The Commodification of Childhood: The Children's Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer

Article excerpt

The Commodification of Childhood: The Children's Clothing Industry and the Rise of the Child Consumer Daniel Thomas Cook. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2004.

"Clothing speaks daily and publicly to the presentation of self" (21), writes Daniel Thomas Cook in the introduction to his study of the children's clothing industry in the United States. He begins with 1917, the year the industry solidified itself "with its first trade journal, the Infants' Department, and ends with 1962, one of the last years of the baby boom, by which time American childhood, the clothes that children wore, and where and how they were purchased had undergone major transformations. The story is fascinating and sheds light not only on an industry that takes in hundreds of billions of dollars a year, but also on the nature of childhood and the rise of a children's consumer culture.

Derived from his dissertation in sociology at the University of Chicago, Cook's book reflects thorough research, recounting the history of childhood, especially its relationship to women's roles, in America. At the beginning of the twentieth century, in a traditional gendered household, a woman functioned as "purchasing agent" (18) for her family, and was expected to spend the breadwinner's money wisely. Retailers, realizing that women "were becoming predisposed to buying ready-made clothes for their families rather than sewing them from patterns at home, geared adverting, store layout, and displays to them, emphasizing the mother's credo that her children come first and nothing is too good for them. Cook notes the belief that "mother love is expressed through commodities" (53), resulting in the purchase of higher-price items.

Cook cites the decade of the 1930s as the crucial time "when the target market for children's clothing began shifting from mother to child. …