Walking into a Baby Gap doesn’t feel intimidating—there are no carefully folded stacks of nautical-themed clothing, fit for a baby yachtsman, or $90 patent leather flats, in an infant size 2. The atmosphere is neither hushed nor precious. More likely, an indie rock song is thumping in the background, the hip soundtrack for the store’s toddler-ironic tees, with sayings like, “Mermaids Have More Fun” or “Have You Hugged a Shark Today?”
The store seems mostly oblivious to its cultish status among moms. The prices are high, but not obnoxiously so; the employees don’t smirk at you if you make a beeline for the clearance rack before browsing the full-priced section. When I ask a Baby Gap clerk—a youngish guy with close-cropped hair wearing skinny jeans—about the coveted “bow-back romper,” a “HTF” (hard-to-find) item that fetches upwards of $100 online, he just looks confused.
For some young moms, though, Baby Gap is the Mecca of Motherhood—a place not only to outfit their children stylishly, but to realize their own near-spiritual aspirations as mothers. They may not be able to control their children’s tantrums, or refusal to eat anything but Goldfish, or delay in reaching milestones. But they can control how they dress.
“We usually have one day a week where we stay comfy. Even then, I’ve got sweats from The Gap that he wears.”
These are the words of a stay-at-home mom, a participant in a study examining the way mothers forge their identifies—an often-fraught process during the transition from childlessness to motherhood—through dressing their children.
“Her kid wears sweats, but they’re from Gap. So they’re not really sweats,” says study author Jessica Collett, Ph.D., an associate professor of sociology at Notre Dame. “She was trying to communicate, ‘My kid isn’t just running around in sweatpants. These are Baby Gap sweatpants.’”
Baby Gap is far from the most expensive children’s clothing store. And its parent company, Gap Inc., is struggling, with stock prices falling and sales declining, quarter after quarter. Yet, on the Internet, moms are still scrambling for certain sought-after Baby Gap outfits—namely, a white romper with a bright pink bow in the back, and a similar floral-print romper—and are willing to pay exorbitant prices for these HTF items. The aforementioned white romper is currently listed on eBay for $149; another seller recently auctioned it for $75. “Gap has not made any of these bow-back rompers in a few years,” one mom, Brook, a children’s clothing seller, explains to me. “Swing sets—the tops with bloomers—are also very popular, as well as eyelet dresses and tops.” Boys’ Baby Gap clothing, she says, rarely reaches such a frenzied level of demand.
What makes these sought-after items so special? “1) Quick sellout 2) old and in perfect condition 3) a popular (cute) line,” such as the Paddington Bear collection at Gap, another mother of three, who resells children’s clothing online, says. “The faster it sells out in stores or online, the more in demand it becomes,” adds Brook, who notes that “vintage” Baby Gap pieces can also lead to bidding battles.
“I’ve witnessed a verbal altercation over who ‘won’ the romper on an Instagram sale,” this same mom recently commented on the Facebook page of a baby resale group. “The best part of all this silliness is that they buy the rompers and swing sets and only put their little ones in them for pictures that they can post on social media. They then turn around and sell them for the same ridiculous price they paid for them.”
And no one is negotiating, either. A friend of mine, a mother of two, was privately messaged by the administrators of an online Baby Gap resale group, informing her that she couldn’t ask a seller why the price for an item was so high. (I received no response when I reached out to eBay sellers, asking a similar question.)
Other groups have been formed specifically to escape this kind of price-hiking—one Baby Gap resale group on Facebook, which has over 12,000 members, states in its guidelines that buyers can’t ask if an item is HTF, since “this will create a ‘buzz’ that fuels the inflation rates!” In the group description, the admins write, “Have you been wondering what ever happened to being able to buy gently used adorable baby gap items for reasonable prices? Well here’s where you can do that! Stop chasing those unicorns.”
So what motivates moms to digitally claw each other’s eyes out over a baby outfit? Some of it, of course, is about signaling, mostly to other mothers, a certain level of status. “All kinds of consumption”—the cars we buy, the neighborhoods we choose—“are about communicating status and who we are,” says Collett. “Kids’ clothing is no exception.” It’s no surprise, then, that six-figure-income parents of children ages 0 to 2 now spend upwards of $1,000 a year on baby clothing and diapers, more than they shell out for infant health care, according to CDC data. Even lower-income families—those who make an average of about $40,000 annually—devote between $600 and $700 a year per toddler to clothing and diapers.
This Kardashian-esque emphasis on toddler fashion wasn’t always the norm (believe it or not, babies haven’t always worn designer fur coats). It wasn’t until the 1990s that mini-me brands started to crop up in droves. “They really began to rise up in the late 1990s when there was a lot more disposable income,” notes Collett. Or as a 2003 market research report put it, “An increase in wealth fueled by a decade of economic growth from 1990s to mid-2000 together with a near record number of kids born…has enabled brand-aware, affluent parents to create expensively dressed ‘mini-me’s.’”
