When It All Begins – Back To School In Teen And Pre-Teen Style


At what point in our lives do we first consider style? Parents dress their babes, grandparents unearth treasures for grandchildren, but big kids start to develop their own tastes as they approach the teen years.

Some, of course, are late bloomers. Hands up. We spent my 6th grade year in London, and I wore a uniform to school, every day. Somehow that got me paying attention as never before. Occasionally we were allowed to wear our own clothes. I remember even now a dress Mom bought me that spring. Imagine London in 1968, cream and orange Liberty flowered cotton, almost canvas, belted low and wide in the same fabric. Brass grommets on the belt holes.

But back at school in California the following year, all the kids wore jeans and tees. My plaid wool pants and Beatle turtlenecks? Over the top. I retreated, cautiously, and spent the next two years in white cords, jeans, and one of two shirts. Better safe than sorry.

Going back to school is always a cauldron for teenage style; we do well to moderate the heat. It’s one of the tricky and important parts of parenting, balancing kids’ need to integrate into a peer group against our longer view of societal norms. I may have said to my pre-teen daughter, at one point, “No dressing like a teenaged prostitute!” I’m a fan of lively dialogue.

What, we might wonder, are teens and pre-teens wearing back to school today? This is a highly localized study, regionally and culturally specific. I had to ask the experts, AKA my youngest sister and two of her kids, for the Los Angeles Teen And Middle School Style Preview. It turns out that binders and pens are the moral equivalent of our scarves and earrings. It’s all in the details.

(Hover/click each cell of the display to see the details. Our UI experiments continue apace.)

 Back-To-School For An L.A. Middle School Girl

Surely we are happy about Dr. Martens returning? And we wonder, will pleated plaid minis be far behind?

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Off-To-High School For An L.A. Teenage Boy

Style for most boys may be less complex. But it’s no less rigorous.

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And in the rest of the USA? Do teenaged boys wear skater brands like Hurley and Quiksilver? Do pre-teen girls flock the sidewalks in Dr. Martens and their softer and still-ubiquitous cousins, powder blue Uggs? Are our conversations with our children about style as important as the food we feed them? Probably not to that last one. But I’m going to say, in software terms, it’s non-trivial.

Wishing everyone a good school year, with a good right balance of style and substance.

 

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20 Comments

  • When my two eldest were in middle school, uniforms were required so much of the drama about what to wear at the most difficult time of their lives (good gawd, you have no idea how relieved I was be done with middle school) was pretty much a non issue. At home wear was much as it had been when they were in grade school – jeans, tees, sneakers, with the occasional button-up dress shirt or skirt for when they visited their Grande Dame great-grandmother.

    Once in high school, my daughter never went through a “streetwalker phase” (that was reserved for my older stepdaughter, who has the figure to carry it off, unfortunately), but she did go through a goth phase before becoming her Artsy Cousin, bohemian self. None of her friends dressed like her, but she’s one of those people who genuinely doesn’t care if she fits in, at least fashion-wise.

    Oldest Son joined the ranks of high school in knock-off Nikes or Reeboks (because Mom simply couldn’t afford the real deal), jeans and pop culture t-shirts – pretty much how he dresses to this day. His younger brother also favors this style of dress, and although Mom can now afford the expensive shoes he wears low-top Converse almost exclusively. Unless it’s snowing, when he pulls on the Doc Martens. Now, having said that, he’s begun to take a little more interest in his clothing, and says he’ll actually wear the button-up shirts I tried to force on him for years – and maybe some slacks, too! Don’t ask me what happened, because I couldn’t tell you; I just thank whatever forces run the Universe of college sophomores (talk about late bloomers) and open my wallet.

    08/14/14
    8:39 am
    Lisa said...

    Sounds as though fashion in your offspring has been a highly sensible and unselfconscious endeavor. How wonderful.

  • My youngest daughter just entered 11th grade in the northern San Joaquin valley. For her, Doc Martens for sure. Also, Sperry Topsiders, just like the ones I wore in the 80s. Actually, her clothes look a lot like ones I wore in the 80s, both on the preppy and the punk end of the spectrum. I’m having to review the belly-baring choices, though, even with the high-waisted, pleated shorts. Plus, her FFA uniform. But she looks good in blue.

    I took my older daughter to Paris this summer to celebrate HS graduation (she’s going to UC Santa Cruz in a few weeks), and shopping in Paris (with its high prices) spawned a whole lot of conversations about spending more on higher quality garments and wearing them for years, rather than indulging in fast fashion, with all of the social ramifications associated with that phenomenon — wastefulness, human right issues, etc.

    08/14/14
    8:40 am
    Lisa said...

    Future Farmers of America! Wonderful. Does she wear Doc Martens in her farming projects? And yes, it IS an 80s redux. What a great conversation to have with you daughter, in Paris. Memorable. Congrats on UC Santa Cruz, I hope she loves it.

    08/14/14
    9:42 am
    Kristina said...

