Kids’ Clothes: Articles of Interest #1

RM: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

RM: When you crank the gear of a music box, you can make the tune go as fast or as slowly as you want. As you spin the little handle around and around and around.

AT: The music is read from this series of little bumps, like braille.

RM: Producer Avery Trufelman.

AT: These little bumps stick up, hit a series of tines, which create a song.

Dag Spicer: It’s a form of storage!

AT: This is Dag Spicer, senior curator at the Computer History Museum.

DS: The music box is storing that program, which is the music. You think of that as software, even though you might not think of it as that, but that’s really what it is. It’s software.

At: And this method of data storage is a series of bumps or series of holes, was also used in player pianos.

RM: It’s also the mechanism behind computer punch cards. Go ask your grandpa about those.

DS: Throughout most of the 20th century, punch cards were the dominant form of data processing, input and output form.

AT: Paper punch card technology, the precursor to electronic computing, was the way that data was stored and tabulated for decades, back when computers would take up a whole room.

RM: This technology of bumps and holes, is also why you’re wearing what you’re wearing.

DS: Right, well one of the things you may not know is that an early, automated weaving machine actually has a role to play in the history of computing

AT: When he says “a weaving machine,” Dag is talking about a loom.

DS: a Loom is gigantic.

AT: Well, there are lots of different kinds of looms in different sizes. But yes, European industrial looms in the 1700s were really big.

DS: It’s about 30 feet high in some cases, and maybe 30 feet long, and it’s an enormous, enormous piece of equipment.

RM: The design in a fabric is determined by how many threads the weaver goes over or under. Which ones come to the top, and which ones are submerged in the weave.

AT: These patterns were so complicated and intricate, industrial weavers needed to hire little delicate fingers to pull the threads and keep track of them. And so in the 17th century, there was a job for the draw boy. An actual boy.

Chris Garcia: And so your draw boy would go and say, “Well, we need to have the white showing here, so I pull this one. This one needs to go all the way through, but this one needs to be skipped….” and on and on. So he’s pulling these threads.

AT: Chris Garcia, also a curator at the Computer History Museum.

CG: It must have been MURDER on fingers.

AT: Well, there were tools created to help the draw boys, like forks, levers, and harnesses. It wasn’t all done with bare hands. But, it was a lot of work to do.

CG: And you could imagine if you have a significantly large item, you might have 200 threads that have to be pulled.

AT: At the beginning of the 18th century, clothes imported from China became all the rage in France, and a fashion developed for beautiful, tiny, ornate weavings.

DS: Making clothes that were a little bit finer, a little bit more interesting to look at. You can use a Jacquard loom to create patterns, sophisticated patterns in that clothing.

AT: The Jacquard loom was a device, innovated by Joseph Marie Jacquard, in 1804.

DS: This is an add-on.

AT: And you can attach it to the power loom.

CG: So it’s like adding cruise control to your car or something? It’s like, an added feature. So that the clothes you can produce are even more elaborate.

AT: Each new fabric design was encoded in thick cardboard cards.

CG: Each hole, or position of the hole, represents a hook on the loom.

AT: A hole in the card told the loom, “Yes, lift this thread.”

DS: So, whether the hook is raised or lowered, depends on whether there’s a hole, or not a hole in the jacquard control cards.

AT: Which were tied together into a loop and fed, automatically into the loom.

RM: And one card represented just one pass of thread, so there would be a lot of cards sewed together.

AT: And the loop of cards went around and around and around to create a repeating pattern. Just like the music encoded in the music box.

RM: This didn’t mean the machine was weaving the cloth automatically. It still required a master weaver and a pattern designer and a punch card maker. But it did mean the draw boys were out of a job.

CG: Once you have a Jacquard mechanism, you don’t need the draw boy. Half of your workforce can be eliminated.

AT: For manufacturers who wanted to make the most beautiful, the most intricate patterns, what was increasingly more important than labor, was intellectual property. The designs.

DS: In Jacquard’s time, people stole these control cards because they represented patterns that, if the patterns were popular, could be very lucrative to keep making. You know how fashion goes in styles and everybody comes out with the same stuff every year? Like they’re all copying each other almost, right? The same trends. So, I like to think of this as the first instance of software piracy, that people are stealing these Jacquard loom cards.

