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Designer goes beyond pink and blue with gender-neutral clothing

‘T-shirts strike me as the most neutral of all clothing, especially for kids,’ says Jenn Neilson.

Sara Shirley

When a pregnant Jenn Neilson set out to find colourful clothes for her child, she was disappointed to find only seas of pink and blue at children's clothing stores.

The Toronto graphic designer (who didn't know she would have a girl) didn't want to commit to anything pink and frilly, or blue and emblazoned with a truck. Put off by the two extremes, she decided to launch her own line of clothing for older children that could be worn by both boys and girls.

She surveyed about 200 parents and found that 60 per cent said they shopped in the boys' section for their daughters; while 11 per cent looked for clothes for their sons in the girls' section.

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Neilson created Jill and Jack Kids, offering four prototypes for T-shirts featuring non-gender-specific designs such as owls, dinosaurs and catchy phrases. The $25 shirts are designed to fit long and slim, unlike the traditionally boxy boys' shirts and close-fitting girls' tops.

After receiving positive responses to her prototypes, Neilson launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce and sell T-shirts. If the venture succeeds, she plans to expand the line to include dresses, pants and hoodies. (By Wednesday, she met her goal of $15,000.)

She talked with The Globe about the impact she believes clothing can have.

How can clothing influence a child's behaviour?

Clothing communicates messages and it influences the way adults talk to kids. Because kids wear clothing bearing images before they're able to choose what their interests are, what they wear during that time influences the interests that they see as appropriate. You're never going to find a boy's shirt with a flower on it. But why are we telling boys that flowers are just for girls? They're plants. Are we not trying to cultivate children's respect for the environment and nature? This isn't a crusade against pink and blue, this is a crusade for more options for all kids.

What's wrong with shopping in the other section for variety?

If there were less of a difference between the stuff in the boys' section and stuff in the girls' section, I would be happier about just going over to the boys' section, but I feel like it's so extreme. What if you want something for your daughter that doesn't have frills or other girly embellishments, but you also don't want something with a football on it or an airplane – not that that's a boy thing, but maybe you want something that's somewhere in between those extremes? What about just normal clothes? Adults don't dress like that. It's more subtle. Boys and girls are shaped the same way at that age, so there's no physical reason for it. It's a marketing gimmick.

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Is your idea more for girls who are looking for less-girly things? The clothing, so far, seems to be boys' clothing that is a little more suitable for girls as well.

It's really for kids of either gender. I don't see T-shirts as boys' clothing. T-shirts strike me as the most neutral of all clothing, especially for kids. One question I asked on my survey that got really great answers was, "Why are you excited about kids' clothes that go beyond pink and blue?" A lot of people said things such as, "We're not a sporty family but when we go to shop for my son in the boys' section, it feels like we should be." The options in the boys' section are just as limited as they are in the girls' section.

If your company were to expand, would you make dresses that both boys and girls could wear?

We haven't developed the patterns yet, but the idea is to have a big wide neck and wide open sleeves, like a jumper kind of style. I never planned to have a girls' section when we added dresses. To make dresses that are not frilly, so that boys would be more likely to want to wear them, is not explicitly part of my goal – or it hasn't been until now. Maybe it should be. If boys want to wear them, great, but that's not really the mission. It's more about girls who are active and don't like all the frills and ruffles. A little girl might have a frilly pink dress in her closet but she also might have a play dress. But that's hard to find right now.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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