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Page last updated at 13:06 GMT, Thursday, 2 October 2008 14:06 UK

What were your parents thinking?

The message is clear, we belong together

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

Few people survive childhood without their parents committing a major sartorial sin against them. Be it matching outfits or frilly frocks, why do they do it?

Coordinating outfits to rival the Von Trapps or knickerbockers last seen on Little Lord Fauntleroy, parents can really stitch you up when it comes to how they dress you when you're young.

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Lurking in every family photo album are the horrors - starched collars, clip-on ties, knitted tank tops. Assuming your parents didn't dress you in the dark, you have to wonder what they were thinking.

But some trends have an enduring appeal, as a new exhibition of children's fashion over the last 300 years shows.

"The Victorians loved dressing their children in matching outfits and people still do today," says a spokeswoman for the V&A Museum of Childhood, where the exhibition is being held.

But what do these trends tell us about the parents who follow them?

Regardless of the age, shape or size of their offspring, at some stage most parents think coordinating their outfits is a fun idea.
David Beckham and sons
The Beckhams like a bit of coordination

But what they are really doing is creating an identity for the family - and managing its public image.

"When people dress their children in matching clothes they are creating a uniform for them," says Dr Martin Skinner, a social psychologist at Warwick University.

"It's about creating a family identity and also controlling it. Children are seen as a reflection of their parents and matching their clothes can look clean and disciplined."

There were gasps of astonishment when actress Danniella Westbrook dressed her daughter in a Burberry-checked outfit to match her own.

Taste issues aside, she was doing what many others do - creating a mini-me. Girl or boy, mother or father, the motivation behind such a move comes down to possession and identity.

"It's about telling the world the child is yours and belongs to you," says psychologist Ros Taylor.

"It's like you are saying they are a chip off the old block. The child is a blank canvas and you are projecting yourself on to them."

Liz and Damian Hurley
Keeping it traditional
Your mother's one-woman revival of velvet knickerbockers may still be a painful memory, but society is really to blame not her.

Avoiding fashions of the day and going for a more traditional look is often about taking a stance against what is perceived to be declining social standards.

"It's about harking back to a bygone age, what modern parents see as an age of innocence," says Dr Skinner. "It's about wanting to maintain certain standards.

"It's also about not wanting your child to grow up too quickly, not wanting their childhood to end before it should."


For some parents only the latest Dolce & Gabbana jacket or Versace dress will do for their children.

Forget the playground, what influences their kid's clothes is Sienna Miller's latest ensemble. This adult look is often down to a parent's own unfulfilled hopes and dreams.

"When a parent dresses their child as an adult it's about how they would really like to look," says Ms Taylor.

"It's usually about the latest fashions and coolest trends. They are turning the child into what they wanted to be, but usually didn't become."


When it comes to dressing their kids, just two colours exist for some parents - pink for girls and blue for boys.

There's definitely no chance of mistaking the sex of these youngsters, with daughters dressed head-to-toe in candyfloss colours. These so-called "pink princesses" are making headlines and prompting debate, with Disney held responsible for the popularity of this type of look.

Baby girl
A girl possibly?

Emphasising gender to such an extent can come down to trying to control who your child will become when they grow up.

"Parents often construct an idea of how they want their child to develop from a very early age," says Dr Skinner.

"Gender is a big part of this and dressing their child according to gender stereotypes sends out a message about they see them and how they want people to react to them. "

Send us a picture of your own childhood fashion faux pas - instructions in the factbox above. Or add your comments on this story, using the form below.

My poor Mother and her two sisters who were 7, 14 and 21 years respectively, had to wear matching dresses in the 20s, because their mother used a local dressmaker and three dresses in the same fabric worked out cheaper!
Helen Faulkes, Solihull

My Mum always dressed me and my two sisters the same, most of the time she had our outfits hand made and spent quite a lot on them. i have to admit I loved us all matching it gave me a sense of belonging and unity with my siblings.
Lynsey Llewellyn, Grimsby

My clothes went from me to my brother, to another family of two girls and then a younger brother. The most appalling outfit we all had to wear (of which there is evidence of all of us wearing and I decline to send a picture) is a stripy matching jacket and trousers - yes a suit. Wide 70's lapels, broad bright red, yellow, orange and cream stripes about 2 inches thick. We all had the pleasure of wearing this creation in public and being ritually humiliated. Especially as it went with the DIY pudding bowl haircut complete with wonky fringe that went up at least two cm too high on one side. Lovely. NOT.
Mel, Godalming

I occasionally dress my children in matching clothes, and this is when we are travelling - so if they get lost, I can remember instantly what they were wearing and also so they can be identified as being part of our family. They are both individual children with individual ideas, opinions and tastes, they don't object to this and I don't feel that I am doing anything "wrong" or influencing them in any particular way. Surely every mother/father is entitled to dress their child how they would like to without it being a case for psychological analysis
Alison, Oxford

My mum made all of my clothes when I was little and one dress in particular sticks in my memory: I forget the colour but vividly remember the buttons which were little ladybirds. I loved it. Girls today all seem to get stuck in mini versions of adult clothes, which seem to come in every conceivable shade of lilac. Revolting.
Sue, London

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