Fashion victims? Children and consumption: when looking at families and family life today, sociologists often ignore some key family members–children. An important new study has begun to look at the way children shape their identities through their role as consumers: a case, perhaps, of ‘we are what we buy’?. Sharon Boden, Christopher Pole, Jane Pilcher and Tim Edwards. Sociology Review 15.1 (Sept 2005): p28(4).
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Sociologists have long been interested in consumption, that is, how we shop, where our purchasing ‘needs’ come from, how we treat the products we buy and how consuming shapes out lives. Running alongside the study of the behaviour of consumers is a concern to understand what factors shape the marketplace and what the cultural intermediaries (television, print media, advertising campaigns) are that ‘promote’ its value to us.
The rise of the ‘tweenager’
Consumption studies have largely focused on adults and have neglected children as independent, active consumers worthy of study. Children, however, have increasing purchasing power and status as ‘new consumers’ in what has come to be known as the rise of the ‘tweenager’. Taking children’s clothes as a case in point, large-scale surveys, such as those undertaken by Mintel Market Intelligence (2003), confirm that this market is growing strongly (by 5% in 2002 compared with 2001). Retail competition is intense, with both designer labels (e.g. John Rocha, DKNY and Burberry) and everyday low-price retailers (e.g. Matalan, Asda and Tesco) proving to be huge growth sectors.
Another useful source, www.juststyle.com, reports that in 2003 the UK children’s clothing market was worth 6.02bn [pounds sterling], accounting for 18.9% of the UK’s total clothing expenditure, with ‘fashion’ wear rather than traditional children’s wear being the growing sector. This translates on the high street into a shift away from traditional chains such as Adams and Marks & Spencer to shops offering trendier, more covetable items (often celebrity copy-cat clothes) such as New Look and George at Asda. Lifestyle brands, such as Quicksilver and Billabong, which produce suif- and skateboard-related clothing, are making their mark as fashionable alternatives to bland, casual clothing lines. These figures show that, far from being absent from fashion consumption, children are very much present and active in driving forward the children’s wear industry.
This leads to a situation in which the status of children–and, indeed, the nature of childhood itself–is unable to be considered apart from the highly commercialised and media-saturated society that typifies the industrialised world. Sociological questions therefore need to be raised to understand the nature of consumption for children and how their corresponding ‘new’ status in the marketplace may alter how they behave and how they are treated as social actors.
A number of sociological issues are raised and can be analysed through the lens of children’s fashion consumption. These include:
* social inclusion and exclusion within peer relations
* changing power dynamics of the family and household
* identity construction and performance in childhood
* the commercialisation of the lifecourse and lifestyles
Researching children’s consumption
Having highlighted the growing significance of children’s consumption not simply in economic terms but more broadly in relation to key sociological concepts, we now offer a brief overview of our research project, which aims to provide insight into the link between children and consumption.
Funded through the ESRC/AHRB Cultures of Consumption research programme, the study examines the practices and experiences of children in relation to buying clothes. In doing so, we are advancing understanding of the ways in which the home is penetrated by consumption, especially in relation to the ways in which children and parents act and connect as consumers. We are also adding to the existing knowledge of the political and cultural importance of children as consuming agents.
The key questions guiding this research are:
* What are the roles of children in choosing and buying their own clothes? How are these roles expressed and how have they changed over time?
* In what ways do children engage with the concept of ‘fashion’ and to what extent does it drive their wants and purchases?
* How does fashion consumption alter the parent-child relationship and structure patterns of household consumption?
Our data collection methods were selected to make the child the focus of the study (see also Box 1). We employed a range of participatory, qualitative methods designed to capture how children experience consumption in the context of their families.
Box 1 Ethics and research with children
When researching with children, certain ethical issues must be taken
* Avoid seeing the child as an ‘object’ rather than a ‘subject’ or
‘social person’ acting in the world in their own right,
* Protect the child’s interests during the research.
* Be attentive to the different experiences and competencies
of the child and the adult researcher.
* Establish a safe and effective rapport between researchers and
children/families, based on trust, with the assurance that data
will be treated sensitively.
* Ensure that the aims and objectives of the research are
transparent and beyond question, not only at the time of seeking
access to children but throughout the research process.
