I get to class and take my seat beside the other girls, and as usual, they are better dressed than I am. One wears stovepipe jeans and a shrunken black T-shirt; another wears a short denim mini and razor-flat, arch-destroying sandals. A third wears a stunning print dress. I sigh and wish I had taken the time to find matching socks. I’m used to being less than fashionable, but in the past, the well-dressed women I knew were, well, women. Now the girls with the killer clothes are the toddlers in my son’s music class.
But while their diva daughters are dressed to the nines, the moms of these girls are downright dowdy. Yoga pants. Ragged pony tails. Hoodies as far as the eye can see. And it begs the question: why are we dressing our girls – who will spend the day running and jumping and splashing through puddles – for a night on the town, and ourselves for, well, a day at the playground?
For starters, it seems we’ve come a long way since Osh Kosh. The children’s apparel industry has exploded in the last twenty years, offering more choices and styles than ever before. But more significantly, it has matured – at least when it comes to girl clothes. Dressing like mommy used to require either a Little House on the Prairie aesthetic (Laura Ashley), or a country club membership (Polo Ralph Lauren). But these days, you can find True Religion jeans, J.Crew cashmere and Uggs in itty-bitty toddler sizes, to say nothing of seventies rock band-themed T-shirts, matchstick cords or string bikinis. So dressing like mom has never been more possible. Or rather, like mom would dress – if she wasn’t wearing sweatpants.
Speaking of sweatpants: while kids’ fashion has matured, adult styles have regressed, as schlubby adult clothing has moved out of our closets and into the realm of socially acceptable streetwear. Blue jeans and T-shirts have become allowable in all but the most conservative of workplaces. Flip-flops and sneakers have migrated over from functional accessories to fashionable ones. And when was the last time you (or anyone you know) wore a pair of pantyhose?
As the mother of a son, I used to notice the frumpy mom/diva daughter display from the bemused vantage point of an outsider. After all, I had a boy. Dressing him was utterly meaningless. Everything he owned was a primary color, and featured a dog, a soccer ball or a dinosaur. There was no fashion divide between us. Side-by-side, in our sensible knits, we matched.
But when my daughter was born last winter, I was flummoxed. What would she wear? I’m not the girliest-girl on the block; I don’t like pink, I didn’t play with dolls as a kid and I’ve never even read Little Women. The simplest task of parenting – putting her in clothing – was somehow complicated. If I dressed her like a diva, I was undoubtedly giving in to someone else’s idea of girlness. But if I swore off pink, and simply recycled all of her brother’s baby clothes, wasn’t I pushing her into mine?
Most women opt for pink – and how. Hot pink bundler, pale pink blanket, pink and brown diaper bag, all surrounding the tiny pink face in the stroller. But as I began to realize as I searched for clothing for my daughter, the alternatives are just as narrow. Rocker denim, smart-mouthed t-shirts and black leggings seem to exist primarily to ward off the siren-like seductions of the Disney Princesses. But pink or punk, the message is the same: I am dressing you like the girl I want you to be.
Or maybe, like the girl I still want to be, but have given up on. Perhaps that is why so many of us are so dowdy; we’ve given our daughters the hard work of becoming the girls we still wish we could be. We dress them like dolls, laugh when they learn the difference between Coach and Chanel, post videos of them rocking out to Patti Smith on our Facebook profile. They become our tiny billboards, plastered with our projections of beauty or coolness or disaffection. Meanwhile, we knock around town in our pajamas. It’s the ultimate opt-out.
And clearly, it isn’t a function of time. Fashion, even on a miniature-scale, takes a few minutes. Choices have to be made. An outfit has to be assembled. But putting tights on your toddler and barrettes in her hair and matching those accessories to her skirt and sweater can’t possibly be less time consuming than applying a little powder to your face and tucking in your shirt. But given the choice, many women seem to spend their mornings styling their daughters – and then cramming their entire beauty regimen into the five minutes they have before their kid gets bored watching Dora.
I wonder if we don’t feel a tiny bit of freedom when we dress our girls. After all, their bodies are unfettered by curves, unblemished by stretch marks. And if you think your daughter looks better in clothing than you do, then perhaps dressing her is a more gratifying exercise than dressing yourself. Many of us are still middling in what we refer to as our transitional jeans, not quite the size or shape we used to be before we had kids. Maybe frumpy chic is a temporary wardrobe diversion until the day comes when we are able to morph back into our earlier, more fashion-forward selves.
I wonder if we don’t feel a tiny bit of freedom when we dress our girls.To be sure, there are the practicalities involved in dressing up for a day of hanging out with your kids. I spend most of my day sitting on the floor, stomping through a sandbox or pushing a doublewide stroller through a city of narrow spaces. So heels are out. So are low-rise jeans. And forget about wearing anything that isn’t machine-washable.
But there is danger in all this transference; by dressing them, and not ourselves, we are pushing onto them the burden of living up to someone else’s standard of acceptable appearances. No one says a word when a mom is dressed in an outfit hastily assembled from the laundry basket when we’re all dressed the same way. But we see a kid who was dressed without any clear intention – a little girl wearing mismatched yellow socks and purple sweatpants and a green hoodie – and snicker, “Did they dress that kid in the dark?” As our toddlers grow into little girls and then later, into young women, the disapproval that flashes across our faces and escapes under our breath will lodge in their minds. If were lucky, they will rebel against us. But if we are not, we may be raising a whole new generation of women who feel insecure about their bodies, hiding in plain sight in their own uniform of fleece and spandex.
I shudder at the thought of giving up my beat-up running sneakers and track pants. But perhaps a swipe of the mascara brush and a pair of dress flats might not be the worst thing in the world. Because if we continue to abdicate the part of ourselves that we lose in parenting – the free time to groom ourselves, to dress ourselves, to care as much about our own appearance as we do about that of our children – will we be able to get it back? Is there any guarantee, when our kids are older and dressing themselves, that we will return to the women we used to be?