Reader Request: Child-inspired Elements

Lovely reader Anat sent this question via e-mail:

What is your take on integrating child-inspired elements in outfits? A few examples I thought of: Knee high socks with shoes such as Oxfords. White opaque tights Childlike bows and frills Pigtails. Personally I kind of like knee high socks and pigtails, not so much the other elements, but I would probably only ever wear them in a very casual setting – definitely not for work. I am aware of the problematic sexual innuendos which certain people may associate with grown women using any of these elements. So what do you think?

Oooh, this is a toughie. Aside from the bows and frills, I’ve sported everything on Anat’s list within the past 10 years, so I can understand the appeal. But I’m also aware of the sexual implications of grown women dressing in garments and styles that recall childhood.

Overall, I stand by my previous post on age-appropriate dressing: How a woman looks, feels, and behaves may make her seem decades older or younger than the date on her birth certificate. And although some experts believe that chronological age should shape certain aspects of life, I’m willing to assert that internal age is considerably more important and influential. Especially when it comes to matters of style. There is nothing wrong with wearing and loving items that the general public has deemed “too young” for you, especially if you have the confidence to do so.

However, dressing in truly childlike attire carries risks. Observers may think you’ve chosen to highlight the difference between your chronological and internal ages. Or chosen to ignore your chronological age altogether. It is always unwise to judge someone based solely on appearance, but total strangers will only ever have your exterior and wardrobe choices to go on, and they may jump to several unappealing conclusions if you appear to be a grown woman dressed in kid clothing.

Now, there are ways to make Anat’s examples (and similar items) seem less childlike and more mature. As in all things, it’s about balance. If you’re doing knee-high socks with oxfords, choose a grown-up hairstyle and sophisticated dress. If bows and frills appeal, consider juxtaposing them with tough elements like combat boots, heavy belts, or sculptural jewelry. If you’re doing pigtails, keep them simple and low, as shown above. As elements within a larger context, these things can seem fun, quirky, and cool. Pile multiples into a single look, and you risk overkill.

Finally, as Anat pointed out, many childlike elements won’t be office-appropriate. At least, not until Casual Friday. More creative working environments may have loads of leeway for pigtails and tutu-inspired skirts, so if that’s your situation, take advantage. But a typical office will resist such choices, either socially or through dress code regulations. You might not want to push that envelope, as doing so could trigger professional repercussions.

Image source.

Originally posted 2012-04-12 06:08:26.

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45 Responses to “Reader Request: Child-inspired Elements”

  1. Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    I agree, it depends on the workplace, as well as your own style vibe. Some women my age wear socks and oxfords to work, with a cool aging-hippie style. For me, no child-like items make the cut, unless a close-fitting “baby tee” as a layering piece counts. Great post, Sal.

  2. Barbara

    Excellent discussion, Sal!

    In my opinion, adding a small bit of child-like-ness to an outfit can be playful, youthful, and add a personal touch. Doing the whole outfit that way would be disconcerting and creepy.

    I’m in middle-age, and I often wear Mary Janes. I just love them! I’ll admit they make me feel youthful. However, I would not wear them if I also was wearing pigtails and a gingham dress. Know what I mean? That would be waay too much. But as part of an outfit whose other elements are “grown up,” I think it’s fine.

      • Kate K

        Yes, this is exactly what I was attempting to write and failing horribly. I think elements of child-like style can look and feel really fresh and exciting. I love Peter Pan collars and Puffed Sleeves but I make sure that the rest of my outfits are very streamlined and sleek.

  3. EvaNadine

    maybe a post for another day, but i have always wondered how to incorporate those childlike elements without appearing as though im dressing childlike! i love the look of knee-socks, hearts, bows, etc on other bloggers i see, but when ive tried them out myself, i look like i raided my toddler niece’s closet — which for me is NOT the look im going for. any suggestions on how to sport something cutsie without looking like im playing dress-up?

