that I’m proud of the owl cardigan. It’s been a long time since I knitted a garment and, though the pattern was simple, I enjoyed making it and felt a sense of achievement when it was finished – especially as its owner seems to like it. It’s a unisex cardigan, suitable equally for a girl or a boy, and could equally have been made by a man or a woman. One of the people who taught me to knit was my stepfather, a burly fifteen-stone builder with hands as big as soup tureens. Boys – and girls – and parents – take note.