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Kids Hot Couture

The Baltimore Sun

At www.kuleshop.com, luxury designer Nikki Kule sells the cutest red shorts for $88. At milkshop.com, a pair of True Religion jeans is going for $106.

For fashionistas, these are yawn-inducing prices; the jeans, in fact, could be considered bargain-basement.

But these are clothes for the littlest of style-seekers: tweens, toddlers and the stroller-bound.

These days, many parents are willing to spend as much on their kids' clothes as they do on their own. In order for Johnny to be the coolest kid in school, his parents will shell out once-unthinkable sums for designer duds and celebrity-endorsed labels.

Apparel sales for children ages three to 17 jumped 8 percent in 2005 and another 10 percent in 2006, according to the NPD Group Inc., which tracks consumer spending. And almost half of last year's sales -- about $28 billion -- was spent on kids 12 and younger.

"I have to have the best-dressed kids in the neighborhood," says Sasha Charnin Morrison, fashion director at Us Weekly magazine, joking that she's gone into "financial ruin" to secure her twin 4-year-old boys' position as such. "If I had girls, I would probably be jailed right now, because I wouldn't be able to pay my bills."

Morrison is exaggerating, of course, about the gender gap between what she spends on her boys and what she imagines she'd spend on girls, but she may be close to the mark. Parents of girls are not only spending grown-up prices for their daughters' clothing, they're also buying them more grown-up clothes.

Low-cut, low-slung, belly-baring fashions used to be the domain of women in their late teens and early 20s, says family therapist Carleton Kendrick. But lately, "girls have been sexualized at decidedly younger ages."

Within the past five to seven years of his 30-year family practice, Kendrick says he has noticed more and more young girls in lacy camisoles, slinky tank tops, mini skirts and shorty-shorts, makeup and even high heels.

In 2003, Kendrick remembers reading in a Time magazine article, consumers spent $1.6 million on thong underwear for girls ages 7 to 12.

"That is crazy," says Kendrick. "That's totally crazy."

One of Kendrick's favorite stories to tell is of seeing a mother and daughter out for the day, dressed similarly in "halter tops, low-slung, sprayed-on jeans, dangly earrings, belly buttons exposed and very elaborate makeup."

The mother was anywhere from 45 to 55 years old, Kendrick guessed. The daughter was about 14 or 15.

"My initial response was 'How pathetic,' " Kendrick says. "Neither one of them was appropriately dressed."

In describing the mother-and-daughter twins, Kendrick brings up an interesting word: "appropriate."

With so many children's clothing lines emerging every year, it raises two questions: Is it appropriate to dress young girls and boys like little adults? And if so, what is the appropriate price tag to do so?

New York designer Nancy Ganz was so frustrated in her search for "appropriate" clothes for her then-10-year-old daughter, she started her own collection, R. Lilly Tuckerwear, which includes lots of roomy T-shirts, leggings and tank tops for girls.

"They're comfortable clothes. [The girls] layer them over their jeans and put a sweatshirt over it," says Ganz, whose line is about a year old. "It's really for mixing and matching and being classy."

Ganz's comfy clothes are made to be the antithesis of the "provocative" clothes popularized in magazines such as Teen Vogue, she says.

"Our girls are going to be walking around naked if we don't clothe them properly," Ganz says. "I just think they're growing up too fast."

Consider this item on the ultra-girly Baby Phat Web site: a pink and black, bikini-style bathing suit with a low V-neck top and flirty little swimskirt. It's marketed for "girlz" sizes 10 to 16 (so, third-graders to high school freshmen, generally), but looks sexy enough for a woman in her 20s to wear. And although the suit, plus the skirt, costs $42, something about it says "cheap."

"I don't think it's cute to see 5-year-olds dressed up as hookers," says Kendrick, the family therapist. "Somehow, clothing manufacturers have convinced mothers that it is."

Indeed, many clothing companies and lines have recently expanded into children's wear, marketing to parents smaller versions of the kinds of clothes Mommy and Daddy buy for themselves.

High-end denim companies such as Juicy Couture and Paper Denim and Cloth have launched children's lines. Roberto Cavalli, Kenneth Cole, DKNY, Timberland, Phat Farm, Nicole Miller, Escada, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger all have kids' lines. On the Web site lavishkids.com, which sells Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana, Miss Sixty and Versace for children, a Diesel denim jacket sells for $111 -- and that's the reduced price.

Many parents are feeling pressured by their kids into buying what "everyone else" has, or by their own guilt, experts say.

