- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 20, 2003

Emily Kell, 14, of Alexandria, wears cargo pants from Abercrombie & Fitch, tops from Arden B. and J. Crew and stiletto heels from Steve Madden. Sometimes when her school, Burgundy Farm Country Day School in Alexandria, has dress-down days, Emily wears pajama pants, she says. But they’re not just any pajama pants. They are Aeropostale pajama pants and cost $26 and up (Cargo pants at Abercrombie & Fitch can be $60 or more).

“It’s got to be Aeropostale,” Emily says while carrying several logo-covered bags during a recent shopping excursion to the Fashion Centre at Pentagon City. “Otherwise it doesn’t look right.”

“Looking right,” which really means “fitting in,” is very important for young teenagers, especially girls, says Jeanay LaRue-Robinson, a guidance counselor at Andrew Jackson Middle School in Forestville, Md.

“It’s just a sign of normal child development,” Mrs. LaRue-Robinson says. “It’s a time when kids want to separate from their parents and fit in with their peers. Dressing alike is one way.”



Dr. Adelaide Robb, a psychiatrist at Children’s National Medical Center in Northwest, calls this “peer group identity.” Before fully forming their own identity, teenagers form a group identity to feel accepted and fit in, she says.

“In many schools, one of the ways you fit in is you look like everyone else … you wear the right skirt or pants or backpack,” Dr. Robb says.

Fashion can be plenty of fun, but it can have a flip side, too. Sometimes the pressures of dressing in a certain way or in certain designer clothes creates problems, such as bullying.

“I remember a couple of years ago everything had to be Fubu. If it wasn’t, someone got teased,” Mrs. LaRue-Robinson says. The school ended up introducing school uniforms a year ago to end the fashion race, she says, and it worked. “It really cut down on the teasing and conflicts.”

It also cut down on the number of kids who were sent home for not wearing appropriate clothing. She says some girls, “with their developing bodies,” by chance or choice wore clothes that were too small. That doesn’t happen anymore.

Most schools — even those without uniforms — have a dress code to prevent inappropriate clothing. In many jurisdictions, the central school system issues general directives, forbidding clothes that are lewd or obscene, disrupt school activities or endanger health and safety.

With those general directives as a backdrop, it’s up to each school to decide on the specifics: midriffs or no midriffs; miniskirts or no miniskirts.

“It leaves a lot of discretion up to the principals,” says Kate Harrison, spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Public School system. “But it’s my impression that the dress code is pretty much the same for all schools.”

Discussing fashion

Teen fashion is nothing new. The American teen market was invented after World War II, says Alissa Quart, author of “Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers.”

And since then it’s gone into high gear with teenagers being more fashion and brand-name conscious than ever before, she says.

“It’s a way of defining oneself,” Ms. Quart says. “They are raised with all these intense campaigns that are being aimed at them. … [Branding] is how they create an identity.”

In 2000 alone, teens spent $155 billion on things like clothing, CDs and makeup, she writes.

Marketers are becoming more and more savvy in tapping into this youth market, Ms. Quart says. They use teenagers to spot trends and women’s magazines now come in teen formats, such as Teen Vogue and Cosmo Girl.

“These magazines didn’t even exist a few years ago,” Ms. Quart says.

But while marketers say one thing, “wear low-rider pants and midriff shirts” or something similar, parents say another.

“We talk about what’s appropriate and what’s not,” says Jill Gallagher of Reston, who recently went back-to-school shopping with her 11-year old daughter, Katherine. “She understands that you give a certain impression depending on what clothes you wear.”

Mrs. Gallagher won’t allow her daughter to wear see-through blouses, midriffs or low-riders.

Maritza Bergery of Waldorf, Md., who recently went shopping with her daughter Kristen, 14, says she and her daughter have an open dialogue about fashion and what’s appropriate for a girl her age to wear.

“I tell her that there is no need to rush. When you’re 14 or 15 years old and you dress like a 26-year old in low-riders and low-cut [blouses], you look like you belong in a carnival,” Mrs. Bergery says. “And she knows that.”

At the same time, Mrs. Bergery understands the wish to look older and to look attractive.

“I was young in the ‘70s and wore hipsters and platform shoes, and I had the same discussions with my mother,” she says. “I didn’t understand what the big deal was. I thought she was from the 18th century.”

Making compromises

Fashion discussions between parents and teens also revolve around money. Brand name clothes are often expensive, and not everyone can afford to get complete outfits from exclusive designers.

