Gender stereotypes – The Dress in the Window
Robert Tregoning reflects on a childhood tinged with shame, but hopes his joyful story of gender expression will give solace to today’s young readers…
Five-year-old me wanted so badly to twirl around in a sparkling dress. But back then, in 1991, my joyful boyhood thoughts were laced with shame. Gender stereotypes were stitched into the fabric of the society I grew up in.
From a very young age, I was led to believe that at the toy shop there was a pink aisle for my sister and a blue one for me.
Fast food kids’ meals often left me feeling anything but happy. I’d open the box to find that my nuggets and fries came with a toy car instead of a doll in a dazzling outfit. Birthdays would mean card-shaped reminders of all the things I should be interested in: footballs, cricket bats and motorbikes.
The message was relentless, and the feeling that I wasn’t blue enough or boy enough hurt. It’s taken a lot of unpicking as an adult to embrace and celebrate all that makes me who I am. That includes the masculine, the feminine and everything in between.
Releasing my shame will perhaps always be a work in progress. However, it has already brought me to writing for children.
I believe passionately in the power of books and stories to change perceptions. Books can be mirrors in which we see ourselves, our hopes and our dreams reflected, providing validation and reassurance.
Just as importantly, books can be windows through which we can watch and learn about the lives and experiences of others. They encourage empathy and understanding.
I’m racking my brain to recall if I ever encountered positive representation of unconventional gender expression or LGBTQ+ experiences of any kind during my primary school years. I’m struggling.
I have no doubt that there was representation out there during the 90s, but perhaps not so much in a village in rural northeast England. It was, after all, an education system complying with hateful, life-shattering Section 28 stipulations.
I do remember seeing a pantomime dame for the first time and feeling a shimmering spark of possibility.
Challenging gender stereotypes
Sitting down to write The Dress in the Window, I told myself that this would be a book that would challenge gender stereotypes. I wouldn’t allow even a single speck of shame anywhere near its pages. The drama would have to come from somewhere else.
While I was working on the story, my husband and I had a lot of conversations about the childhood memories that, unclouded by shame, brought us joy. I reminisced about visits to a haberdashery: the sequins, the tassels, and the flowing fabrics wrapped around mannequins.
Billy recalled a shop window he would pass every day on his way to school. It displayed the most incredible dresses. That image, of a boy gazing at a gown behind a pane of glass, so close but just out of reach, summed up perfectly the longing we’d both felt as children.
Then Billy said, “What if one day the dress was gone?”. That was it – the drama that my book needed – and so was born a joyous tale of boy meets dress.
Pippa Curnick’s wonderful artwork brought this story of gender delight fully to life, and there is one illustration in particular that would have made five-year-old me feel empowered and less alone. It makes thirty-seven-year-old me burst with pride. I hope young readers will take away the image of a beautiful boy in a beautiful dress, and the idea that this glittering gown could be for anyone.
Robert Tregoning performed in West End shows before he began writing children’s books. Robert tells the stories he wishes he’d read as a child, hoping to provide a voice of recognition, validation, and kindness. The Dress in the Window is out now.