  4. Laurel Ann

    I run into this problem a lot. I am a 21-year-old professional in a business casual but extremely conservative working environment. My personal style definitely leans toward tutus and bows (Think Kate Spade meets the Disney Princesses.) but it’s definitely not socially condoned where I work. Technically, I have a lot of leeway when choosing my work outfits but everyone I work with is at least 15 years older than me and they do not appreciate my exuberantly youthful style.

  5. Becca

    I love all things girlie, but I agree to limit it to one piece at a time. I work in a conservative office and some easy ways to incorporate young aspects into work wear are with accessories- quirky necklaces, barretts, or head bands. Peter-pan collars are also super hot right now. My favorite is to make my dresses into jumpers by pairing a button down underneath. Zoe Daschanel is a huge style icon for me, so I generally stick to similar looks!

  6. Genevieve

    I work at an all girls school so I take dressing like an adult pretty seriously. The kids wear uniforms but I don’t want to undermine my authority by dressing like them. This is to the point where I won’t even wear otherwise reasonably appropriate footwear that I see them all wearing – Uggs. I’ve also nearly always appeared and sounded young for my age so I’ve almost always dressed older.

    However, I just found out I’m pregnant and will be spending my summer by the pool. You can bet I’ll be rocking some pigtails, cuz what’s cuter than a pregnant lady by the pool in pigtails?

  7. JI

    I’ll wear black anklets (no lace trim) with black oxfords or ballet flats, eve with clogs, that is sort of rockin’ youth and elderstyle. I think it looks Eastern European cold war, I like it.
    Otherwise, I cannot stand seeing Disney stuff on anyone, kids included, but more for political issues than age ones.

  8. Ruth

    When I was in my 30s, I misguidedly decided to grow my hair long. It was extremely fine, and the only way it looked any good was pulled back into a pony tail or pinned up – definitely not in pigtails (which by the way in the UK we call bunches – keeping the word pigtails for a pair of plaits – there is a useless bit of information for you). The problem was that the only clips, slides etc that I could use were made for children, as I just did not have enough hair for adult fixings (as an example, when I forgot my clip, I tried using a ring that I wore on my fairly slim middle finger – put all my hair through it and it still slid off). You can imagine the struggle not to end up with a lot of pink or disneyfied hair fixings. Of course the answer was to cut it short. it has been short every since, which definitely looks better now it is going grey. But that was a frustration. Maybe you should look at grips etc for problem hair?

    • Velma

      Fine here, too–I feel your pain. I used to wear it up almost all the time–finally chopped it short and have enjoyed a pixie most of the time for the past decade.

      I’m from the U.S. midwest originally, where “pigtails” are also a pair of braids. The style the model is wearing I would call “ponytails” (plural).

  9. danielle

    for me, i think i wear a lot of younger-seeming clothing entirely unintentionally – it just happens to fall within my personal style, and what i think looks good on me. it wasn’t until i was reading the comments and i saw notes of peter pan collars, button downs under dresses, bows, gingham, etc. that i realized i apparently wear a lot of these items. i do consciously try to avoid the more overt younger seeming things – i never ever wear pigtails to work, and more than once i’ve considered knee socks but then vetoed it.

    in my non-work attire, though, i definitely veer towards lots of younger looking items. i am consciously aware of the effect this has – i often get mistaken for being much younger than i am. but then i thought to myself, “am i really going to change out of a brightly colored hoodie and jeans to go to costco just so the bagel bites sample lady doesn’t ask where my mom is? that’s SO not worth it to me.”

    (yes, that has happened. more than once. and in case you’re wondering, i’m 25.)

  10. GingerR

    I think Kate Spade has a good girly meets the big city look.

    Unless you move in circles where the Abby-from-NCIS look is common shooting for the Kate Spade image would probably make a better first impression.

    I think knee soxes can always go with the tweeds/hermes scarf look found in the movie “The Queen.”

  11. Heather

    I wear knee socks and pigtails all the time. I’ve got my whole life ahead of me to dress like an old woman! I find “age-appropriate” dressing to be pretty arbitrary anyway.