    @Kristina, Ha! Well, the SJ county fair specifies “boots, black or brown” for their show uniform and her docs are red. She usually just hijacks my Blundstones for a week. It’s all stockings and pencil skirts and heels for the other competitions — they’re very strict about it. I should just buy stock in Leggs, she goes through so many stockings, regardless of quality– goes right through the toes every time. They just don’t make ’em for 6’/135# women. Sigh.

  • I had boys, so few fashion battles apart from whether it was too cold to wear shorts. I made a rule that if it was going to be below 70 degrees pants were required. Otherwise they’d have been at the bus stop in shorts and a t-shirt with snow falling.

    08/14/14
    8:45 am
    Lisa said...

    Ha! What is it with the shorts! I was more lenient – as long as it was over 55-60 degrees they had to wear pants:).

  • I wore the SAME DAMN CLOTHES for 12 years. A Yves Klein blue jumper (the american jumper) and a white blouse, with either short white socks or navy knee socks with brown lace-up oxfords. It was only in the 9th grade or so, that they allowed us to wear long sleeve turtle neck shirts and tights and that was because of the energy crisis. I think that half of the reason my mother kept us in private school was that she hated shopping for clothes and with uniforms, she only had to do it once a year or so.

    08/14/14
    8:46 am
    Lisa said...

    Wreaks havoc on the shoe-shopping expertise, doesn’t it:).

  • For me, I think I was when I was about 13.
    I wasn’t allowed Doc Martens but I got the girlie version, Monkey boots, they were so comfy. I was much more interested in style then than I am now, it was pretty much my passion, it has progressively lessened for me. Being in private school uniform worked for me I think – only two days a week to think about clothes/outfits, I never even bothered to change during the week.

    08/14/14
    9:10 am
    Lisa said...

    Did you roll the top of your skirt? And cheat on the socks? That’s what the cool girls did at Lady Whatever’s in Kensington, the year I was there:).

  • My two youngest wear uniforms and my high school freshman will be wearing her own clothes for the first time evah to school. No Docs for her (though I tried); this ballerina likes Keds and floaty dresses. But finding some of an acceptable length (she’s 5’10” and growing) is a challenge.

    08/16/14
    8:29 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Miss Cavendish, A tall ballerina! I bet Keds and floaties look great.

  • Lisa – oh no – I had a piece of elastic and a safety pin to fasten my skirt, I had a terrible weight problem till my mid 20’s. We weren’t allowed to do anything sock wise or otherwise, rules had to be adhered to in our school, modifications were the remit of the comprehensive schools here and abroad ( educated over in Europe too) – they were all so cool – we weren’t even allowed to roll up the sleeve of our shirts.

  • Always a late bloomer, I think it was college before I considered style in any sense, and even then I probably got it wrong. Oh well. By that point I had a long history as an independent thinker.

    08/16/14
    8:29 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Mardel, A long history as an independent thinker is way better than style, if one must choose.

  • Those photos represent my high school in San Diego in the mid to late 80s to a T! I still dress my elementary and preschool daughters but I see it coming to an end for my eldest as she wonders about my archaic rules (no black until a teen, no nail polish, no test on Ts and certainly nothing sassy). And as I find my closet treasures at Bloomies and Forever 21 I wonder when she will be embarrassed that I dare shop in store she should “own”.

    08/16/14
    8:30 pm
    Lisa said...

    @anon, I’ve heard people wonder that before. As long as you aren’t shopping at DElia’s, should be OK:).

  • I teach in a middle school located not far south of DC. What a difference a couple of thousand miles makes! I have never seen Doc Martens at my school and that shirt would not be allowed. No undergarments can show-we don’t even allow sleeveless tops! Sharpies are universal!!

    08/16/14
    8:30 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Jane Smith, Very different. Sharpies as the universal language of middle school?

  • We have only boys. Our younger son preferred to buy all his clothes at thrift stores when he was in high school. HIs senior year, he was named “most retro” for his efforts. Our older son was voted “best dressed” when he was a senior. His mom had purchased all of his clothes (with no complaint from him–he was easy!)

    08/16/14
    8:30 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Susan, I love that! Nice work mom!

  • My daughter wore a uniform until high school, so her fashion choices were about hair barrettes etc. High school, although private, was very liberal about clothing and I do remember a lot of Uggs, the high lace up Doc Martens, etc.

    I think I would have paid more attention at school, if I had to wear a uniform. I woke up every morning at 5am to start getting “ready” for school – rollers, makeup, fishnets – anything British mod, as that was the style at the time of my high school years. Even wore false eyelashes sometimes!!!

    08/16/14
    8:31 pm
    Lisa said...

    @kathy, I envied the girls who had the British mod thing. So cool, then and now.

  • We live in the San Fernando Valley. My son is 28 but HS fashion was not significantly different back then, at least for boys, than it is now. He still wears jeans, tee-shirts and retro sneakers for casual wear.

