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Clothing industry led
the way in seeing kids as consumers, scholar says
Chamberlain, News Editor
by Bill Wiegand
Cook, professor of advertising and communication, says the
clothing industry led the way during the last century in the
move toward selling directly to children.
Ill. — “It takes a village to raise a child” may be
a popular ideal. “It takes a marketplace to raise a child”
may be closer to today’s reality, says Dan Cook, the author of
an upcoming book on the history of the clothing industry and the rise
of the “child consumer.”
In the department stores of 100 years ago, there were no children’s
clothing departments, notes Cook, a professor of advertising and communication at the
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Clothes were grouped by
type and size, but not by age. Children were seen but not really heard
as customers. And mothers got the attention of sales clerks and were
understood to make the decisions for their children.
That would begin to change by 1920, however, as the clothing industry
led the way in developing a market that saw the world through children’s
eyes, Cook said. “It may have been the first time in history that
an institution actually began to be structured around the child’s
In his book, “The Commodification of Childhood: The Children’s
Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer,” Cook makes
the case that merchants, manufacturers and advertisers gradually began
to target their message directly to children, and began to consider
them “real customers,” with legitimate and individual needs
and desires. The industry’s newfound approach suggested that children
were empowered by the market, rather than exploited by it, as a moral
justification for selling to kids.
Cook’s study of the children’s clothing industry draws significantly
on industry trade journals, and begins in 1917 with the publication
of the trade journal Infants’ Department. Around that time, many
stores were establishing separate infants’ departments to cater
to mothers and draw them into their stores.
Most of what developed after that, however, focused more and more on
the children, Cook said. Store clerks were advised to consider the child’s
perspective along with the mother’s. Clothing and other goods
were designed more with children’s desires in mind. Retail spaces
and fixtures were structured more to “child scale” and often
decorated with popular characters.
The spaces also were laid out with ever finer age divisions, especially
within girls’ departments, and in a way that required younger
children to walk through the older children’s sections. The merchants
recognized, Cook said, that kids always long to be older, and thus the
layout exposed them to possible future selves to which they could aspire.
Despite the Great Depression, or maybe because of it, the great transformation
in the children’s clothing industry began in the 1930s, and much
of what is seen in clothing and other children's retail sites today
was in place by the early 1960s, Cook said.
But the cultural shift continues – “to the point where to
not treat children in most contexts as full-fledged persons is considered
something of a moral violation,” Cook said.
The market may have once been considered as a separate sphere in people’s
lives, but can be no longer, Cook said. “What’s clearly
happened over the last century, and increasingly throughout the last
few decades, is that the market has come to pervade all realms.”
Christmas, in fact, no longer seems that special as a spot on the consumer
calendar, he said. “What I see is that it’s just a ramping
up of what happens all year-round.”
The child consumer plays an important part in all that because he or
she becomes an adult consumer. “Out of the particular pursuit
of the child consumer,” Cook wrote at the end of his introductory
chapter, “emerges an understanding and a claim that serve to position
children and childhood not on the sidelines of culture, but as indispensable
to the rise, reproduction, and transformation of what has come to be
known as consumer culture – a culture increasingly inseparable
from ‘culture’ in the generic sense.”
Cook’s book is to be published in March by Duke University Press.