Babies and children are naturally expressive. They use their bodies, their voices, movement, toys, art, imagination, and clothing to reflect who they are. With every decision, children learn more about themselves through their choices of chocolate versus vanilla, pants versus shorts, books versus blocks, and red versus yellow.
Once children are old enough to express their opinion, many kids will experiment with clothing to express their identity and personality. Most adults are familiar with adolescents experimenting with fashion to identify themselves with a peer group or to separate themselves from the crowd. But even at an earlier age, young children are beginning to form their sense of self with something as simple as clothing.
Adults have an important role in purchasing children’s clothing and thereby help to define who babies and toddlers are before they can express their own preferences. Most parents and caregivers dress their children in clothing that reflects their own personal beliefs, fashion style, identification with ideals and even moral convictions. For example, a traditional household will dress in traditional clothing and children from these homes often wear smocked rompers, jon jons, and more traditional color choices and styles. On the other end, in a household who considers themselves to be non-conformists, one might find children dressed in punk rock clothing or gothic apparel for babies featuring non-traditional ideas towards childhood.
In the children’s apparel industry everything can be seen from traditional children’s clothing, punk rock baby clothes, gothic kids’ apparel, funky designer clothes, hip hop urban clothes and contemporary unisex clothing. It is essentially up to the adult who dresses young infants and children to begin defining the child through clothing. As children grow, they naturally want to copy the adult role models in their lives and many children dress in the fashions seen on the adults. This natural progression begins to shape the identity of the children as they mimic adult preferences and children observe and learn that clothing is one way to actively assert one’s identity either as a boy or girl, a member of a group, or as an individual. Of course, some children are naturally drawn to dressing like Mom or Dad, and others prefer to wear a tutu or pirate costume 24/7. And frankly, other children could care less about wearing any clothing at all! Yes…this is personality in the making!
For the times when adults want to steer children into developing into independent, critical thinking, problem solving adults, it is important to let children begin to express themselves through clothing in a directed manner through color choices, materials, textures, and styles that fit the household definition of “appropriate”. Whether a child is drawn to wearing mismatched plaids and prints, only one color or style, or even minimal clothing, when allowed the freedom to decide, children are developing important skills of discrimination, problem solving, and self expression. It may just seem like Sam just wants to wear his red stripe shirt every day, but Sam is really learning about his own preferences, asserting himself, and how clothing can be utilized to identify himself.
While clothing may not be a distinguishing factor in the development of a child’s personality, it certainly can subtly teach children about identity and how to express themselves in a safe, natural way. It’s up to the adults in a child’s life to guide these choices, but by allowing a child to use clothing as a means of self discovery enables important life lessons and skills.