Baby Gap was among the first to capitalize on this trend—it opened in 1990—and its popularity has managed to endure, even among today’s notoriously picky mothers, who aren’t just looking for comfortable play clothes, but rather, seek stylish statement pieces for their little ones. This may, in part, be an uncomplicated expression of nostalgia—in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when these mothers were in high school, Gap was a “popular kid” brand, a symbol of preppy, middle-class ambition. “Gap is thought of as solid, well-made. It really communicates an all-American ideal,” Collett says. “That was what kids aspired to wear in high school.” As Brook explains, Gap has a “genuine, all-American look,” which makes the clothing almost universally appealing to moms.
Although Gap has lost some of its hold on high-school students, the memory of its former status remains, priming mothers to pay ridiculous prices to outfit their children in the most coveted Baby Gap items. In Collett’s study, mothers admitted that they were willing to splurge on what they considered insanely priced items—a $60 Baby Gap outfit, an $80 Tommy Hilfiger jumper—if it meant looking perfect for portraits or special events.
Quality is certainly part of the equation—moms repeatedly referred to the durability of higher-end brands as part of their justification for spending the extra money. “I feel like the clothes hold up better than other brands,” says Cami Bangs, 33, a mother of a one-year-old girl, whose wardrobe, she estimates, is 75 percent Baby Gap.
But there may also be a more troubling explanation—one that’s being played out on Instagram feeds across America.
There are more than 600,000 Instagram posts tagged #babygap, a hashtag often accompanied by a more attention-seeking one: #babymodel.
This trend has undoubtedly been fueled by the company itself—each year, GapKids holds a casting call for miniature models, which, according to the company’s Facebook page, receives “an astonishing response.” (If you haven’t noticed, telling a mom her child looks like a Baby Gap model is the modern equivalent of calling an infant a Gerber Baby—the highest compliment.)
Last November, the brand began encouraging moms to caption Instagram photos with the #gaplove hashtag—a source of free marketing material for Gap, and a chance for proud mothers to (potentially) see their stylish cuties on the GapKids feed. “We can take a lot of pictures as a brand but it has much more weight when people can see how other customers wear the product,” Alycia Doshi, senior director of marketing for Gap, recently told the Wall Street Journal. “We’re definitely seeing our mom customers be the most engaged.”
This reflects a larger societal shift—one where the marketing of your child is as much a part of mothering as changing diapers and reading bedtime stories. In a 2014 study, University of Michigan researchers interviewed 22 new mothers about their social-media habits. Many of the mothers had discovered that shots of their babies were the easiest way to nab a large number of likes—but perhaps more critically, presented a chance to cultivate a certain image online, leading them to reject unflattering photos of their child, while posting the cutest ones. Although we can all appreciate an adorable infant, these pictures really aren’t about the baby: “Through sharing photos of their babies, mothers portrayed their identities as good mothers, conveying attractive children, embracing humor, and showing evidence of milestones—all indicators of a healthy and happy family,” the researchers write.
The coveted Baby Gap outfits—strewn across social media like secondhand trophies—are one piece of this puzzle, a way mothers can signal to the world, “My child is well groomed,” or put more bluntly, “I have the means to give my child the best.” “The Instagram moms like to buy the [sought-after] outfits, photograph their children, then use various hashtags to gain followers,” Brook tells me. “I think the moms pay so much because they become so involved in the buy-sell-trade groups and Instagram shopping community that they want to feel a part by making sure their little girls have the most popular items in pictures.”
Notice she says “feel” the part—moms are often plagued by impostor syndrome, a phenomenon that Collett has studied. “It’s feeling like you’re somehow a fake—that people have assumed you are more capable than you are,” she says. “That’s something women can experience in motherhood, like ‘I’m not sure that I’m really a good mom or that I’m doing this right.’” This, she says, is the downside of the cult of Baby Gap: Moms may start to feel like they’re hiding their real selves—their flawed, human selves—behind carefully curated size 2T wardrobes.
“So much of motherhood, especially when you have a young child, is out of your hands,” says Collett. “You never know how your child is going to behave or embarrass you.” But you can choose, at least for a time, what your child wears. And if your tot is wearing a sought-after outfit, especially on social media, in front of thousands of eyeballs, you are, the thinking goes, one step closer to that nebulous distinction: the perfect mom. As Collett explains it, “Mothers are buying the $100 romper because they think it’s going to project some image of their child—that the child is cute or somehow well cared for. And that’s going to be a reflection of their mothering. It’s not really about the child. They’re spending that money to buy a perception that they are somehow a good mother.”