    Every teacher had something different they wanted for a notebook arrangement. It was crazy. And no highlighters because the books belonged to the school, not the student.

    08/16/14
    8:32 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Wendy Bird, So, even 14 years later boys’ style is the same.

  • I wore mini skirts and stockings held up with a garter belt! The skirts could not be micro minis though as we had a female teacher on staff who carried a measure stick and if she thought your skirt was too short she would stop you and measure it. If it failed her minimum length we were sent home immediately to change!
    When I was in high school we all wore jeans and tees and suede desert boots. We grew our hair long and wore sandalwood Indian prayer beads. Looking back I realize that fitting in was why we all dressed alike….if you deviated from the dress code you were ostracized. Girls could be so cruel back then.

    08/16/14
    8:32 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Bungalow Hostess, Sandalwood prayer beads are definitely due for a resurgence.

  • Not to date myself or anything, but when I was high school, dresses were required for girls. Of course they were short (it WAS the 60s after all) and length was always an ongoing issue, especially for long legged girls like I was. We were allowed to wear “pant suits” (with a matching top and bottom) only if the temperature was below 32 degrees and that was only during my senior year of high school (1969-70).

    08/16/14
    8:35 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Susan, Pants suits! How would they feel if they saw Hillary Clinton now?:)

  • I have a tween girl and a teen boy. The boy is fairly straightforward – jeans, t-shirts, plaid shirts, and a hoodie. We are in Chicago so add down jackets to whatever is listed here and below.

    The girl… ah, the girl. Skinny jeans, leggings, t-shirts long and short sleeve with no writing on them (school rules), converse sneakers or merrells or short boots, long cardigans, long zip up hoodies, she would like something that looks like a lettermen’s jacket. No skirts, no dresses. It is extremely difficult to find plain long and short sleeved t-shirts for tweens (I end up with Boden and LL Bean on line for the most part).

    If you want to be absolutely horrified, go into Justice (formerly the Limited Two) sex and glitter being sold to 12 year olds.

    08/16/14
    8:37 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Anne, 12 is too young. No if ands or buts.

  • And just yesterday I rolled my eyes at the Sharpie brand highlighters and bought my middle-schooler a different brand. An inexpensive mistake to rectify if need be but there’s a good chance she won’t even notice. So far I’m the only one who notices fashion at her school. She’s not all that interested in owning the trends. We live in the middle of nowhere in New England. Hopefully the trend setters at her school won’t choose fashion must-haves that can only be found in the big city.

    08/16/14
    8:39 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Jenn, Let’s hope middle of New England makes for sensible highlighting. Big cities do bring out the need to make style statements.

  • Here in a preppy university town in Virginia, teen style is all over the map. There’s a surprising amount of individuality.

    In my house, my almost 16 y.o. is very into mixing styles — a lace “twirly skirt” (she loves them) with a t-shirt from a concert and Docs. Or, a professorial cardigan, t-shirt, jeans, ballet flats, and funky jewelry (often Steampunk).

    Her friends are a mix — edgy urban, sporty athlete, pure prep, etc.

    My almost 14 y.o., however, still could not be any less interested in fashion or style. Her choices these days are centered around t-shirts she’s collected, shorts, and Chucks. In the winter, she prefers the same t-shirts, a hoody, yoga pants, and either Chucks or Uggs. She is all about comfort and does not care one whit about fashion.

    Interestingly, neither one of my girls is interested in wearing make up and both have simply, unfussy hair. The elder does not have pierced ears, so her jewelry is of the kind that goes around necks and arms. The younger has pierced ears and expresses herself with interesting earrings related to her interests, but does not otherwise accessorize herself.

    It’s interesting watching them develop their tastes and figure out what they like.

    08/16/14
    8:42 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Jen on the Edge, So interesting. And kids have different timelines, as you point out.

  • My oldest grandchild is now a preteen boy. He lives in southern CA, and wears baggy shorts with many pockets and a Tshort that must have something on it. In other words, he is blessedly still a little boy.
    Last year at school, the boys (somewhat strangely) were all about pens, a fad which I apparently started when I added a package of gel roller pens to the holiday package.) They trade them, and “customize them. This summer when he was visiting, I took him to an artist supply store and let him go wild (he earnedthis wildness but sweeping the driveway). Still a boy…I am so glad.

    08/16/14
    8:42 pm
    Lisa said...

    @Ellen, Gel pens. Nice work grandmama, very nice work.

  • Just did some low-key back-to-school shopping with my hs senior last week: she picked pieces that will mix and match with existing wardrobe. She has developed at this point a nice fashion sense, I think…not edgy, not preppy, not trendy, but somehow just her. I applaud it because I am still constrained by 12 years of wearing a school uniform and 7 years of wearing a police uniform. I struggle when things don’t match. ;) My daughter has helped me move to a level of less obvious coordination. For her sartorial prowess, I am quite grateful.