Source: adapted from E Christensen and A. Prout (2002) ‘Working with ethical symmetry in social research with children’, Childhood, Vol. 9, No. 4
The research focused on the consumer behaviour of 15 children, aged between 6 and 15, who were located in eight families spread across England. They were visited five times by a member of the research team. Specifically, activities undertaken with these children during such visits included:
* unstructured discussions covering a wide range of topics, including shopping for clothes, trying to negotiate purchases with parents, imitating the images of pop stars and sports stars, and keeping up with the latest fashion trends
* write and draw project-based work in which children were given the opportunity to express creatively their clothing ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’
* a wardrobe audit, in which children actively presented their clothes to the researcher and explained to them both the processes leading up to the purchase and how/if the garment was being worn
* photography–children were given disposable cameras to record any new clothing purchases and to depict any aspect of fashion that was important to them
Besides these child-centred research methods, the researchers observed relevant family activities, such as shopping trips and browsing through clothing catalogues. We conducted interviews with mothers based on the ‘diaries’ they had been completing during the study, and spoke to a number of people who work in the children’s wear industry and are responsible for producing and promoting the clothes.
Clothes, gender and parents’ concerns
The approach outlined above provided us with a large amount of relevant and richly detailed data which will contribute to sociological debate in the areas of consumption, childhood and fashion. Some issues arising from our study include the ways in which children and their parents use clothing in the construction and embodied expression of gendered identities. Here, using our varying sources of data, we have been looking at children’s displays of femininity or masculinity, how children relate to their age and the process of growing up, and how these things can be viewed in either a positive or a negative light.
Perhaps the most substantive issue to arise in this respect is how parents label some girls’ clothes as ‘too provocative’, Items such as ‘bras’, ‘thongs’, ‘low-cut tops’, ‘miniskirts’, ‘skimpy things’, ‘cropped tops’, ‘really short clothes’ have all been identified by parents as inappropriate clothing for children. Parents consider them inappropriate because they encourage children to be looked at and thought of in a sexualised way.
In the focus groups we held with parents (which formed part of the process of family selection for the year-long study) mention was made by them of paedophiles, ‘weirdos’ and ‘the wrong sort of people’ giving ‘the wrong sort of attention’ to children who dress in the sorts of items listed above. Items such as high heels, which are thought to accentuate the female figure, were frowned upon. A related problem identified by parents is that the styling of girls’ clothes has been changing over recent years to mimic that of adults–‘mini-mums’ outfits’ was the phrase used by one mother.
Children clothes and identify construction
The issue of clothes in relation to modesty and respectability was significant for the girls themselves. They expressed worries about wearing clothes that exposed too much bare skin or that appeared ‘too old’ for them–formulating clothing-personality associations: the wearing of an ‘inappropriate’ garment might reflect a side of their personality they wanted to disguise or were net yet at ease with. More broadly, this demonstrates how material culture can be a narrative resource in children’s expressions: children speak about clothes in ways that (they feel) illuminate their identities. Children’s accounts of their preferences and their use of clothing have, in turn, shed light upon issues such as taste and style, and the importance of fashion to image, lifestyle and belonging to either gender.
Unlike girls’ fashions, boys’ fashions seem consistent, unthreatening and net so overtly ‘gendered’ as their female counterparts. Other gender-based issues to emerge from our study include:
* the differences in clothing design, including fabric, colour and styling, which culturally demarcate girls and boys in modern consumer cultures
* the faster physical development of girls and the related problems of sizing
* the adoption of same-sex role models and fashion icons
* the significance attached to label culture and branded sportswear
Both boys and girls, it seems, have the capacity to discriminate in relation to clothing quality and style from an early age and, in the course of the study, they offered independent appraisals and critiques of the fashion marketplace and of particular labels. They drew attention to the potential social dangers of purchasing poor-quality, unfashionable or inappropriate clothing. In the interview in Box 2, the Nike brand is used to influence the teenager Joseph’s perceived popularity and to wrap a protective veil over his physical body that deflects attention to the commodity of the sign (in this case, the well-known Nike ‘swoosh’).
Box 2 Constructing style
Joseph (aged 15) used ‘Nike style’ to encourage others to
gaze upon, envy and copy his look, encouraging in his peers
a type of conspicuous consumption of himself. His comments
reveal a self-reflexive sense of pride and achievement in
constructing a stylish appearance.