AT: And the Jacquard loom cards would lead to the development of an entire new industry that would change the world.

DS: In 1890, a German American inventor named Herman Hollerith devised a solution to the United States Census Bureau’s problem of counting all the new immigrants to the country and citizens.

AT: Tabulating the census used to take about ten years. So that means by the time the Census was finished, it was already time to start taking the next one!

RM: Hollerith came up with a system where, if each individual’s information was punched on cards, it could be processed more quickly.

DS: Herman Hollerith specifically quoted the Jacquard loom as his influence.

AT: His influence for coming up with computer punch cards!

DS: Once you have patterns of holes in a card, it’s now machine readable. And that’s how the census was done in 3 years instead of ten!

AT: The 1890 census was a huge advance in the history of computing.

DS: Now just to wrap up the story, Hollerith’s punch card patents were actually the foundation for a small company, you may have heard of, called International business Machines, or IBM.

RM: Which, in some ways, owes its existence to the loom. And to that rising demand for beautiful, ornate patterns.

AT: Because of fashion?

DS: Because of fashion!

AT: Fashion is just another word for the constant, inevitable shifts in popular taste. Garments, just like buildings and cars and movies, can’t help but reflect the circumstances of our moment in history. That’s what fashion is. Another way of telling time.

RM: Back and forth and back and forth, around and around and around. The loom inspires the computer, the computer changes the way we buy, order, and think about clothes. Clothing and culture impact each other.

AT: And we need to dedicate some serious time to talking about what we wear. So that’s what we’re going to do.

RM: For the past eight years we’ve asked you to start noticing elements in architecture and design, because architecture is an art we live in: the medium in which we move, influencing us in a thousand invisible ways. For the next three weeks, we’re going to ask you to do the same with another universal art that we all live in: clothing. It’s our first spinoff show, hosted by Avery, called Articles of Interest. And it will be right here, twice a week for the next three weeks, in your 99pi feed. We’ll have a preview story, after this break, about what happened to working children, like those draw boys, and how their clothing changed.

Avery Trufelman: So what are you wearing right now?

Joe Rosenberg: Oh jeez, ok. So what I’m wearing now is, this is a black shirt from American Apparel. And it’s like a fucking like god fabric. I can’t explain it.

AT: My friend and colleague Joe Rosenberg is a really good dresser. He just has this rich understanding of textiles and cuts. And you can just tell, in all these subtle ways.
Below that is 7 for all mankind jeans. They make a pretty good kids size jean, which is what I wear.

AT: Joe shops in kids sizes.

JR: I’m 4’8”. I guess you could say I’m a little person, insofar as I am literally little. But um, I don’t think of myself in that way. I’m just the size of a ten year old.

AT: Joe doesn’t have the typical dimensions of someone with dwarfism.

JR: So its called, and I’m going to botch the pronunciation. It’s called Spondelo Epithethele Disphasia, and it’s a mutation that I developed as an embryo. To demonstrate how rare it is, my entire life I’ve only had one occasion to meet someone who was my height and was short in the way I was short. And it was a party in college, senior year of college I still remember it. And we talked about, we talked about clothes.

AT: Articles of Interest: a show about what we wear

AT: Clothes are records of the bodies we’ve lived in. Think of an old sweater that you used to have that’s just not your style anymore, or jeans that just aren’t your size anymore. We are like snakes who shed our skins and grow new ones as we age, And it all starts in the kids department.

JR: It’s not lookin’ good.

AT: Oh wow. Joe and I went to J.Crew together.

JR: It’s not lookin’…

AT: He was pretty much ready to give up as soon as we walked in. You haven’t even dove in yet!

JR:I know we haven’t. um.

AT: The kids section was one row. And everything in it was very loud.

AT: Ooh this shirt glows in the dark!

JR: This shirt glows in the dark. This shirt has many tie dye bicycles on it. This shirt has so many stripes that maybe it almost works.

AT: The color palette of the children’s department tends to be really bright and way over decorated, as Joe and I debriefed in his car.

