Unbearably trampy back-to-school clothes.
My 11-year-old daughter and I just did her
back-to-school shopping. Shopping for a 'tween is a
little like being a presidential candidate—you try to
find some middle ground in a world of clamorous
extremes. I want her clothes to reflect the fact that
she's still a girl, but I'm willing to let her hint at
the young woman she is about to become. What I don't
want her to bring home from the mall are clothes—and
there are plenty of them—that inspire this sort of
paroxysm: "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my
Fortunately, my daughter shares my goals: She wants to
look stylish while still sweet, trendy but not trampy.
The designers at Limited Too, a shrine to 'tween
fashion, and I differ on how to achieve this. The
chain, which has about 570 stores in the United
States, sells clothes to girls ages 7 to 12. According
to a Limited Too spokesman, Robert Atkinson, the
company was instrumental in creating the 'tween
fashion category 20 years ago. This year, 'tweens of
both sexes are expected to account for $13 billion of
Limited Too was awash in shimmer; virtually every item
was encrusted with rhinestones or sparkling with
glitter. Most of these clothes provided sufficient
coverage, but my daughter doesn't like ostentation, so
we looked through the T-shirts for something more
subdued. There we discovered what I have come to think
of as Nitwit Wear. These are T-shirts with slogans
such as: "I Left My Brain in My Locker," "I Only Shop
on Days that End in Y," and "Spoiled and Proud of It."
(At least you only want to shake your head at these.
Making you believe in corporal punishment is the Happy
Bunny line of clothing, available online and at
various department stores, which features phrases such
as "Wow you're ugly," and "It's cute how stupid you
are.") It's a comfort to know that if your child can't
come up with her own insolent remarks, clothing
manufacturers are there to help.
Moving through the store, I wondered if insolence was
preferable to suggestiveness. I reached my limit at
what Limited Too sold to go under their clothing: a
line of padded, underwire push-up bras for girls with
nothing of their own to pad or push up. Maybe it's a
sign of progress. Back when I was a girl, those
unsatisfied with the speed of their development were
forced to turn to balled-up Kleenex.
Adult fashion trends eventually work their way to the
'tween set. Low-rise jeans have been ubiquitous for so
long that they seem to have settled in immovably like
a warm air mass in August. My daughter hates them
because when you sit down or bend over, they expose
your underpants. Women have solved—or compounded—this
problem by wearing skimpy, provocative underwear. A
few years ago, Abercrombie, the 'tween division of
Abercrombie & Fitch, got in trouble for marketing
thong underpants—with phrases such as "eye candy"
printed on them—to prepubescent girls. Now scanty
panties for girls are standard. At Limited Too there
were pairs with rhinestone hearts or printed with
cheeky sayings such as "Buy It Now! Tell Dad Later!"
Down the corridor was Abercrombie itself, whose
guiding fashion principle seemed to be to print or
appliqué the word Abercrombie in the largest letters
possible on as much of the clothing as possible. Some
clothing didn't have enough fabric to support a logo.
A pair of shorts was the equivalent of a jeans
G-string. Its microskirts would have gotten my
daughter sent home from school. We fled. On our way to
our next destination, I tried to avert her eyes from
the Victoria's Secret window, where their clothing was
emblazoned with the words "University of Pink." (I
don't want to know that school's most popular major.)
Hypersexualized clothing is not necessarily skimpy.
Macy's sells the line by Kimora Lee Simmons, the ex of
hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, called Baby Phat.
"This is gross," my daughter said, holding up a
T-shirt. There was nothing provocative about the cut
of the shirt, but embroidered in pink across the chest
were the words "Baby Phat" under the large, stylized
logo of a cat. My daughter doesn't understand the
references this logo is clearly meant to evoke, but
she instinctively knew wearing this shirt would be so
Because department stores have to appeal to many types
of consumer, over the years we've had great success
with their in-house brands and nondesigner labels,
which are usually reasonably priced and decent. At
Macy's, my daughter was drawn to the tops in its
Greendog line. Like the low-rise jean, the baby doll
top has migrated to 'tweens. My daughter found one
that was cute but not sexy, made out of blue
sweatshirt material ($17) that she immediately layered
with a pink, lace-trimmed tank top ($3.50—I'm not
kidding). She also picked up two versions of a
Greendog deeply scooped tee with a contrasting band of
fabric at the neckline ($10 each).
At Lord & Taylor, she found a girlish yet
sophisticated gray and black polka-dot empire-waist
dress. It was $40 and perfect for a party or piano
recital. The store also had that Brigadoon-like item:
pants that were high-waisted enough to keep her
underwear choices to herself ($30).
Department stores are where you can also find the
junior versions of chichi adult labels at chichi
prices. Nordstrom in particular was full of these
offerings. There is no way I'm buying my daughter a
$74 Lilly Pulitzer sweatshirt. Nor am I shelling out
for Ralph Lauren—for her or myself. And I'm certainly
not buying her anything by Juicy Couture. The single
most repulsive item we saw on our expedition was
something on the Juicy carousel that looked like a
book. It was titled "A Week in the Life of a Juicy
Drama Queen." Open it, and you find a set of
days-of-the-week underpants for the prepubescent
($58). A close runner-up was the girls' gym bag
($175), which declared "Juicy and Happy." I don't
understand what mother wants to advertise her child's
sexuality by letting her proclaim she's juicy. If I
have to choose between Baby Phat and Juicy Couture, I
choose mandatory school uniforms.
Sensitized by such clothing, a mother has to be
careful not to overreact. I appreciated the fact that
at Old Navy there was nothing come-hither about its
clothing—its baby doll tops were sloppy, not sexy. And
the prices! T-shirts were two for $10. But when I
tried to push some on my daughter, she shook her head.
"How can they make a plain T-shirt look bad?" It was
at Old Navy that we found the most hideous piece of
clothing of our trip: a mud-colored top that recalled
the smocks worn by lavatory attendants ($10).
And unless you can actually say to your daughter,
"That would be perfect to wear at the club," Talbots
Kids, a spinoff of the preppy, sensible women's line,
might not be for you. With clothes for infants through
'tweens, it's the place to train your kids in the
finer points of WASP style while they're still in
training pants (although no miniature martini shakers
are available in the accessories department). The
store was bright, airy, and empty—the two saleswomen
were thrilled to see us. I hoped to find some pants
that didn't sit below my daughter's hip bone. Talbots
had them, and I showed her a pair in navy blue. My
daughter shook her head. "They're like nautical pants.
They're so ugly." Then I held up a pair of beige
polyester pants that looked reasonable to me.
"Mom, I'm 11!" she said. "I'm not Harriet Miers!"
She (child of Washington that she is) had given me a
useful parameter of 'tween fashion. While you don't
want your daughter to look like Britney Spears, she
doesn't want to look like a failed Supreme Court
nominee from the Bush administration. In between those
two poles, if you have patience and good arch support,
you can find enough nice stuff.