If your identity is wrapped up in your clothes, it’s not enough to be stylish one day of the week, Ms. Quart says. “Your identity is an everyday thing,” she says. “You need a complete outfit for each day of the week.”

For her book, Ms. Quart talked to girls who had complete ensembles — from top to bottom — of Prada clothes. That look is not an option for the Gallaghers who have five children and budget about $500 a year for clothing, Mrs. Gallagher says. If Katherine were to wear only Prada, there would be no money left for the others.

“I told her that we have to stick to a budget,” Mrs. Gallagher says. “And she made very conscious decisions, because she wanted to get the most bang for her buck.”

Mrs. Gallagher and her daughter went to the designer stores that Katherine likes, but chose cheaper alternatives.

Ann Marie Koshuta and her daughter Vicky Faling, 12, of Capitol Hill, also had a clothing budget this fall.

“I gave her $200 to shop for. It made her think more about her decisions. Instead of just getting something, she’d say, ‘I don’t like it enough to spend my money on it,’” Ms. Koshuta says.

This was the first shopping season during which Vicky had to stick to a budget, and she had mixed feelings about it.

“I both liked it and didn’t like it,” she says. “With a budget, I don’t go buying stuff and then don’t wear it. … But I don’t like it when my money runs out.” She ended up getting her clothes from H&M; in Georgetown, Abercrombie & Fitch and Limited Express.

Vicky and her mother don’t talk very often about what is appropriate clothing and what isn’t since Vicky is into more of a sporty look than a skin-baring look. The one fashion discussion they had was about boots: Mother wanted no heel, and daughter wanted high heels.

“We compromised. She got boots with about a two-inch heel,” Ms. Koshuta says.

While fashion-consciousness and brand-obsession can go overboard and seems to be more and more prevalent in younger and younger children, it doesn’t have to be a problem, Dr. Robb says.

It’s normal for young teenagers to care about their looks, as long as they aren’t spending all of their money and time on fashion, she says.

Parents should be concerned, too, if teens completely stop caring about their looks, Dr. Robb says.

“A worry is when they’re not caring about their appearance, not taking care of their hygiene. That can be a sign of depression,” she says.

MORE INFO:

BOOKS —

• “BRANDED: THE BUYING AND SELLING OF TEENAGERS,” BY ALISSA QUART, PERSEUS PUBLISHING, 2003. THIS BOOK OFFERS A LOOK AT HOW MARKETERS ARE TARGETING YOUNGER AND YOUNGER WALLETS. IT TALKS ABOUT HOW GENERATION Y HAS GROWN UP IN AN AGE OF THE BRAND, WHERE BRAND NAMES DEFINE TEENS.

• “QUEEN BEES AND WANNABES: HELPING YOUR DAUGHTER SURVIVE CLIQUES, GOSSIP, BOYFRIENDS, AND OTHER REALITIES OF ADOLESCENCE,” BY ROSALIND WISEMAN, THREE RIVERS PRESS, 2003. THIS BOOK OFFERS PRACTICAL ADVICE ON HOW TO KEEP OPEN THE CHANNELS OF COMMUNICATION BETWEEN PARENT AND TEEN.

• “A PERFECT FIT: CLOTHES, CHARACTER, AND THE PROMISE OF AMERICA,” BY JENNA WEISSMAN JOSELIT, HENRY HOLT & CO., 2001. THIS BOOK OFFERS A HISTORY OF FASHION AND DISCUSSES WAYS IN WHICH CHANGES IN FASHION REFLECT CHANGES IN SOCIETY.

• “GET OUT OF MY LIFE, BUT FIRST COULD YOU DRIVE ME AND CHERYL TO THE MALL: A PARENT’S GUIDE TO THE NEW TEENAGER,” BY ANTHONY E. WOLF, FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX, 2002. THIS BOOK OFFERS A ROAD MAP FOR PARENTS IN DEALING WITH THEIR TEENAGERS ABOUT SUBJECTS SUCH AS SCHOOL PROBLEMS.

• “GIRLS: WHAT’S SO BAD ABOUT BEING GOOD? HOW TO HAVE FUN, SURVIVE THE PRETEEN YEARS, AND REMAIN TRUE TO YOURSELF,” BY HARRIET S. MOSATCHE AND LIZ LAWNER, CROWN PUBLISHING CO., 2001. THIS BOOK LABELS ITSELF A GUIDE TO SURVIVING FOR TWEENS. IT OFFERS ADVICE ON HOW TO HANDLE EMOTIONAL ISSUES AND DEAL WITH DAILY CRISES SUCH AS BULLYING AND PEER PRESSURE.

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