JR: The fundamental thing about shopping as a very short person having to shop for kids clothes, is that your life is just this hellscape of like, ripped jeans and deliberate patches, and fun slogans, and crazy zippers, and bold colors and prints. and the idea that you’re going to find, like, slim jeans in a subtle hue, dark wash. Just, no. It just doesn’t happen..

AT: It almost makes no sense. you’d think that we would all start as young, blank canvases, dressed in shades of white and gray. Slowly acquiring more and more colors, more graphics, more signifiers of who we are as we age and solidify into ourselves. Until we finally retire in jeans that we’ve ripped and distressed and patched ourselves, paired with graphic t-shirts that list all the bands we’ve heard and tv shows we’ve watched and cities we’ve visited throughout our lives. But no, all that decoration and phony self expression is put in a blender with birthday cake and sequins and then put in on a hanger in a rack. That’s the kids section.

JR: And it’s just, it’s bad. It’s really bad. And actually even I’m just alone, I’m like, slightly embarrassed. For myself.

AT: So how did we get here? Where did this style we call “children’s clothes” come from? Children’s clothes haven’t always been a thing. And historically, especially in the United States, childhood itself was a luxury.

EA: Because you have working children, children of parents who are not slaves but have to work, and the children who are slaves and have to work. and maybe don’t have a childhood really much at all.

AT: This is Erin Algeo. She’s the curator at the Lacis Museum of lace and textiles in Berkeley.

EA: some children were always clean and some children were always precious and some were not. that’s class, that’s whether someone is slave or free.

AT: The children who were not considered clean or precious didn’t get children’s clothes.

EA: I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of children that are working, and they do look like young adults! like little adults. As they’re standing in the cotton mill, or boys that go down and work in the mines.

AT: Basically, poorer children were given what was around, while upper class children had the privilege of being deliberately dressed. And though fancy children also were also sometimes dressed like little adults sometimes, underneath their clothes, a lot of them were wearing corsets.

EA: If your parents wanted to raise you correctly, they would put you, boys and girls, in corsets.

AT: There was this whole idea that children had to be cultivated, like a dog in a harness, or a flower on a trellis.

EA: Now the corsets were not as intense as older women wore. But yes, boys and girls, it was considered, for posture and so forth, that you would be in a corset.

AT: And although it happened slowly, the demise of the child corset is thanks to philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

EA: Our concept of childhood that we have now was really formed in the 18th century.

AT: In 1762, Rousseau wrote:

“Hold childhood in reverence, and do not be in any hurry to judge it for good or for ill. Give nature time to work before you take over her business, lest you interfere with her dealings.”

EA: It made the concept that those little bodies needed to be free. Free and unfettered.

AT: Side note, Rousseau himself was a terrible dad.

EA: He dropped his children at an orphanage and abandoned them.

AT: But! Philosophies like his, paired with eventual child labor laws and regulations, really helped shape our idea of what a precious valuable time childhood is.

EA: and in the 18th century, clothes just for children come in. And they look different than adult clothes.

AT: In these clothes, children are dressed up for the occasion of their youth. This amazing time, free from cares, separate from the rest of their lives.

EA: They were designed for ease of movement. When we look today, we can’t believe anyone could move in them.

AT: They may have been easier to move in, than a corset; but these clothes were still really formal. Like embroidered dresses for girls and boxy little suits for boys.

EA: But it just looks like a little suit I guess.

AT: It’s adorable sounding

EA: Yeah I know, it is adorable actually!

AT: Children are wearing these adorable mini-me get-ups. It’s almost like a parody of adulthood. Stuff meant to look like adult clothes that adults would never actually wear. Which is like what we see now in the kids department. And it has everything to do with our evolving concepts of childhood, and how much freedom and protection we think children ought to have. Because although their corsets are long gone, children are still bound. By legal requirements.

AT: What is this thing you gave me?

MB: This is from the NRA.

AT: No, no that NRA.

MB: The National Retail Association of Australia.

AT: My friend Morgan is not Australian. She is a technical designer for a big children’s clothing company. She’d rather not say which one.

MB: One of the major children’s clothing retailers in the United States.

AT: Her company has many, many, many rules about what can and cannot be in children’s clothes, but those rules are top secret. So Morgan brought me that Australian safety guide, because it’s kind of similar and gives you a rough idea.

