Clothes, Parenting, and Vanity

A while back I bought a negative scanner (this one) to transfer old film photos to digital format. It does a reasonable job, not exactly professional standard and the scanning process is rather repetitive, but it’s good enough for home use if you have time on your hands. Anyway, last weekend I started scanning the negatives of all the family photos we had from when I grew up in Wales, most of which are from the late ’70s through the ’80s.

Oh boy. Oh boy, oh boy. What would my siblings pay me to ensure they never see the light of day? Something which stands out straight away is the clothes we’re all decked out in (there are four of us, three boys and a girl). I have no idea where my parents got these clothes but they have surely since been banned by the UN on human rights grounds. Was purple really so popular back then? Dear Lord. Alas, my parents appeared to be dressed in whatever they found in a job-lot of clothes gathered from the fields after Woodstock. I’m being unfair, of course. When the photos include other children and their parents, their own sartorial selections were no less hideous. But there are reasons for this.

Firstly, economics. Back in the 1970s there was no clothing industry in China churning out hundreds of millions of garments dirt cheap. I have no idea where children’s clothes were made back then, but they weren’t being knocked out at the volume and price they are now. Like everything else, clothes have got cheaper. The number of hours a breadwinner had to work to clothe his kids in the ’70s was a lot more than today. Kids therefore were expected to wear whatever the parents could lay their hands on, and if you had more than one boy economies of scale would kick in. I don’t know how old I was before I got my first pair of trousers that weren’t hand-me-downs (I was the youngest) but I was pushing six-feet tall. As far as school clothes went, the first thing my brother used to do at the start of a new term was tell everyone my trousers used to be his. Thanks a bunch.

Secondly, availability. Not only was China not pumping out cheap clothes, shops in west Wales in that era were not selling them. The shops were absolutely abysmal, and remained so well into the ’90s. Buying school clothes entailed a trip to Swansea or even Cardiff, which was a fair hike in a VW Beetle with four kids. Even if Gap Kids existed in those days, they’d have been as unobtainable as Rolex watch for anyone living in Pembroke. A lot of people forget how appalling retail used to be.

But something else has changed too, which I alluded to in this post about how parenting has changed. There’s a vanity associated with children now that didn’t exist when I was a kid, or at least I was unaware of it. Frankly, back in the ’70s and ’80s parents didn’t care how their kids looked provided they were washed, their hair cut, and clothes clean. Whether they looked cool or their outfit wasn’t some hideous purple jumper over a paisley shirt didn’t matter a jot. Economics and availability played a role for sure, but practicality was the main driver. As my mother used to say, what’s the point in buying nice clothes for children when 1) they’ll get wrecked, and 2) you’ll outgrow them in weeks. She had a point. Living in a rural area my clothes were usually covered in mud and/or cow crap, and my trousers always had patches on the knees because I sort of lived on the floor. And I was one of those kids who you could watch growing in real-time. Being practical folk raised in the era of post-war shortages, my parents’ generation just kitted out their kids in anything that was practical and didn’t worry too much about what it looked like.

The only “cool” piece of clothing I remember from infant and junior school was the Arsenal strip, a red and white nylon t-shirt with the gun and cannon balls logo. One or two kids had one, and they were cool. I wanted one, but my mother said no (she’d not have had the foggiest idea what I was on about). Instead I did PE in the same green polo-neck that my older brothers had worn, thus consigning each of us in turn to playing in goal every time we had football. This was the ’80s, after all. Our football socks were also shared among us, knitted from wool by great-auntie Jessie. Little wonder the First Division scouts didn’t linger too long at our PE sessions.

Something changed in the 1990s, probably at the time China boomed and globalisation made us all richer. When I was growing up there were adults’ clothes and children’s clothes. Nowadays children’s clothes are often adult’s clothes but in a small size. Gap Kids and the others use the same or similar designs as their adult ranges. It now became possible to make your kid look cool, and boy did some mothers take it seriously. You started seeing toddlers wearing Lacoste and Ralph Lauren clothing which wasn’t much cheaper than the adult stuff. Parents would still use hand-me-downs but no longer would except sacks of clothes from cousins, neighbours, or friends of the family whose children had grown up. In fact, many would be offended if it were offered, but when I was a child it was gratefully received. There was nothing wrong with the clothes, other than they were absolutely hideous and they had someone else’s name sewn in them. And of course, they were a decade out of fashion: the clothes I wore in the ’80s dated from the ’70s.

I don’t know what came first, the availability of nice clothes or the vanity of the parents, but nowadays many mothers (and occasionally fathers) see their children as fashion accessories, objects which makes a statement about them in terms of wealth and taste (ha!). I’ve seen 5 or 6 year old kids walking around in Canada Goose jackets. For whose benefit are they being worn, do you think? It’s a subsection of the molly-coddling that I mentioned in my earlier post. If a mother thinks her boy needs to look super-cool in the latest designer clothes, you can be sure she’s pandering to him in other ways and her priority is not raising him to be a functional adult.

