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Clothing industry led the way in seeing kids as consumers, scholar says

Craig Chamberlain, News Editor


Dan Cook
Photo by Bill Wiegand
Dan 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.

CHAMPAIGN, 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 perspective.”

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.