"This is the most guilty, worried, overwhelmed, nervous, anxious generation of parents I have ever encountered," Kendrick says. "That's part of what I see in them giving their nagging kids everything they want, no matter the price tag, including these clothes. It's 'I haven't spent enough time with you' money. 'We don't have family dinners anymore' money."

Today's super-hyped celebrity culture also contributes, some say.

Since 2005, New York's storied Fashion Week has featured a fashion show exclusively for children, with celebrity kids -- such as Lindsay Lohan's siblings, Aliana and Dakota Lohan, and Russell and Kimora Lee Simmons' daughters, Ming Lee and Aoki -- bounding down the runway as mini-models.

Madonna's got a children's line. So has Hilary Duff.

In fact, retailers and celebrities are running neck and neck when it comes to setting trends for children's wear.

"Anytime the Jolie-Pitt family goes out, you can ID every item of clothing that they're wearing," says Charnin Morrison, of Us Weekly, which showcases celebrity fashions on its pages. "There's a blog set up to detail what they're wearing. Once a celebrity kid wears something, once you get a photograph of it, it's huge business."

Web sites such as indkydinktees.com and junkfoodclothing.com sell some of the rock-star-style T-shirts parents such as Charnin Morrison love to see their children in. Shirts that say AC/DC or have skulls-and-crossbones on them are favorites of celebrities, many of whom wear similar Goth, rock and graphically bold T-shirts themselves.

"If you have a three-month-old in a onesie that says The New York Times," says Charnin Morrison, "there's nothing cuter than that."

But not everyone is a fan of letting celebrities set the pace for children's attire.

"Most of the clothes that teen stars like Lindsay Lohan and Hilary Duff are photographed wearing would be in violation of the dress codes at many public schools, which ban spaghetti-strap tops and bared midriffs during school hours," says April Masini of AskApril.com, an etiquette, fashion and beauty advice column. "The reality today is, if you want to be hip and popular in junior high school, middle school, high school -- and yes, even elementary school -- you better look hot -- and be hot! That's the message being sent to our young ... girls who are on the verge of becoming women."

That message is a dangerous one, says Diane Levin, an education professor at Wheelock College in Boston.

"The sexual content in the popular culture of today bombards girls with large doses of sexual content that they cannot understand and that can even scare them," Levin wrote in a paper called So Sexy, So Soon: The Sexualization of Childhood in Commercial Culture. "It provides them with a very narrow definition of femaleness and sexuality that focuses them primarily on appearance -- their value is determined by how well they succeed at meeting the sexualized ideal."

In short, where 4-year-olds once cared about dolls and candy and learning to read, at that age, they're now obsessing about lip gloss, brand names and being thin.

"Little girls used to have a consciousness about wanting to look good for others beginning at about 6 or 7," says Kendrick, the family therapist. "Now you will basically get kids wanting to have that desire to look good or others beginning at age 4."

This "sexualized ideal" is being so insidiously sold to today's consumers, many girls and their parents don't even know they're being sucked in, experts say.

Masini, the advice columnist, reports seeing this complaint from a mall sales clerk posted on a message board focusing on concerns about 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds participating in oral sex:

"In the junior's department of this store," the clerk laments, "the clothing is smaller, tighter and more revealing. The girls almost have no choice but to buy these clothes, because that is all that the stores are selling!"

Not only can wearing provocative clothes make girls more precocious at earlier ages, it also can help stifle their interests in things other than their bodies and appearances, some experts worry.

"It does give them a quick and easy way to get attention, and that is seductive to kids if they feel lonely in adolescence, or invisible," says Sharon Lamb, co-author of Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes. "Hey, they can look hot and they can get instant attention. Then they don't put in the time to invest in the skills that would ultimately help them get ahead."

It's not just a psychological barrier, Lamb says. It's also practical.

"We know that sports and movement, for example, is so good for girls," Lamb says. "It's really hard to do that in platform shoes and midriffs and miniskirts."

Charnin Morrison doesn't have girls, but wishes she did -- just for the clothes. Corduroys, board shorts and sneakers just aren't as darling as the myriad styles, colors and labels available for little girls.

But if she ever had girls, she knows the market will be there for her and her willing wallet.

"It's just this kind of funny phenomenon that is just capturing everybody. We kind of want the little versions of what we wear. And I guarantee you, it's just going to get bigger. I'm sure more high-end designers are going to start following suit," she says. "Because of the fact that everything in women's wear, ready-to-wear is so provocative, again, it's just mirroring what's happening. The little ones get the same things. But I don't necessarily think it's a problem. If you make it a problem, that's when it becomes a problem."

tanika.white@baltsun.com

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