The same is true for those mothers who style their child’s hair, making it spiky or dyeing it. Ditto for those who give them mirrored shades. If they go on to post pictures of their kid thus adorned on Facebook, it’s a near-certainty the kid is a little shit. Ask any teacher what impression they’d form of a six year old who turned up in class with his hair shaved at the back and sides and spiked on top, as if he were a Premier League footballer. Equally bad is those mothers who refuse to cut their kid’s hair, saying “Oh I couldn’t, he looks so beautiful.” Here’s some advice: if your kid is under ten and has long hair that you refuse to cut because you “love it so much”, he’ll still be living with you when he’s thirty. Or he’ll be living in a one-bed flat with a guy called Ralph.

So looking back, perhaps my folks had the right idea after all. As my dad would say: “It never did you any harm!” Quite right.

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32 thoughts on “Clothes, Parenting, and Vanity

  1. I always have the same impression whenever I see photos of myself or my brothers as kids.

    Looking back I get powerful feelings of nostalgia for a time when kids were dressed like kids, and spend most of their spare time chasing each other climbing trees, riding our bikes, playing war by throwing sticks at each other…

    It’s a miracle we survived actually.

  2. Tim. Quite right. Indeed.
    But where are the bloody photos? I want to see them in all their horror.

  3. I had a fairly lucrative paper round in the seventies not the papers so much but the plastic sheaved porn which i would auction off to desperate RN sailors so i could afford to buy my own star jumpers , Major Domo boots (better than Doc Martins) and fawn three button high waist trousers,but the one lesson i learnt was do not wear Levi shrink to fit jeans too long after getting out of the bath they shrank so much around the hips and waist i had to get mum to cut them off with a pair of scissors expensive mistake and a clip around the ear from dad.

  4. Being slightly better built than average, paying ~50 quid for a decent pair of trousers in the late 80s was a expensive pill to swallow on 130 per week take home.

    Of course those who would seek to rule over us would love to return to that for the sake of ‘sustainability’.

  5. Other people have mentioned it elsewhere but this bears repetition: not only do we make kids look like little flop stars but we make adults now look like children.

    We have kids wearing mirror shades as you said Mr Tim and ‘posing’ in off-the-shoulder ‘come and get me’ outfits, and we have adults wearing silly knitwear with teddy bears on the front and wearing shoes that look like oversized Start-Rite shoes.

    Mind you I can never get over how many supposed adults pay a fortune for the ‘poverty’ look of ripped jeans and how many parents are happy to clad their six-year old girl in a T-shirt that announces “I’m a bad girl go straight to my bedroom.” Yes, I really have seen the latter.

    Funny thing, people.

  6. As a fellow child of the mid seventies- You got away lightly.

    I swear, my mum dressed me in stuff she must have found.

    And whilst (being the oldest) I never had to suffer hand me downs, I was astonished to realise that most people didn’t have their ankles permanently on display as their mums didn’t have a “only buy one pair of trousers a year’ policy.

    Hand me downs would have been a move upward.

  7. If you think those are cringe-worthy, you should see photos of me and my sister from the 50s. No, I’m not going to post them!

  8. I’m really surprised at those photos – as in “bloody hell, someone was using decent filmstock”.

    Most of the photos that various family members have from the seventies and eighties are really quite grainy and muddy.

    Clothing was always a bit, debatable.

  9. Kids (well, young boys) used to wear short trousers year round because scabs on knees heal quickly whereas holes in expensive school trousers do not. These days you can probably pick up a new pair for £5 at Asda.

  10. Most of the photos that various family members have from the seventies and eighties are really quite grainy and muddy.

    Yeah, I’m amazed at how well preserved the negatives are and how well they scan. It’s mostly Kodak and Fuji. Perhaps that’s where the clothing budget went?

  11. It’s funny the things you forget and then get prompted by.

    I remember saving 2 weeks pay in my Saturday job in a record shop to pay for a pair of white drainpipe jeans in Mister Byrite in the 80s and they cost about £20. That was 2 days pay in my job. And those were not particularly expensive. If Sainsbury’s or ASDA ever return to such sartorial elegance, and if I lose a few stone, they’d cost less than that today.

    I’m not sure how much it’s about China. We’ve always had sweatshops in other places before we had China. I think it’s all the other costs like shipping, stock management, distribution and retailing. Shops like Mister Byrite were much more inefficient than a Gap or H&M today. Not only because of scale, but stock management, wasteful duplication and so forth. I knew 3 people who owned or ran small shops in the 80s and that was a good living, because it was a job requiring more judgement. My boss would decide how many of each single to order in – what would be big, what wouldn’t and so forth. That decision is managed by a small team at head office today. They know every shop’s stock, data about the store, and sort it out. So store managers are a less responsible and cheaper job.

  12. “I’m amazed at how well preserved the negatives are”

    That would be the bit I missed.

    I should check out the negatives that my mother has, but I suspect that they are mainly Kodak. That said, I can’t really be arsed, since there’s a particular shirt and trousers combo, the sight of which I’m not entirely equipped to handle properly these days.

  13. Christ, how decadent. Blue wellies. They were all black in my day.

    And – forgive the repetition – I started primary school in clogs. Beat that, boyo!