  12. joann, sidewalk chic

    I’m in this weird transitional space where I’m still in grad school, and not quite in the professional world, so I could go either way in my style. I try to balance some of the younger-looking clothes when I can, but it’s hard to wear things when you could be running to meetings, projects and conferences at any point in the day.

    I’m still trying to find a way to wear a romper without looking too much like a child, but I haven’t found that happy medium yet.

  13. D

    I end up using childlike elements in my outfits a lot. I love mary janes and knee highs and even the occasional pigtails. I agree with your suggestions, there are many ways to style them so you still look sophisticated and adult.

    It is an interesting thing to think about, because in my roller derby community, we definitely wear lots of knee high socks, and pigtails work well under helmets. And some people will argue that some of us are sexualizing childlike style elements. That isn’t the intent!

    • Velma

      Yes, agreed! Knee-highs and over-the-knee socks are incredibly convenient with knee pads! And fishnets reduce rink rash. 🙂

  14. Katharine

    I do wear some of these things, although my iterations generally swing more toward the scruffy schoolboy end of the spectrum. I find it gets weird when it extends into the extremes — Japanese Lolita style, for instance — when it does look like a costume or a fetish (or both).

    Personally, I prefer the asexual rather than the girly aspects of “childlike” style — and of course, the comfort. Socks, oxfords and a pair of tailored shorts? Walk anywhere, do anything.

  15. Patience

    I have a weakness for peter pan collars. I like prim, buttoned up looks, like the character Prudie in The Jane Austen Book Club movie. Pigtails are tricky. I’ve seen them look fabulous, and I’ve seen them look desperate. I think the key is wearing them with confidence. My mom wore her hair in two pigtails until she was in her early thirties. It was the seventies and she could rock that look!

  16. Tara

    I’m 36 and I rock pigtails and mary janes on a regular basis, even to work. I also frequently carry a Hello Kitty lunchbag and my current LeSportSac bag is covered in dogs (some wearing top hats and monocles!). I love incorporating little girl style in my outfits and see zero problem with it. If someone takes sexual innuendos from this, that’s THEIR problem.

  17. Pelicanlake71

    I think that no matter what your style choices are, the only way to really grasp how you look in them is to have pictures taken of you in your outfits. Then you can really see the whole outfit as others see it. (Even a three-way mirror never really gives you the big picture, and how many of us have those in our homes?)

    You may find that the ponytails, knee socks, tutus and bows look great…or costume-y. Don’t let that discourage you, though: Take what is working in the outfit and just adjust it from there. Sally gave great tips on balance.

  18. Aziraphale

    I couldn’t have said it better than Katharine. Scruffy schoolBOY elements are somehow more acceptable than sweetly girlish ones on a grown woman. Lolita-esque elements seem inappropriate and even slightly creepy (or desperate, if the woman is old enough), probably because of the sexual implications. So oxfords and socks can work, but pigtails rarely do — to my eye at least.

  19. pope suburban

    I am super, super, super not a fan of childlike clothing and styles for grown women. This is slightly personal preference– I’m not big into ruffles or pastels– but mostly because I don’t like how we, culturally, expect women to be childlike and helpless. I can’t see an ad for The New Girl without shuddering a little because there’s nothing cool about being dependent and twee. I wouldn’t say that I’m going to judge someone forever if they have a childlike style or piece, because obviously it can mean different things to different people, but the, “Oh God, people expect me to be helpless” thought is always going to flash through my mind.

    Happily, I think there are a lot of ways to take a childlike inspiration and work them into more adult styles. Pigtails, for example, can also evoke the 70s. Mary Janes, like someone else mentioned above, can skew retro European. Knee socks say more prep-school or 70s retro to me. Rocking a tutu or some bows can be straight-out bold and awesome rather than looking like you’re playing dress-up or trying to be eight again. I think that as long as the childlike elements are being incorporated into something, it can be brilliant and not at all creepy.