MB: Yeah this is 76 pages. Long and thorough, and it goes through, at the beginning, the way you assess risk. which is high-to-low based on if a kid could die from it.

AT: You don’t want choking hazards. No sharp edges. And no drawstrings.

MB: Globally there are reports of various serious injuries and deaths occurring when knots, toggles, or cord ends become snagged or caught into moving parts or closing doors. In order to address that, you can’t have a cord that’s longer than 3 inches. And that goes all the way up to 12 years in the United States.

Sometimes in the kids section you can see drawstrings on hoodies or sweatpants, but they don’t actually function. They’re just decorative.

MB: They can’t actually cinch the body, you can only cinch between these two inches.

AT: It’s basically so that kids can look like little adults, without running the risks of adult dressing. So the clothing companies don’t get in trouble.

MB: I mean, you can get sued for sure if you kill kids.They’re not doing it out of a sense of morality.

AT: These guidelines are the cobbled together aftermath of a series of disasters.

MB: It’s just like lawsuit after lawsuit.

AT: Every time an item is recalled, or a clothing company gets sued for endangering a child, the guidelines get revised or tightened. And one of the biggest legal differences between children and adult clothes is flammability.

MB: Flame retardancy is a huge one. Everything has to be flame retardant, if they’re sleeping.

AT: If a child is going to sleep in it, the fabric has to be flame retardant. And the garment has to fit tight.

MB: They are concerned about candles, night lights, fires in house. Whatever could happen if the kid is wearing loose fitting clothing and it’s hanging loose from you, it’s just gonna have a lot of oxygen to give you a bunch of third degree burns. Anything that could potentially be sleepwear has to be near skin-tight and has to be flame resistant so that doesn’t happen to kids.

AT: And this starts to get at our question about why kids clothes look the way they do. Because note how Morgan said anything that could potentially be sleepwear. Flammability rules don’t just apply to clothes labeled as pajamas. It could apply to any garment a parent puts their kids to sleep in.

MB: Or that a kid decides they want to sleep in.

AT: So anything that is comfortable or soft. Which means that kids clothing, if its not sleepwear has to go through great pains to prove that it is not sleepwear, so they don’t have to meet all those flammability and size requirements. So let’s say you’re trying to design kids clothes that are not for sleeping. They can’t have picture of anything that could be interpreted as “sleepy.”

MB: Like, what is pictured on it? is it sleepy animals? is it a sleepy scene? Does that make you feel sleepy? if it makes you feel sleepy, its sleepwear.

AT: So no images of the moon, no stars, and no clouds.

MB: Like, a cloud theme it probably wouldn’t work. Your legal department at your company would be like you can’t do that because it feels like sleep. And then certain animals, like owls.

AT: Same with other nocturnal creatures, like bats. Unless you’re making a halloween line, and you really, really want to have a shirt with a bat on it.

MB: If it was on halloween and it had enough sequins on it, I dunno maybe you could get away with it.

AT: Sequins are a good way to show a garment is not for sleeping. Same with glitter, and action graphics, and bright colors, and ornamental pockets.

MB: You could bring it enough out of sleepwear, that a kid would never want to sleep on it. So make it uncomfortable or make it a jacket or something like that.

AT: It’s decoration as a form of protection. Defending kids from fire, and also protecting the companies from liability. Sometimes behind the glitter and garishness is a legal subtext. Sometimes. Not all the time.

LH: No. I would say that they believe that they’re giving you something more special. Something more marketable by putting chotskies on the garment.

AT: This is Lana Hogue, a industry expert who has been working in garment development and production for over 30 years.

LH: and the sequins are usually to appeal to the child

AT: Do they do a lot of test groups and focus groups with little kids?

LH: You know? I think they should more. I have not seen that anywhere I worked.

AT: Really?!

AT: Manufacturers will ask parents what they’re looking for in style. But not kids themselves. They don’t have any money!

LH: Probably the closest thing they’ve come to focus groups and test groups were the photo shoots. Well, and fit sessions. We wanna see how something fits, but if they’re kind of, “oh its itchy” and they want out of it, then you know that it’s probably just a special occasion dress, it’s not going to be their favorite item.

