In Defense of Princesses

Exploring the phenomenon of princess culture from the perspective of a parent and custom princess dress maker. Is there a point at which there is too much pink?

I’m in the midst of reading “Cinderella Ate My Daughter” by Peggy Orenstein in which she explores what she calls “the dark side of pink and pretty: the rise of the girlie-girl, is not that innocent”. I’m still only partway through the book, but what I understand is that she is drawing a connection from the over-commercialization of “princess” for young girls to a loss of self-esteem in tweens and teens and an ever growing emphasis on looks and an earlier sexualization of young girls.

I am not a psychologist; I am not a child development expert. And as should be pretty clear, I MAKE princess dresses, so clearly I play a small part in the growth and promotion of princess culture. But I am also a mother of a young girl and proud aunt to four young nieces and I care about the world they are living in and the forces that influence their lives and their perceptions of themselves. So I still read this kind of material to see what I can learn from it all.

Here’s my take on “princess”. Orenstein’s book confirms a theory I have long held that many girls (and boys too) just have a natural affinity for dressing up and playing princess.

Ask my mother. From my earliest days I was draping fabric, demanding to wear the same pretty dress over and over, and besieging her with requests for making me princess costumes. If princess dresses had been available at the local department store back then, you better believe I would have wanted one.

And it wasn’t just the dress I wanted. It was sparkle, glitter, and tulle and yes PINK that I wanted. My mother and I had a good laugh a few years ago, looking at a much discussed picture of me at two years old draped in green plaid cotton “dress”. This dress I was wearing was the result of a tense two-hour session in which I insisted with great emotion that she drape and re-drape the fabric, never quite to my satisfaction. Our laughter came from the realization after all those years, that my frustration probably had very little to do with draping but rather that she wasn’t able to turn that green plaid cotton into a frothy pink organza. I truly believe these predilections are just hard wired in some kids.

I was fascinated to read the story of how Disney came to launch its Princess products. As Orenstein relates in her book, back in 2000, Disney Executive Andy Mooney attended a Disney on Ice event and noticed that many of the girls filling the stands were wearing homemade princess dresses. Recognizing a gap in the marketplace, he and his team rolled out what is now a $5.5 billion a year product class for them. And in my mind it's well deserved, they make appealing products and they are very tuned in to what kids like.

Clearly there’s something going on here for young children about princesses. Orenstein, and many others, have lots of serious and scholarly theories about where these desires come from, ranging from declaring gender identity at formative years to it being reinforced by parents’ desire to preserve innocence in our children.

Honestly, my eyes glaze over when I read such serious and drawn out reasoning for why princesses are appealing. For me, at the core I think it boils down to two simple elements. One, it’s a great avenue for creative play. Playing princess allows kids to explore flights of fancy into realms that are far outside their daily lives. When they are playing “princess” there are no mundane restrictions on who they can be or what they can do, it’s an avenue to explore what might be. So much of young children’s play naturally gravitates to imitating daily life, pretending to cook food, taking care of baby dolls, “cleaning” (I put this in quotation marks because I so often have to clean up after my kids’ efforts at “cleaning”...). So putting on a glittering gown and imagining what that princess might do is a nice balance in my mind.

The second reason I think kids are drawn to dressing up in princess clothing is simply that it’s fun to dress up! Our day-to-day style is so casual these days that many of us only really dress up for weddings or funerals, not regular events. Just a generation ago putting on “your Sunday best” actually meant something. And while we may be more comfortable on a day-to-day basis, I do think we have lost some of the good feelings that can be associated with putting on nice clothing and putting our best foot forward.

Of course the children who are interested in all things princess are not the only players in this game. There are the multitudes of companies and corporations that are busy making and marketing products at our children. And of course some of them do this in ways that is not appealing to many parents. But we live in a free market economy and businesses will always target products at audiences they believe they can make a profit from. As parents we may not like this, but it is the reality of a free society. So what to do?

There are lots of opinions on this. Google “princess” and “anti-princess” and you can read for days opinions on how to handle this phenomenon as a parent. I’m not going to give you any advice here. I really try to stay away from that. But as I said, I have some professional skin in this game, so here’s what I feel about navigating the pink laden aisles of the toy and clothing stores.

My complaint as a parent is not that everything is pink and princessy out there, what feels yucky to me is how cheaply made so many things are. And the sheer VOLUME of cheaply made things out there for purchase, and let’s be honest, cluttering up my house. And as an extension of that, I dislike that with the proliferation of toy options, that is feels like so many are very specific in how they are designed that it feels like they do not encourage kids to use their imaginations as they play, but instead promote using the toys “as they were intended”.

Now the good news is, even those complaints aren’t that big a deal, and here’s why. I am in control of my own destiny in terms of what I buy my kids. I know they are suckers for certain kinds of toys, so I try not to bring them to that section of the store (or to the store at all if I can avoid it!). And to a certain extent I am resigned to allowing them a certain amount of cheap, cheesy toys. In regard to my second complaint, this really doesn’t have to be an issue either, as kids are infinitely creative and resourceful with how they play. Cabinets become dollhouses, shoe-boxes become space ships, you get the idea.

So as a parent I can exercise some choice and allow myself to mostly just “let it go” (sorry it just worked so well!).

As a businessperson, I feel I have a bit more power to tip the scales of the equation. The gowns and accessories that I am making for kids are of the highest quality and are handcrafted one at a time. Don’t sell kids short, they can feel the difference between a gown that was carefully made and one that rolled off the factory floor. They may not be able to put the difference into words, but you can tell by the way they touch and admire the garment and how they hold themselves when they put it on that they can feel the difference.

The other aspect that I work hard at is creating garments that fill all the requisite kid wish lists in terms of glitter, sparkle and magic, but I’m not tying them to any preconceived ideas of what a princess dress should look like. I think when girls put on my designs they can feel special and elegant as themselves, without taking on any of the prescribed ideas of what a certain princess is like.

And of course it happens that they do sometimes associate my gowns with a Disney princess. I’m okay with that. If a turquoise gown of mine makes a girl feel powerful and gorgeous like Elsa, great. But that’s her choice, her imagination that brought her there, not mine. And that makes me happy. Making beautiful, high quality clothing for children, that allows them to feel and play what they want, is what it’s all about for me.

Meanwhile, back in my studio, I'm still waiting to grow out of my "princess phase".

 My daughter lit up with joy in her Aurora costume at Disneyland

My daughter lit up with joy in her Aurora costume at Disneyland

 
 The pretty dress I would not take off as a toddler

The pretty dress I would not take off as a toddler

 
 The green and white plaid dress

The green and white plaid dress

 
 No homemade costumes this time, some occasions call for the real thing. My daughter dressed as Elsa for Disney on Ice

No homemade costumes this time, some occasions call for the real thing. My daughter dressed as Elsa for Disney on Ice

 
 My daughter in one of my gowns, she quickly stole the helmet from her brother and ran around yelling "Protect!", that's my kind of princess!

My daughter in one of my gowns, she quickly stole the helmet from her brother and ran around yelling "Protect!", that's my kind of princess!