The Children’s Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer

The Commodification of Childhood: The Children’s Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer

Lisa Jacobson

The Commodification of Childhood: The Children’s Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer. By Daniel Thomas Cook (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. x plus 211 pp.).

Daniel Cook’s thought-provoking examination of the children’s clothing industry in the United States sheds new light on the development of children’s consumer culture in the twentieth century. Focusing on the years between 1917, when the children’s wear industry launched its first trade journal, and the end of the baby boom in the early 1960s, Cook demonstrates how children’s wear became increasingly age segmented as merchants and manufacturers began designing goods and retail spaces with children’s needs and desires in mind. Cook identifies the 1930s as the major turning point when merchants, manufacturers, and advertisers of children’s wear recognized children rather than mothers as their primary consumer target. This shift, Cook argues, marked the emergence of a new marketing perspective–what Cook provocatively terms “pediocularity”–that viewed “the world through children’s eyes” instead of a mother’s eyes (p. 6).

Cook provides an informative account of how children’s wear merchandising became increasingly segmented and child focused. Before World War I merchandising of children’s wear was rather limited. Only one factory specialized in children’s clothes before 1890, and mass merchandisers often stocked children’s clothing with adult clothing in various departments throughout the store. Clothing, in other words, was organized by type rather than age. As publisher of the trade journal Infants’ Department, George Earnshaw played a pivotal role in pressing retailers to devote floor space and specially trained salesclerks to children’s departments. This strategy first gained traction in infants’ departments, which courted the loyalty of mothers by hosting talks about infant care and staging baby contests during the U.S. Children’s Bureau’s “Baby Week” campaigns. By the late 1920s, department stores and chains like Sears and Montgomery Ward began including children’s departments that catered to school-age boys and girls. Most strikingly, in the 1930s children’s clothing departments were divided and subdivided into a range of gender and age groupings.

Cook highlights a variety of factors that made manufacturers more attentive to the child’s point of view in the 1930s. Faced with shrinking markets in the Depression, merchants and manufacturers likely saw greater age segmentation as an opportunity to expand demand. By recognizing that children possessed personal desires and stressing the importance of personality development, childrearing advice also helped legitimize the practice of giving children a greater say in their own clothing. In translating such advice, women’s magazines encouraged parents to consider children’s preferences and concerns about fitting in with their peers when selecting clothing. They also suggested that allowing children to choose their clothing helped children learn good taste. Children’s popular culture also advanced child-focused merchandising. Child stars like Jane Withers, Judy Garland, and Mickey Rooney all either had their own clothing lines or endorsed children’s wear. Cook in particular credits Shirley Temple, whose own stage dresses and retail line of clothing had a toddler “look,” for helping to make the toddler-size style range for girls a viable new merchandising category.

Cook’s most interesting and original chapters (the final two) detail the strategies merchants used to “appeal to the child as the decisive consumer” (p. 97). Retailers decorated stores in bold primary colors, lowered counters and mirrors to convenient child heights, and placed clothing within easy grasp. Some even put swings in their store and awarded boys subscriptions to American Boy when they made a purchase of $10 or more. Well-trained salesclerks treated children as equals and avoided any hint of condescension. Sensitive to teenagers’ yearnings for autonomy, youthful salesclerks even sided with teens over their mothers. As industry segmentation accelerated in the 1940s and 1950s, retailers became savvier in appealing to preteen and teenage girls. Stores “institutionalized and appropriated the clique structure of white, middle-class teen girl peer society” by recruiting popular high school girls to serve on fashion boards and to model merchandise in store fashion shows. Owners and buyers regarded these popular teens as “translators” of youth culture and expected that other teens would follow their fashion lead (p. 131). Retailers also learned that the success of the new teen departments and the new preteen size category hinged on their “visual, spatial, and stylistic distinctiveness from younger children’s areas” (p. 133). Locating teen departments far from baby departments and next to the college shop appealed to teenage girls who studiously avoided appearing too young and often took their fashion cues from college-aged women. As Cook insightfully explains, “in the world of the high school and junior high, independence and maturity–or at least their public, bodily markers–functioned as a form of cultural capital” (p. 139).

While The Commodification of Childhood contains many important insights, it also contains its share of flaws. Overly long quotes that take up the better part of a paragraph sometimes bog down the narrative. Cook, a sociologist, draws ably from the vast secondary literature in his discipline, but he neglects relevant historical work on twentieth-century childrearing advice as well as the emerging body of literature on girlhood (including major works by such historians as Miriam Forman-Brunell, Kelly Schrum, and Joan Brumberg). These are particularly striking oversights since two chapters focus on girls. Though theoretically innovative, Cook’s intriguing concept of “pediocularity” gets somewhat muddled when he insists that pediocularity “repeats and reinscribes childhood innocence in the ways that it encodes children’s ‘special nature’ in their presumed, and presumably unpolluted, gaze” (p. 68). Do children really possess an “unpolluted gaze,” or is this notion itself a cultural construct? Child consumers have often been imagined as greedy, demanding, and overly preoccupied with peer approval–hardly the stuff that sustains idealizations of childhood innocence. One might argue instead that in constructing the child as a desiring subject, pediocularity challenged the myth of childhood innocence and validated different qualities–personality, gumption, savvy, even precocity–as admirable virtues.

Somewhat surprisingly, Cook’s narrative neglects children’s agency. Because Cook relies on sources that privilege adult perspectives–advertising and dry goods trade journals, women’s magazines, and parenting magazines–children’s voices and experiences are absent. Cook also sidesteps an analysis of the class dynamics that shaped children’s consumerism. These omissions leave several important questions unanswered. What happens to Cook’s concept of pediocularity when we factor in the divergent consumer experiences of working-class and minority children? What other ways of seeing and being does pediocularity privilege besides the child’s point of view? Cook’s conviction that “the rise of the child consumer is part of a larger movement toward enfranchising children as full persons in Western culture” makes these questions even weightier (p. 145). Cook’s theoretical framework has laid the groundwork for more nuanced studies that evaluate how pediocularity has both enfranchised and disenfranchised diverse groups of child consumers.

Lisa Jacobson

University of California, Santa Barbara

COPYRIGHT 2005 Journal of Social History

COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group