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Baby’s in black

Forget the pinks and bright blues, some parents are filling their children’s wardrobes with the most basic of colors

Kelly Dennis dresses daughter Willow in black. Kelly Dennis dresses daughter Willow in black. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)
By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / November 25, 2010

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When Kelly Dennis goes out with her infant daughter, she often notices people giving her looks. As in: What kind of a mother are you?

Dennis’s crime? Dressing little Willow in the color black. Black skinny jeans, black tops, black boots, black onesies, black yoga pants — she has them all.

“I want her to have her own unique style,’’ Dennis said recently as she browsed in a Brookline toy store. Dressed in a long black coat and black boots, Kelly paused for a moment of reflection. “Even if it is my style. She’s a vision of me.’’

While babies have long been swaddled in pink and blue and toddlers in bright colors, black clothing for kids is getting a major marketing push this fall, most prominently at the Gap, where its Bleeker Street Collection featured mini motorcycle jackets, edgy animal print leggings, and dark chunky sweaters emblazoned with skulls and crossbones. Other chains have rolled out looks that have wee ones looking like baby Beat poets or punk rockers. The faux-fur black bolero from the Children’s Place — still available online in toddler size 4 — would have looked right at home at CBGB circa 1979. Pair it with their black “Groovy Boot’’ (embossed with glittering peace sign) and your fashion-forward 2-year-old will do Courtney Love one better.

The Gap says the black clothing for kids is in fact aimed at their mothers — and is selling very well.

“What we’re learning about her is that she wants her kids to be even more stylish than she is,’’ Gap spokeswoman Olivia Doyne said. “If she is going to spend money, it’s more likely she’ll spend it on her kids than herself.’’

Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at the NPD Group, a market research firm, and a former children’s clothing buyer for Bloomingdales, says children’s clothing is getting edgier.

“It’s no longer about how cute a kid can be,’’ Cohen said, “but how . . . how cool or how radical.

“Black used to be considered too sexy or depressing or morbid or sophisticated for kids,’’ he said, a color not worn except to funerals or special occasions. But children’s clothing started to change in the mid 1990s. “And now it’s gotten to the point where it’s acceptable for toddlers to [dress with] an attitude. They can’t throw a temper tantrum, but they can have an attitude.’’

Or, more accurately, their parents can have an attitude, observed Amy Wilson, author of “When Did I Get Like This? The Screamer, the Worrier, the Dinosaur-Chicken-Nugget-Buyer, & Other Mothers I Swore I’d Never Be.’’

“The black thing is symptomatic of the parents living through their kids, as we do in all things these days,’’ Wilson said. “We push them to be in traveling soccer teams at 4. We’re like pageant moms, but in smaller ways.’’

Lindsey Gladstone, the kids editor of the Daily Candy website, says she’s seeing more and more black clothing for kids, a trend she attributes to parents dressing children as an extension of themselves. “If you’re a little rock ’n’ roll, your kid is a little rock ’n’ roll.’’

Of course, not every parent is embracing the fad. In an age of pediatric trendiness, in which babies wear concert T-shirts and preschoolers parade around in Juicy Couture heels, clothing once considered too mature for kids has mostly lost the ability to shock. Except for the color black, that is.

Many parents say they avoid it because it makes kids resemble little toughs, or looks wrong against delicate baby skin. Others say childhood goes so fast anyway, why rush things? Vanessa Trien, the popular children’s musician from Brookline, says she’s “bummed out’’ by her kindergartener’s embrace of black clothes.

“Perhaps the black transports me into the teenage future . . . [and] I see skateboards and marijuana and bad company,’’ Trien said.

Other parents take just the opposite tack. They love wearing black and assume their kids will too. Emphasis on the word “assume.’’

Sonia Schneider, a Brookline mother, recently had to pull back from dressing her daughter in black after the 5-year-old practically begged to wear bright colors.

“Mom, I’m always wearing black,’’ the little girl said recently. “It’s too much.’’

Schneider feels most comfortable wearing black herself, she explained, and that in turn made her feel comfortable putting her daughter in black. But she doesn’t want to turn her off the color.

“I bought her a purple dress,’’ Schneider said. “I’m trying to liven it up. But it’s hard to get away from black.’’

As many adults can testify, when black clothing gets its hooks into you, buying and wearing other colors can be hard. But black clothes weren’t always so dominant, said Leatrice Eiseman, director of the Pantone Color Institute, and author of Eisemancolorblog.com.

In the 19th century, black was worn almost exclusively by widows, clerics, and, in the theater, villains. It wasn’t adopted by artists or activists until the 20th century, she said.

Author Nora Ephron has also traced its evolution.

“Fifty years ago, women of a certain age almost never wore black. Black was for widows, specifically Italian war widows,’’ she wrote in her book, “I Feel Bad About My Neck.’’ But hair dye enabled even older women to look good in the color, and now, “[m]ost everyone wears black — except for anchorwomen, United States senators, and residents of Texas, and I feel really bad for them. I mean, black makes your life so much simpler. Everything matches black, especially black.’’

And what better to go with a black stroller than black baby bunting? On a recent morning, Loren Larkin of the Back Bay was pushing her 16-month-old son in his stroller, his little face peeking out of the black sac keeping him warm. Larkin, who was wearing all black herself, says she wouldn’t dress him in black clothing, as it makes kids look “tough.’’

But, she added, “the stroller is my accessory.’’

The bigger the color gets for kids, the harder it is to avoid. “It was a gift,’’ Ruth Kanfer, of the South End, replied when asked about her baby’s black T-shirt. It seemed an “odd’’ choice to give a baby, she said, noting that, for better or worse, the black shirt made 6-month-old Max look older. “Maybe a month or two.’’

Black also has another effect on appearance, said Mira Woods, of Boston, as she hung out in front of Isis Parenting in the Prudential Center. Her little daughter was dressed in pink and white, but Woods extolled the benefits of black: “Babies have big bellies and butts. Black is slimming.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell @globe.com.