Essentially, Collett says, these mothers are using their children as props—the well-dressed child is the Birkin bag of the suburban mommy crowd, a way to display the characteristics they aspire to in their own life. This may explain why hipster moms dress their babes in concert tees and Converses, while preppy moms seek out miniature polo shirts and seersucker suits—a phenomenon researchers observed in a 2014 study of infant clothing, suggesting that children serve as extensions of their mothers, or at the very least, reflections of their own aspirations. As one mom in the study said, “It’s almost like [my daughter] has become my extended status symbol.”
In the months after having my daughter, I felt unmoored, suddenly thrust into this new and unfamiliar world of motherhood, at what felt like the expense of my old identity as an editor, a writer, someone with ambition. I often sat on the couch feeling panicked and unproductive, even as I nurtured the tiny life in my arms, the most important assignment I’d ever been given.
I wasn’t a terribly confident new mother, either—I’d changed maybe two diapers in my entire life. But there I was, a newly minted stay-at-home mom, struggling to unfold my trendy (and far too expensive) stroller in a parking lot, amidst the slush of a late-winter snowstorm. Every errand began to feel like a great accomplishment, a step forward as I forged my fledgling identity as a confident, capable mom.
Eventually, I found respite from my daunting new role in thrift shops, where I’d sift through rack after rack of secondhand baby clothes, lost in thought. If nothing else, my daughter would be well-dressed, albeit in some other child’s Baby Gap or Janie and Jack leftovers.
The mothers in Collett’s study echoed this sentiment—dressing their children, they said, is almost like playing dolls. The downside is that it’s also a way for society to judge them. When Collett asked the moms whether their kids’ clothing revealed more about them as a parent or their children’s personalities, all but one thought “the way a child looks is a better reflection of who the parent is than who the child is,” Collett writes.
When I asked her about less intentionally styled children—using my friend’s young daughter, who I recently saw wearing a raincoat over a bathing suit over a too-small dress, as an example—she replied that even this is a reflection on my friend as a mother. “When you let your child walk out of the house like that, you’re showing, look, I’m letting my kid be creative, I’m giving my child control over her life,” she says. (Perhaps this explains the recent wave of three-year-old Elsas strolling through public libraries and Target parking lots.)
Besides the obvious downside of all of this careful cultivating—you’re creating a digital footprint for your child before his or her second birthday—is identity-seeking through your child a dangerous game? Are the Baby Gap followers one step away from Toddlers in Tiaras? “I think $100 might be a small price to pay if that makes women feel like good mothers,” says Collett. “Mothers get a really bad rap. The only reason that mothers are so concerned about the way their children look is because audiences—people out there in the world—perceive mothers as so responsible for who their children are. If a father is out in public with a sloppily dressed kid, people are just glad that the father is with the child. If a mother is out there with a sloppily dressed kid, it’s like, why can’t she take care of her kid? Society thinks of women as the architects of their children.”
In a recent Huffington Post editorial, mommy blogger Jennifer Lehner bemoans this unfortunate double standard, writing, “If a mother doesn’t have the kids looking like Baby Gap, with organic, whole-grain muffins in the oven, she is looked at as being sub-par. Society needs to reset their standard on what a father should be doing. Not praising them for doing what they should be doing, because apparently, if you are not a douche bag, you deserve a medal.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been criticized for my daughter’s sockless feet, which are sockless only because she promptly plucks off any socks I put on her. Each comment feels like an attack—an indictment of my mothering skills. I cried the first time Frank and I took Asa to a restaurant on his birthday, when she was about a month old. A man dining next to us congratulated Frank on the new baby, then only after Frank had taken Asa to the car, turned his attention to me, telling me I needed to be careful with such a young child, lambasting me for having her out, as if the responsibility rested solely on me.
Modern motherhood is one big pressure cooker—and for some moms, the only release valve, the one way they can control something, even a tiny something, is through their child’s appearance. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but Collett stresses it shouldn’t be the only thing. “Mothers should be able to feel good about their mothering not based on some image they’e sending out there, but just on the fact that they’re getting through every day with themselves and their child intact,” says Collett.
And make sure you cross over to the other side of the store—the adult Gap—every now and then. In her study, “sometimes, when mothers tried to outfit their kids in the best,” says Collett, “they neglected themselves.” Admits Bangs: “It’s not like when I had my daughter I let myself go. It’s just now her wardrobe trumps mine. It’s important to always have her look coordinated and put together, because that is a reflection of my parenting. It’s important to me to give her everything.”
But Collett insists that parents take a broader view, refusing to believe their sole role is as mother or father. “There’s nothing wrong with cultivating these cute little versions of you and your partner,” she says. “But remember that there’s so much more to who both of you are.”