AT: But it’s not like you’d cancel a garment because a kid didn’t like it…

LH: No! unfortunately they don’t still.

AT: So the loudness of the kids department has to do with safety rules, but not entirely.

AT: So, it’s not because of flammability, it’s because of what kids want, but we don’t ask kids what they want, it’s what we think kids want.

LH: Right? exactly. No, I think you’re right.

LH: But if you took a child into the store, and you’re walking around, a lot of them are drawn to the silly thing hanging off a garment, but only up until a certain age. And I think that kids go through a really awkward period where they’re trying to figure out what’s cool again, because they don’t trust their previous tastes.

AT: Although, this is true for everyone at every age.

LH: We move out of one phase and into the next.

AT: Unless you are trapped in the children’s section and relegated to this bright, loud, strange way of dressing.

Articles of Interest was made by myself, Avery Trufelman, with editing by Joe Rosenberg.

Music this episode by Rhae Royal. Intro and outro theme by Sasami Ashworth. Fact Check by Graham Hacia. Mix by Kelley Coyne.

And Roman Mars is the Adult Supervision for this whole series.


Production & Music

Articles of Interest was created by Avery Trufelman; Sasami Ashworth wrote the theme songs for the show; Rhae Royal made the rest of the music; Graham Hacia did the fact checking; Kelley Coyne did the mix; photography by Matty Lynn Barnes; Roman Mars is the executive producer.

Special thanks to Kassia St. Clair, Suzy Furrer, Juliet Hinley, Narooz Soliman, the Smitten Mitten Audio Collective in Detroit as well as Katie Mingle, Delaney Hall, Emmett Fitzgerald, Sharif Youssef, Vivian Le, Kurt Kohlstedt and the rest of the 99pi team.

  1. Andrea

    I’m really confused by one of the statements in this show. The clothing designer at ‘a famous brand’ said all sleep wear has to have flame retardants but I’ve bought plenty of sleep wear that specifically says “no flame retardants” like Burts Bees brand. So, huh? I would really like accurate information on this to be out there, it’s horrible stuff to be exposing our children to.

    1. Bill F

      Yeah I thought the same thing. After hearing the episode, I went and checked out my son’s clothing. His carter’s pajamas were labeled “not flame retardant” and some of his little pants had functional draw strings.

    2. george

      are you in the US? here in australia its exactly as per the interview. almost all of my kids clothes are not flammable.

    3. Jess

      Children’s sleep clothes must either be snug fitting or have flame retardants. That’s how companies like Burt’s Bees gets around this terrible flame retardants requirements.

      This episode should have had a brief PSA to tell parents to look for sleep clothes that do not have flame retardants. There is a ton of research showing how harmful this is to human health, especially babies and children.

  2. Sean

    Great episode as always! Any chance there’s a full version of the song introduced at 22:14? I’d love to hear the rest of it! :D

  3. arun

    “there is a portrait, painted on the things we love…”

    where can i find this ending song?

    1. glttrgrl8

      Yes, what @Sean and @arun said! I love that song, but Shazam and google have failed me thus far in my efforts to identify it. Great episode BTW!

  4. Lori P

    Confused by the product developer that says there is no feedback from the kids of what they like. I work in the clothing industry as well and that feedback is called Sales! We get it every day, week, month, year. And believe me, kids let their parents know what they like.

  5. Susie

    Joe Rosenberg needs to start a blog so adults who are forced to shop in the kids department know where to look for fashionable clothing! More please! My 17 year old son is also under 5’, and wears the same thing everyday because he hates shopping at Gap for kids or the children’s place. I loved hearing Joe’s part of the episode, and would love to see his outfits and where he gets them.

    1. Adam

      Have you checked out H&M? Don’t know if it because they are Scandinavian (black is a Christmas colour) but they tend to have have a lot more less colourful kids clothing . Though I live over in Denmark and the colour thing isn’t necessarily as much of a thing here. Yes you see it but you also see clothing that looks like it could be for adults just small also. So maybe see how hard it is to shop from Denmark and have it shipped to the states.

  6. Sara Marie

    This episode would have benefited from a little more online footage or the loom function, the design got lost in description.

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