Researcher: What do you mean by ‘looking flashy’?
Joseph: You’ve got good style clothes and, you know, shiny
like this … looks cool…. I’ve got an outfit upstairs which
is … I call it … flasher, I’ll show you that if you want.
Joseph: Yeah, like that. People–when you’re walking about the
street–they’d look at you and go, ‘Oh, look at that!’
Researcher: You would like that? … You like that sort of thing?
Joseph: Yeah. When I was wearing that coat yesterday, everyone
was doing that. So that was a good vibe.
Early analysis suggests a link between the perceived social significance of labels and clothing type and the processes of growing up. Some children come to reject former signifiers of their childhood in an attempt to ‘age up’ into a more teenage style. For boys, a greater symbolic value seems to attach to constructing a ‘cool’ image through wearing sports and surf/skate clothes.
For girls, this has taken the form of ‘turning against’ Barbie and other labels perceived as childish (see Box 3).
Box 3 ‘Turning against’ Barbie
The following interview from the Leicester research is an
example of a 7-year-old female from a rural village ‘turning
against’ Barbie (a brand of clothing and accessories which is
an offshoot from the Barbie doll) as proof of no longer being
a little girl. Megan is pushing away and rejecting a former
signifier of her childhood in an attempt to ‘age up’ into a
more teenage style.
Researcher: [Have you got] Anything with Disney on or Barbie?
Megan: No, no no! Definitely net Barbie!
Researcher: You don’t like Barbie?
Megan’s mother: No. She used to.
Researcher: Why don’t you like Barbie?
Megan’s brother William, aged 9: She used to have this top
with Barbie on.
Megan: She’s too little for me.
Researcher: But you used to like her. Maybe she’s okay for
Megan’s mother: Yeah, I think I would say a year ago she
stopped. Se everything that has Barbie on Megan doesn’t like.
Researcher: We’ve got a few sporty tops here, like these fleeces.
Megan’s mother: Yeah, that one has got ‘Boston’ on. That’s had
Megan: Well, I think that’s quite sporty and this one I like.
The relationship of children to fashion consumption throws up a fascinating range of sociological issues, from the changing power relations between children, their peers, their parents and the marketplace, to the use-value (to keep warm and dry) and sign-value (to look good) of clothes for children’s identity construction. The ever expanding opportunities and invitations of consumer culture are negotiated by children as part and parcel of everyday life.
There are, to be sure, many paths open to social researchers wanting to develop an understanding of how contemporary consumer culture operates. In this article, we have presented an overview of out own study, which prioritises children’s experiences of ‘consuming’ clothes. The study has already given many interesting insights into the nature, processes and consequences of consumption for children and childhood.
There is relatively little material available to students on the sociology of childhood, so this will be a welcome addition. The authors look at a particular and relatively new aspect of childhood–children as consumers. The material provides useful information for discussions on the role of children in the family, the power of the mass media and marketing organisations, the development of gender roles and ideas of ‘self’, as well as highlighting issues about the considerable gap between the better-off and the poor and marginalised groups of society.
There are political issues as well, not least concerns over the trend to make ever younger children, particularly girls, adopt semi-adult styles of dress and become conscious of body image. If, as the postmodernists suggest, society is increasingly concerned with ‘style’ and outward appearances, this article shows that even some of the youngest members of society are affected.
Some of the research methods outlined in the article could be adopted as the basis for interesting coursework, although students taking this route should be aware of the ethical issues of using young children as subjects and should discuss their ideas with their teachers before embarking on their research.
Reference and further reading
Boden, S., Pole, C., Pilcher, J. and Edwards, T. (2004) ‘New consumers? The social and cultural significance of children’s fashion consumption’, ESRC Cultures of Consumption Working Paper Series, www.consume.bbk.ac.uk
Featherstone, M. (1991) Consumer Culture and Postmodernism, Sage.
Gunter, B. and Furnham, A. (1998) Children as Consumers, Routledge.
Martens, L., Southerton, D. and Scott, S. (2004) ‘Bringing children (and parents) into the sociology of consumption’, Journal of Consumer Culture, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 155-182.
Russell, R. and Tyler, M. (2002) ‘Thank heaven for little girls’, Sociology, Vol. 36, pp. 619-637.
The authors involved in this research project are all based in the Sociology Department at the University of Leicester.