  14. Christ, how decadent. Blue wellies. They were all black in my day.

    I progressed to green Dunlops. Later they were black Argylls.

  15. The pics aren’t too bad, though your second one seemed a bit too frilly. Amazing how kids can retain their basic looks. It was completely obvious that they were you.

  16. How long does that Veho scanner take to scan a negative or slide, Tim? Years ago, I had a similar device, but I found it too slow at two minutes and more per slide.

    By the way, I think the photographs are rather charming, in a nostalgic way.

  17. It was completely obvious that they were you.

    Heh! That’s what other people have said, much to my annoyance!

  18. How long does that Veho scanner take to scan a negative or slide, Tim?

    Okay, you take a strip of negatives, and put them in this plastic frame. That is a little fiddly, takes about 10 seconds. You then slide the frame in the device until the first pic appears on the screen, and you capture it by pressing a button. Then you slide the frame along to the next pic and repeat. Whole strip of negatives done in under a minute.

    The problem is when you have hundreds of strips, it takes time and it’s boring and repetitive. What I do is just grab a handful and spend 15-20 mins doing it when watching a rugby or football match on TV, then quit for the day and do another handful the next day. After a few months you’ll have got through the lot.

    By the way, I think the photographs are rather charming, in a nostalgic way.

    Heh, thanks.

  19. “Frankly, back in the ’70s and ’80s parents didn’t care how their kids looked provided they were washed, their hair cut, and clothes clean.”

    Tim, do you live a primarily urban life now?

    I ask because I spend about 1/3 urban time, 2/3 rural these days, and it’s only in the urban environment that parents treat their kids like clotheshorses*.

    Out in the country, it’s still hand-me-down jeans and flannel shirts – practical clothes for the most part – and kids generally don’t get into the social dressing competition that urban kids live and die by.

    (Of course, hand-me-downs don’t go quite so far anymore. Jeans today, compared to when I was a kid, are flimsy fragile things.)


    * (Sorry – maybe an outmoded term. See http://www.thefreedictionary.com/clotheshorse .)

  20. Tim, do you live a primarily urban life now?

    Oh hell yes. Concrete jungle all the way.

    Out in the country, it’s still hand-me-down jeans and flannel shirts – practical clothes for the most part – and kids generally don’t get into the social dressing competition that urban kids live and die by.

    That’s good to know.

    Sorry – maybe an outmoded term

    Absolutely not outmoded!

  21. Kids therefore were expected to wear whatever the parents could lay their hands on, and if you had more than one boy economies of scale would kick in.

    I was the eldest child in a middle-class family, so I should not have experienced being on the lower rungs of the hand-me-down clothes ladder.

    Unfortunately, I did.

    My parents never outgrew their frugal upbringing.

    I had an uncle 10 years older than me, and in the late 1960s/ early 1970s, inherited his clothes much of which had been bought in the 1950s.

    West of Ireland, small farm in the middle of nowhere 1950s.

    This, when Wrangler jeans and jackets were worn by most of the older boys (and girls) on the street and in school.

    On the football pitch, when the other lads were wearing Gola and Puma boots, and discussing moulded versus screw-in studs, I was wearing an older version of Billy’s Boots.

    With hindsight, I am surprised that I remain quite fond of my parents.

  22. Did the sheepskin mittens have a bit string that went up one sleeve, across the shoulders and down the other sleeve to join the mittens so you didn’t lose them?

    Interested people want to know, you know … >};o)

    (Incidentally I had a pair of red and white wellies that had a red star on the leg bit as part of a Cowboy outfit sewn by my grandmother. It was, sadly and incomprehensibly never worn … or the wellies either).

  23. West of Ireland, small farm in the middle of nowhere 1950s.

    *Laughs*

    On the football pitch, when the other lads were wearing Gola and Puma boots, and discussing moulded versus screw-in studs, I was wearing an older version of Billy’s Boots.

    *Belly laughs*

  24. Did the sheepskin mittens have a bit string that went up one sleeve, across the shoulders and down the other sleeve to join the mittens so you didn’t lose them?

    They didn’t, but I remember they had my initials on them in blue marker pen so I didn’t confuse them with several other identical pairs we had. Lord knows where they came from.

  25. In my home town of Birmingham there opened a shop selling what to my inexpert eye looks like rather indecent party/evening/rolling-in-the-gutter-with-a-kebab attire, but in children’s sizes, and not cheap. The store is called ‘bratz’ (all lower-case, natch) and the signage helpfully qualifies the name with the legend ‘get what they want’.

    Depressingly, it seems to do quite well. Now, I’m generally a free-market, anti-regulation type but seeing this place does bring out an authoritarian streak in me. I’m sure if you drew Venn diagrams representing a) hysterical people who see a paedophile behind every bush and believe that Jimmy Savile spent every night in a different hospital molesting patients, and b) parents who pay through the teeth to kit out their little darlings like mini-whores the overlap would be substantial.

    Now I live in Essex, where there is no shortage of similar shops, but also the phenomenon of forty- to sixty-year-old women attempting to dress like pre-pubescent girls.

    It’s all very disturbing. And, boy, am I disturbed!

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