Why do we dress boys in clothes that are grey, joyless and dull?

My eight-year-old son wants to wear colorful, interesting clothes. But the shops are not stocking them.

When I asked my eight-year-old son what he would like to wear to a forthcoming wedding, his response was clear and immediate: “A red suit with white spots, a matching hat, and gold shoes.” This seemed fair enough to me. Who in their right mind would not want to wear such a fabulous outfit?

We set off for our local shopping center in high spirits. And yet, within an hour of hitting the high street, depression had set in. There is a unique kind of misery to be found in an eight- to-14-year-old boys’ clothing section: rail upon rail of sludge green, grey and – my son’s personal nemesis – navy blue. He tried on one hideous, Jacob Rees-Mogg-style blazer after another. “It makes me look like a businessman,” he said, examining the stiff, uncomfortable kid in the mirror.

In an entire morning, we found not one item of clothing that was interesting, not one that expressed even the tiniest iota of individuality or creativity. The closest we came to success was some burgundy trousers – and, as my son pointed out, “They are just not red.” To add insult to injury, every time we entered a shop, we had to walk through the girls’ clothing section to get to the boys’ – passing a riot of sequins, flounces, patterns, and prints. We found some excellent gold shoes in Clarks, only to be told by a saleswoman that they were for girls, and didn’t come in a big enough size.

I completely understand parents of girls objecting to endless pink and princess dresses. But perhaps the situation is almost worse for boys. At least girls get a bit of choice. What does this weird lack of diversity tell us about what we expect boys to be? Boring, conformist, dull, practical – or worse. Staring at the deathly rows of mini-suites I was reminded of Grayson Perry’s book on gender, The Descent of Man, and in particular his idea of “default man”, the archetype of the wealthy, powerful and be suited, white male. Perry – a man who knows a thing or two about clothing – has a lot to say about suits. “The real function of the sober business suit is not to look smart but as camouflage,” he writes. “A person in a grey suit is invisible.”

This is the message high-street fashion is sending to young boys: that they should aim not to express themselves but to do a kind of cloak of invisibility. Why? It’s not as though men are genetically programmed to want to look dull. In many cultures, men’s fashion is as colorful and glamorous as women’s: check out the Sapeurs in Congo-Brazzaville, or any African men’s clothing shop for that matter. Alternatively, go back a couple of centuries or so to when wealthy European men would have worn sumptuous colors and fabrics, jewelers and even high heels.

In his book, The Psychology of Clothes, published in 1930, the psychologist and fashion historian JC Flugel explored the culturally enforced plainness of men’s clothing. He noted that in modern western society, unlike in most traditional societies, men dressed less decoratively than women. He dated this back to the end of the 18th century when there had been a profound shift in the way men presented themselves, which Flugel called the “great masculine renunciation”. Turning away from wearing flamboyant clothes to display their wealth, men increasingly adopted a uniform that reflected Enlightenment values of rationality and practicality. (In doing so, they were also distinguishing themselves from women, who were still encouraged to be frilly, high-heeled and irrational.) Interestingly, Flugel considered women’s fashion to be psychologically healthier, and he advocated a reform of men’s clothing.

Considering the radical shifts in gender relations over the succeeding 200-odd years, it seems remarkable that this is still dynamic. We’re always being told that men are becoming more “metrosexual” – donning sarongs, and purple satin suits à la Beckham. Well, there’s not much evidence of that on the high street – not in John Lewis, M&S, Zara or H&M.

Fortunately, we now have other options. After a reviving bun in the local cafe, my son and I went home and hit the internet. And there, readers, we found our happy ending: an outfit so outrageous, so loud and silly and glorious, that there was simply no way to resist.

Who knows how long my boy’s commitment to bright red will last – perhaps in a couple of years, he will join the navy-blue crowd. But I hope not. Life can be tough, and we all need to find joy where we can. It’s not only girls who benefit from a touch of glitz and glamour.

 By Alice O’Keeffe is a freelance literary critic and journalist


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