The driving force of fashion is childhood

University of Leicester research reveals brands and logos are highly important to some children, influenced by family attitudes, peer pressure and celebrity culture

A question has been asked that is sure to trigger hot debates; are children as young as five in danger of losing their childhoods due to being so driven by fashion and consumerism?

Jane Pilcher, a University of Leicester sociologist says that this isn’t necessarily so, and her latest research findings on both children and fashion were reported recently in ‘Childhood’, the international journal. Nevertheless, her findings do show that logos and brands are very important to some young children who are heavily influenced by peer pressure, celebrity culture and family attitudes.

The desire for certain logos and brands, especially where boys’ sportswear in concerned, has been graphically played out recently in the riots which spread across the UK, and looting was seen being carried out by very young children.

The research by Dr. Pilcher pre-dates the riots, and was unusual in that it studied the influence on fashion on those youngsters in the 5-12 age group. This research was co-funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council, as part of the ongoing 5 year ‘Cultures of Consumption’ research programme.

Following the Bailey report, which is government backed and came out in June of this year, concerns were raised that young children were becoming increasingly like teenagers in both their behaviour and in the way that they are using fashion to create their identities.

While Dr Pilcher agrees there are worries surrounding children and fashion, she believes it would be unrealistic to expect the nature of childhood to stay the same when society itself is changing and becoming dominated by consumerism and the celebrity culture.

However, she believes that youngsters do remain children in many ways and are saved from turning prematurely into teenagers because of the greater controls and intervention exercised by their parents.

She argued:  “I would emphasize that we should be looking at what parents buy for their children and the negotiations that take place round that consumption.

“Parents might give in and buy something they don’t necessarily approve of but they can place quite heavy restrictions as to where that item of clothing can be worn.

“For instance, the child might only be allowed to wear a glittery off-the-shoulder top in the safe, monitored environment of the school disco and not anywhere else.”

Dr Pilcher’s study, conducted with colleagues at the University of Leicester, found that even very young children have a great deal of knowledge about the clothing retail sector and they know exactly which shops will sell the kind of clothing they want.

She also found a strong association between family culture and the value children placed on brands and logos, citing two cases, ‘Robert’ and ‘Hayley’ (not their real names).

Robert came from a family where brands and designer fashions were valued, and he ‘name-dropped’ constantly about the brands of his clothes.   Hayley, on the other hand, came from a family with little disposable income, where brands and logos were of so little importance that she had difficulty in understanding what the terms meant.

Parents, however, do not have it all their own way.   Dr Pilcher commented:   “There are a variety of fashion influences on children and you can’t ignore the pressures from their peer groups, especially friends of the same sex, and their ideas of what is cool.”

A further influence on young children is the celebrity culture, which they may wish to copy or they may reject.   The skimpy clothing of singers Beyoncé and Kylie were not always admired by girls, who thought it was rude to show so much bare skin.

Is the dependence of young children on fashion a bad thing?   Not necessarily, it seems.   The acquisition of brands that are in vogue and therefore cool can give great pleasure and act as a bonding between peers in a group.   For young people themselves, it is a matter of image rather than money.

Although consumer culture clearly has financial implications, many of the brands favoured by young people are available in high street stores very cheaply.

Children who do not participate in that culture, however, can be isolated from their peers in a form of social exclusion.   This, Dr Pilcher says, is something to be borne in mind by teachers when considering school uniform policies and by parents doing battle with their children on the shop floor.

While the recent UK riots have been presented as an extreme form of consumerism, Dr Pilcher believes it is having a negative effect on the brand images targeted by rioters.

“The makers of those brands are now concerned because there is a damaging association in the public mind between the rioters and looters and their interest in those brands,” she said.

“What the disturbances have shown is that if the rioters are the type of people who want these brands and they are prepared to smash a window to get them, then perhaps the brands have become tainted.”

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