Strolling through a kids’ clothing store is a lesson in gender stereotypes: The girls’ aisle is awash in pastels, sequins, unicorns, and princesses; the boys’ aisle is grounded in blues, greens, dinosaurs, and trucks. This presents problems for kids who don’t feel like they fit neatly into these gendered categories, or parents who don’t want their kids to feel trapped by these over-simplified notions of gender.
Elizabeth Brunner, a San Francisco-based fashion designer, wanted to give her 8-year-old twins more clothing options. So she launched her own kids’ clothing label, StereoType, which offers comfortable clothes for everyday wear that aren’t explicitly masculine or feminine, but have qualities of both in each piece: There are black track pants embellished with sparkly stripes down the side; a comfy French terry blazer with colorful patches and gold trim; and a frilly purple skirt that can also be worn as a cape. The pieces, which cost between $30 and $129, are available exclusively on the StereoType website.
Over the past few years, several kids’ clothing companies have attempted to push back against gender norms. Primary, for instance, makes kids’ basics in a wide array of colors without categorizing them by gender. Piccolina was founded by a mom who was frustrated that so many kids’ clothes and products perpetuate gender stereotypes that underrepresent women in positions of power, or in fields relating to science and technology. So she launched a clothing line that features female trailblazers—like Toni Morrison and Ruth Bader Ginsburg—and dresses that feature trains, dinosaurs, and construction trucks. Annie the Brave and Princess Awesome make fun twirly dresses and leggings that also feature STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) themes.
Most of these brands target girls (and their parents) who are looking for more than just rainbow and butterfly prints on their outfits. But none take the approach of inviting boys to wear clothes that are traditionally gendered female, like tutus. This, Brunner believes, is what the market was missing and what she wanted to create through StereoType, which is why her website is full of pictures of boys styled with skorts and frilly skirts.
Elizabeth Brunner, who is married to Robert Brunner, founder of the celebrated design firm Ammunition, came up with the idea over the course of watching her twins—a boy and a girl—learn how to dress themselves. “Even before they were born, people seemed focused on their gender,” she says. “We were trying to keep their clothes gender-neutral, but people kept giving us outfits that were pink and blue.” This gender binary began to break down as soon as the twins were old enough to dress themselves. From the start, they began dipping into each other’s closets. Her son loved sparkles and pink, while her daughter liked wearing black. Brunner points out that it was a compelling case study for her as a fashion designer, since most children don’t have access to an abundance of boys’ and girls’ clothes that are in their size.
Brunner encouraged each of them to pick whatever outfits felt most comfortable to them. But when she was out with her kids, she noticed that strangers often commented on how her son wasn’t supposed to be wearing such feminine outfits. “In our culture, people are comfortable with the idea of a tomboy girl, but even in a liberal place like San Francisco, people have problems with a boy wearing girls’ clothes,” she says. “Strangers would come up to tell him he was doing something wrong by dressing that way. They would say things that were so rude, I won’t repeat them here.”
These experiences crushed her son. And it was out of her own sense of anger and frustration that she decided to launch StereoType. Brunner had studied fashion design at California College of the Arts, and had previously launched her own sustainable fashion line Piece x Piece, in which she took discarded sample swatches from fashion houses and transformed them into high-end garments.
This time, she applied her experience to designing kids’ clothes that combine traditionally feminine and masculine elements into a cohesive look. As her children have gotten older and started picking their own clothes when they shop with her, they’ve come up with a more nuanced approach to dressing, constantly blending pieces from the boys’ and girls’ sections. Her daughter still loves black, but she occasionally wears dresses as long as they’re not pastel and covered in glitter. Her son blends princess T-shirts with camo shorts. Their approach has informed every piece in the collection. Brunner also worked on making the garments eco-friendly: She uses recycled fibers when possible and makes all the pieces locally, in San Francisco, so they don’t have to be shipped long distances.
Brunner’s goal is not just to give boys like her son pieces they’ll love. She wants to normalize clothes that allow kids to embrace both their masculine and feminine sides, so that fewer people will fling barbs at boys who chose to wear skirts. “I remember the first time my son wore a princess skirt,” Brunner says. “His eyes just lit up as he began to twirl; he kept deliberately falling on his bum to see the skirt fly up into the air. You could see how happy he was. Shouldn’t all kids feel that happy when they dress in the morning?”