Summer quarrels over tank tops, skimpy shorts and slip dresses are still fresh in Sue Barnes Hannahs' mind as she contemplates back-to-school shopping with her teen-age daughter, Leslie.
"That's the next big chore," the Annapolis mother of three says. "We'll have some frustrating moments. ... What's in style isn't always what's most modest."
These days, what's fashionable for the young closely resembles what adults wear, fueling an adolescent's desire to seem grown-up while creating headaches for parents. The provocative, sophisticated styles have left mothers and fathers grappling with questions they never thought they'd have to ask: At what age should a girl be allowed to wear a skirt with a slit? How low should the waistline of a boy's pants be allowed to go? And is it ever appropriate for a girl to leave the house in a camisole top?
Parents are counting on dress codes or uniforms required at many public and private schools to make decisions easier this fall. But there's nothing like a restriction against something to foster a youngster's desire for it.
Peruse any teen magazine or juniors' clothing department and you're likely to see styles that don't pass the principal or parent test. Faux suede minis, tight leopard-print sweaters, low-slung iridescent pants and midriff tops. What's more, 10-year-old girls are now fitting into junior sizes, once reserved for teens.
"Jeans have gotten lower and tops have gotten higher," says Kathy Collins, director of consumer needs for Lee Apparel in Kansas City.
"It's been tough for a lot of moms," she says. "The kids don't like to look like babies and the moms don't want them to look like tramps."
While many girls prefer jeans, T-shirts and casually anonymous styles, others are opting for clothing seemingly inspired by Lolita. For these trendy youngsters and their parents, the middle ground can be hard to find, particularly since teens today are more opinionated about clothes - and have more money to spend on them.
In her own case, Hannahs partly blames herself. "Boomer parents have let kids be involved in decisions for things that our parents wouldn't have even asked us about," she says. "We've created this little monster."
A recent study by Lee Apparel found that only 50 percent of parents say they make decisions about their children's clothing, down from 60 percent five years ago.
Says Collins: "Parents are tired of arguing. They're willing to compromise more than they used to. It's easier than screaming and fighting in the dressing room."
While most of the attention is focused on girls, boys with their low-slung pants and wide cuffs also are making parents uneasy.
"The fit is the big area of friction today," says Gilbert Cohen, owner of Cohen's Clothiers in Cockeysville, which sells clothes for boys and men. "Usually the young man wants to buy something that's more cutting edge than the parents are willing to allow. He wants to wear pants so low that they drag on the ground. ... The oversized influence does not sit well with parents. Very few kids want to wear a garment that's as trim as Dad wears."
Parents blame the Spice Girls, the inventors of Lycra and MTV for such racy attire, but the influences are broader than that.
Cable television, the Internet, music videos, teen magazines and catalogs have helped make young people today more sophisticated than previous generations, savvier about style and more knowledgeable about who's wearing what.
"They know all about their favorite celebrities and they want to look just like them," says Dawn Yoselowitz, senior market editor for Seventeen magazine. "It's this whole, 'I want to look like [singer] Natalie Imbruglia or Drew Barrymore.' ... They see it on the Academy Awards and they want to wear it to their prom. Or they see it on the MTV awards and they want to wear it the first day back to school."
The tone of girls' magazines today reflects the new attitude. "Teen magazine itself used to be naive and wholesome," says Irma Zandl, president of the Zandl Group, a youth marketing firm in New York. "Now it has more of a bite to it. Seventeen's fashion spreads are more contemporary and edgy than they've been in the past. They're trying to be more consistent with the times."
In a two-page advertisement in this month's Seventeen, Zana-di - a sportswear line for girls, juniors and plus sizes - sums up its back-to-school trends in pictures and words. They include a "Gothic Punk" model wearing stretch bondage pants, an "80s Glam" girl in a satin tube top and a midriff-baring "Femme Fatale."
Charles Jebara, assistant vice president for the company, says the ad plays off a teen's desire to look like a movie star. "In our advertising, we opt to be tasteful," he says. "You can still be sophisticated and edgy and hip without being provocative. ... But it's also a very personal thing."
Dr. Paramjit Joshi, director of clinical services for child and adolescent psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Children's Center, sees the potential for problems in allowing youngsters to dress older than their age.
"Children are still children," she says. "They want to grow up quickly and there is this notion that if you dress in this fashion, you're grown up. ... It's this pseudo-maturity, so they externally come across as 18 even though they are only 12 or 13. They don't look beyond the immediate effect. They don't have the capacity to understand what that means. ... But it's not in sync with their emotional level. When they get unwanted attention, they don't know what to do with it. They get taken advantage of or they get pigeonholed as loose or without morals."
But Zandl, the youth marketer, believes there's not much new in kids wearing daring styles and adults objecting. "Is this any more provocative than Brooke Shields in jeans in the '70s?" she asks. "We've had wild things before. ... But I'm sure if it was my daughter, I'd say, 'Oh my God! You're going out in that?' "
Hannahs, who also has two sons, struggles with the mixed message she may be sending to her daughter. "It's a very sticky issue," she says. "We've done so much to allow girls to excel and feel good about themselves, to show they are poised and eloquent. You don't want to say, 'Don't dress this way.' I don't want her to feel uncomfortable about how she looks. ... But we have certain standards."
Her 14-year-old daughter, Leslie Villwock, knows those standards. "What my friends think is OK isn't OK by my mom," she says.
One of the most difficult talks she and her mother recently had was over a green floral slip dress. She loved it. Her mother thought it was too revealing, and they tried unsuccessfully to return it.
"I'm not allowed to wear it out of the house," Villwock says. "It's like torture for me to see it in the closet."
She also objects to the year-old dress code at Broadneck High School in Annapolis, which, among other things, bans clothing that shows too much chest or thigh.
"Clothes are about exploring who you want to be, and parents should be open to that," she says. "If it gets to a point where someone looks trashy or is living on the dangerous side, then [parents] should step in."
Many believe that compromise is the secret to working through rTC these differences. Yoselowitz received letters at Seventeen this summer from frustrated teens whose parents wouldn't let them wear strappy tops. In the magazine, she recommended girls layer them to make them less revealing.
But Joshi believes it's up to parents to set limits, regardless of the trends.
"Some parents struggle in a reasonably healthy fashion," she says. "What bothers me is the parents who are not thinking about it. The struggle is a healthy sign. At least the child is thinking, 'Why do my parents object to this? There must be another side to it.' "
Back to school in style
Here are some fall trends likely to be a hit with adolescents and parents:
Dark denim. Deep indigo dyes are the newest hues in jeans and jackets.
Khakis. These durable basics are everywhere for boys and girls in flat-front or pleated styles.
Cargo pockets. This military-influenced look continues to be strong in pants, skirts, shirts and assorted accessories.
Carpenter pants. A good bet for those who are cargoed out.
Fair Isle sweaters. Mothers remember wearing them, but they've been out of fashion for so long that they now look new to teens.
Stripes. They run down the side of pants or across a knit top. They're fun, fallish and unobjectionable.
Pleats. Popular on designers' runways, they've already trickled down to teens.
Hoods. Sweaters, shirts and pullovers with hoods show athletics and fashion can play on the same team.
Twinsets. The perfect compromise. A teen gets a skimpy top. A parent gets to cover it up with a sweater.
Pub Date: 8/16/98