  20. Andi

    I love little girl looks, specifically pleated skirts, knee socks and mary janes, but I started to worry about wearing them as I am pushing 40. Since I’m a stay-at-home mom, I don’t have to be concerned about dress code but I wondered about wearing things that would be similar to what my kids (now in middle school) and their peers wear.

    I finally realized that for me, having clothes I can move in and be comfortable in just has to take priority over whatever “sophisticated” nonsense the fashion magazines are peddling. It also helps that the teen girls these days are wearing more tight, ruched, grown-up clothing than I can stand to put on my body.

  21. Trudy Blue

    Ooo—good question. The full-on adult Lolita ensembles freak me right out. But when it’s just that certain pieces of clothing are associated with children—like Anat’s examples—then I think it’s like drawing from any other sub-culture as a style source—punk or motorcyclist or hippie. A little goes a long way. So, one or two elements balanced by contrasting or neutral ones just looks like a cool personal style, but a whole outfit looks like a costume. Myself, I would never wear Peter Pan collars or white socks, but I love me some high-heel Mary-Janes.

  22. tiny junco

    good discussion about balance, you’re always going to be judged by your appearance and it’s good to be conscious about that. Pics are good, an honest opinion from a colleague or friend is even better.

    Childlike elements can be worn quite playfully and even chicly by the right women. But, oy, when a woman is wearing mary janes because she wants to be indulged and rescued like a little girl…….i’ve known a few women like this and it is very hard for me to take! i don’t want to treat another adult like they are a child, and as a child i couldn’t wait to be a responsible adult. Though i had plenty of fun times when i was a kid, I really didn’t enjoy being a child per se.

    Which is to say that some areas of dressing go beyond ‘style’ or ‘profession’ appropriateness to the realm of bringing up psychological issues and pressing emotional buttons, as Sal touched on. Same with being over the top sexy, wearing really worn or stained clothing, body odor, etc. It’s not really fair, and sometimes it’s more about the viewer’s issues than your own, but better to be aware and to consider your ‘audience’ so you don’t send out signals you don’t want to.

    Then you can have the fun of wearing what you want without the hassle of weird consequences! steph

  23. Nuranar

    I love my braided pigtails. On me they look a little young (I’m in my late 20s), but mostly the vibe is country/Western. Still, I don’t do them all the time.

  24. JaneJetson

    I am not into childlike elements but I do like to add a fun, quirky or sexy touch to what I wear. This depends on the situation of course. It would bother me if fashion suddenly had little girl elements everywhere. A few kid things are kind of fun and remind us of the girl inside, too much or too often is creepy.

    I think New Girl is supposed to be a lovable misfit but she does come off as silly and dependent. I don’t like the innocent wide-eyed look on adult women.

  25. Cassie

    I think it definitely depends on your own attitude: Even though my work is possibly the most girliest job ever (I make and blog about tutus & fairies!) I myself don’t often wear the adult tutus that I make, simply because I feel uncomfortable wearing something so girly unless its a fancy dress situation! On the other hand the majority of my tutus are sold to women aged 20+ as fashion items, petticoats etc so it’s obviously a big trend at the moment! I’m going to try to incorporate more childlike elements into my wardrobe and I LOVE those pigtails! x

    • Genevieve

      Awesome job! I used to be a birthday princess. It was great fun.

  26. Halo

    I’m not into girlish stuff, unless my full skirts and bright colors are childish. I recently decided a dress I have is veering into babydoll/cutesy territory, but I get mad compliments when I wear it (I am 38 and plus-sized), so I guess it’s not super crazy.

    I agree with some of the other commenters that the combination of things in an outfit are what make it look adult or childish. Knee socks can be deployed in a more vintage-y way than little girl, and a pleated skirt can look preppy instead of catholic schoolgirl, depending on how you style it.

  27. Miss T

    When I see a woman wearing little girl clothing in print media, the message I get is one of sexualization of little girls, not infantilization of women. When I see a woman in real life wearing items of little girl clothing, the impression I get is one of individual fashion choice. There is a huge — and important — difference between these two contexts.

