i couldn't make something this good up

i couldn’t make something this good up


hen the boys were little, someone told me that it was more fun buying clothes for girls than boys—more than one someone, now that I think about it. They would say this with genuine sympathy, as if they were already imagining the two decades of long, boring shopping trips that lay ahead of me.

For the most part, they were right. Boys’ clothes were awfully brown. Almost entirely so. Toddler clothes for boys featured a lot of generic trucks and extinct animals, but this was where the sense of whimsy came to a full, rattling, clanking stop. Beyond brown and blue, I was able to find plenty of items in green for my sons and every once in a while, some manufacturer would go off their rocker and offer a whole bunch of shirts in orange.

At some point, though, our address ended up on a mailing list for Johnnie Boden, a UK-based clothing company. I flipped through their catalog for the first time to joyfully discover boys’ clothes in every color imaginable—yes, Virginia, pink too. I began placing two orders a year through the company for boys’ pants, shorts and shirts that I would never be able to find in a store here.

Then this week, I returned like a migrating bird to the catalog for a look at the shorts being offered this year and I realized

that the wonderful ones—pairs in red or with green stripes or with stars on them—are in sizes now too small for my sons.

The best that boys edging into their tweens can hope for—even for Euro-flavored Johnnie B—is plaid.

A story about gender identification in The York Times Magazine included a sidebar discussion about the establishment of the neutral color-fashion norm for men and boys. Color wasn’t always a bad thing in men’s fashion. Bright and varied shades were favored for both genders as late as the early 20th century. As women pushed for the right to vote and began to insinuate themselves into the workforce, however, the effort to clearly differentiate between the sexes played out in the way color was leeched out of men’s closets.

Last week, when I waited on Marcel to cross the street, I watched him in a herd of his peers. His two-year-old coat has blue stars on it and, for the first time, I noticed how out of place it was. The boys wear solid colors now—not all browns and blues yet, but I had the distinct impression that they are moving that way, shedding their playful pelts for some more traditionally, stereotypically male.

I made a sad mental note: no more stars for middle-school Marcel.

But there’s this, too: at the elementary school a mile or two away, Roy is kicking around recess in a pair of neon orange Keds he picked out for himself. He has asked me if I would buy him the equally obnoxious pair in yellow once he wears these out. I told him I would think about it.

“Don’t you think they’re a little…conspicuous?” a fourth-grade friend of Roy’s asked him.

He does, too. But that was the whole point, really.