There’s a certain kind of garment—commonly a hat, but one sees hoodies, mittens, even bath towels—that every child born between 2010 and 2019 seems to be contractually obligated to own. These are clothes with 3D details—ears, claws, dinosaur spikes—that turn your kid into an adorable beast. Right now you can buy hats from Hanna Andersson that make your child a unicorn, a lion, a cat, a deer, a fox, a bear, or a mouse. At lower price points, Target has hat-and-glove sets for little cats, unicorns, bears, and bunnies; Carter’s has a fuzzy zip-up hoodie decorated with little ears, or a unicorn horn, or the small antlers of a reindeer. How did these animal clothes get so popular, and why are they so appealing to parents dressing kids in 2019?
I swore I didn’t remember animal clothes from my own childhood, but when I asked the members of our Slate Parenting Facebook group to recall when they first saw 3D animal details on children’s clothing, several said they wore clothes like these in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Some appended pictures as proof. (Often, respondents said, the frog raincoat or the cat hat was their favorite.) Suddenly, I vividly remembered the alligator mittens that one of my friends’ mothers knitted for her in the 1980s out of Kelly green yarn, with white felt teeth details. (You could open and close your hand and make the alligator “bite” another kid’s arm; as I recall, my pal took full advantage of this function.) Browsing vintage knitting patterns on Etsy, I see that there is at least one pattern from the 1940s for an “eared” hat for a little girl. And here’s a pattern for those ’70s “puppet mittens,” complete with alligator teeth.
But the scattered, homespun ear hats of years past have morphed into a full commercial menagerie, as options for buying cheapish kids clothes have proliferated. Driving demand for the style are we parents who’ve had kids in the past decade, the same generation who grew up with subcultures and fandoms—anime, skateboarding, snowboarding, rave culture—that embraced animal detailing in the gap years between the knitted ear-hats of the midcentury period and today. Anime consumption in the United States, confined to isolated fandoms in the ’70s and ’80s, took off in the 1990s; a watershed year was 1999, when the first Pokémon movie aired stateside. In anime, human characters that also have animal ears or animal tails are called kemonomimi, and there is a particular class of character called nekomimi, or girls with cat ears. (Neko are often sexy; on that, more in a minute.) If you grew up loving that visual vocabulary, wrapping your sweet baby in a hooded walrus towel may feel like a natural progression.
The anime connection gestures back to a whole other set of cultural associations between little kids and the fauna of the woods, fields, and sea. “Cross-culturally, in various kinds of folklore and stories, children have either emerged as animals, have turned into animals, have been raised by animals,” historian Daniel Thomas Cook, who has written about the emergence of a market for children’s clothing in the early 20th century in the United States, said in an interview. “Whether you dress a kid as a cat or a bunny, you’re doubling down on their innocence,” Cook theorized. “You’re re-infantilizing, in a way, by emphasizing their wide-eyedness, their need for protection, their lack of guile.”
Although it may feel natural, our visual enjoyment of the animal-kid hybrid that an ear hat temporarily creates is historically specific. A couple hundred years ago, parents would have been horrified at the idea of dressing their kids like beasts. Historian Karin Calvert writes that many of the choices colonial American parents made—from rigorous swaddling to “straighten out” limbs, to the use of “standing stools” to encourage early uprightness—came from a deep anxiety that children needed to be taught to become human. The animal-like qualities of infants and toddlers (their physical immaturity, their unpredictability) frightened, rather than entranced, these parents. Crawling and creeping, in particular, were violations of what Calvert describes as the “hierarchy of things”; children, if they were to assume their rightful human place between the animals and God, needed to “do so on their feet, not on their hands and knees.” I’m sorry to any 17th century ghosts who had to witness my daughter crawl around the house in her tiger costume a few years ago on Halloween! The sight must have been truly disturbing.
The popularity of animal clothes shows how far we’ve come in our perception of young children, away from the idea that their base nature must be tamed by discipline and toward the belief that their uninformed and wild relationship to the world is something precious and wonderful to be celebrated. The latter view has at its root the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who in his Emile (1762) argued that children had a natural affinity for animals, in whose vulnerability they recognized something of their own condition. Putting on an ear hat, the toddler becomes a kitty cat or a puppy, and presses up against your leg, waiting for a pat; the cuteness is almost too much to bear.
When older kids, who can choose what to wear, adopt animal clothes, they sometimes do it as a source of power. While we adults see ear-hats as cute, many kids like animals, and by extension animal clothes, because animals are wild. Take the white wolf suit with ears that the boy Max wears in Where the Wild Things Are. The Yiddish expression “vilde chaya” (“wild animal”), often applied to unruly children, may have inspired the title of Maurice Sendak’s 1963 book, scholar Seth Lerer suggests in a 2009 interview. In his reflections on Sendak’s Jewish roots, Lerer remembers being 8 years old and playing stickball on his Brooklyn street. “One day I hit [the ball] into our landlord’s window, and his wife came out … shaking her fist and calling me a ‘vilde chaya,’ ” Lerer mused, thinking about Max’s mother’s frustrated exclamation, “Wild thing!” The wolf suit Max wears in the story expresses his inner nature, his essentially untamed heart: “I’ll eat you up!”
The preteen character Louise Belcher, the youngest daughter of the Belcher family in the animated show Bob’s Burgers, is a 9-year-old who’s so attached to her pink bunny hat that she’s never seen without it. This hat is a source of power for the intelligent, strong-willed Louise. (Perhaps not coincidentally for the constant wearer of an animal hat, Louise is also a lover of Japanese pop culture.) There’s only one episode featuring hatless Louise, when a teenage bully grabs her ears, and she spends the rest of the episode going to great lengths to retrieve them. He doesn’t want to give them up because he suspects they’re good luck. When she gets them back and puts them on, she seems to grow 10 feet.
Perhaps this is the best way to understand our fixation on animal clothes: They visually underline the best parts of childhood—innocence, creativity, self-possession, free-flowing possibility. But because our culture has trouble allowing teenagers, especially teenage girls, to retain much of their childishness, these associations have an expiration date. In the video for “22”, her 2012 anthem about being … well, you know, Taylor Swift puts on wire-rimmed cat ears—a playful gesture that shows not her youth, but her grown-ness. Animal clothes on an older person invoke the Playboy Bunny outfit worn by servers at Hugh Hefner’s clubs, with those fluffy tails and satin ears. Think sexy neko; think the subset of “furries” who eroticize their costumes. After a certain age, “wildness” comes to mean something else.