  28. Megan Mae

    As someone with a babyface, I try to eschew anything that will de-age me. Even when I was a little girl, I hated “little girl” clothes. I think like anything there may be a situation where it works or is appropriate for someone to wear what they want, but I personally would not wear anything deliberately childlike.

    I’ve gotten more comfortable with things like full skirts and other feminine pieces, but I still try to watch how young it makes me look, adding edgier pieces, dressing them up or down appropriately.

  29. Cynthia

    I spent years looking younger than I actually am (hey, I got carded just the other day…at 43!) and trying to get people to stop mistaking me for a college student when I was a Ph.D. student, a postdoc, a professor. And since I’ve always avoided these elements — even the full short skirts that have been popular the last few years — I’m probably not going to start wearing them now. If I had a female student who dressed like Zooey Deschanel, I’d probably try to give her a little nudge away from that kind of costume, at least for work environments.

  30. Heather

    Hmmm. I like 2 braided pigtails for outdoor activities (it works well under a bike helmet) but I never wear my hair that way to work. I do frequently wear striped, Smartwool, knee-socks with skirts and chunky mary janes. I always think of them as more funky than girlish but I wonder how others see them.

  31. GinaMarie

    I think much of it boils down to what your comfortable with. I will be 43 this week and I’m often told I neither look (nor act) my age. I wear dutch pigtails at times and knee socks. Provided it’s acceptable where you work, most people adjust to your style…and mine varies, but it seems uniquely me anyway. If it comes across as authentically you, it will work.

    • Eliana

      I completely agree about being authentically you. I am going to be (gulp) 50 this year and I recently cut my hair in a bob–before that I used to do pigtails all the time. I wore them very low–it almost looked like my hair was just tucked behind my ears. I think that people just saw it as part of who I am. People always tell me I look younger than I am and I hope it’s true ’cause I spent much of my life v. overweight and not finding cute things I wanted to wear. I’m (sadly) still overweight, but can now find so many amazing clothes online that I’m making up for lost time.

  32. Genevieve

    I just saw a woman in her 20s-30s at the grocery store trying to rock some of the elements and I’m afraid it looked like she was trying way too hard. She looked very odd. She had on a puffy short skirt with some kind of crinoline under it, high heeled boots, a fitted jacket and then had extremely coiffed pigtails. I think that was what really killed it. I think pigtails can work if they look functional and slightly mussed. I think her boot/puffy skirt combo could have worked as a nice contrast of unexpected elements. Put it all together with a touch too much makeup and then load up your bangs with hairspray and you look odd. The only person who can get away with using a curling iron and hair spray on bangs and pigtails is a 7 year old going to a dance recital or maybe a drag queen.

    • Sarah

      Sounds like it caught your attention though. I want to try this outfit now.

  33. Stacey

    I think pigtails are the only “childish” element I like to incorporate into my outfits, and I agree that they should be sleek, and the rest of your look should be more mature-looking. I’ve always had people think I’m years younger than I really am, and while that will be nice when I’m 50, it wasn’t my favorite when people thought I was younger than the high school students at the camp where I was a counselor in college 🙂 So that’s why I try to avoid looking too “young”!

  34. ily

    Until now, I thought I was the only adult who liked to wear pigtails! BRB, going to put pigtails in my hair. Otherwise, I look very “businessy” today, so hopefully I won’t look like a little kid.

  35. Dude

    As a mature yet creative man I have to say I LOVE seeing women dress like this! There should be more pigtails. You’re only as old as you feel. I also think the “problematic sexual innuendos” are no more of a problem than when a women wears less clothing, like in the summer. Men will always initially judge women superficially, and sexually, that’ how we’re built. But just as I’ve the propensity to dress like the rockstar I am (at 43) with Horror and Metal t-shirts and a long-ass wallet chain, a woman who dresses with “child-inspired” flare expresses her playful individuality. Sometimes, dressing “age appropriate” is just plain boring. I wouldn’t be caught dead buying a grey suit at “the mens warehouse”!!