Shocking back to school clothes

As the Olsen twins, show here, covering up can mean looking put-together or disheveled.
As the Olsen twins, show here, covering up can mean looking put-together or disheveled.
Teens model at the 2008 Pure Fashion Show. Pure Fashion has long deplored low necklines and sexy looks.
Teens model at the 2008 Pure Fashion Show. Pure Fashion has long deplored low necklines and sexy looks.

Posted by Rachel Leigh email

WASHINGTON (AP) - A shocking trend is gaining ground in teen dressing: modesty.

Here's an example: Last summer, my 13-year-old daughter needed a dress to attend a friend's bat mitzvah.

What we found was a black concoction with a neckline so low that my condition for buying it was a fill-in-the-gap black undergarment. She wasn't happy about it, but complied.

This June, for her eighth-grade graduation, my daughter debated between a slinky blue dress with a plunging neckline -- more lounge singer than middle schooler -- and a flowery cotton print that was strapless but not low-cut.

After much consultation with her friends, she opted for the strapless and decided to top it with a sedate, white cardigan sweater.

What had happened to teen dressing in those intervening 10 months?

Layering. The economic downturn. Traction from an entrenched parents' backlash against highly sexualized looks for their daughters. Oh, and fashion's do-or-die need to throw something new at the gigantic but fickle teen/tween market as quickly as you can say "MySpace" or "Facebook".

I like the result: too-revealing camisoles and tank tops now paired with a covering hoodie or graphic T-shirt. Dresses topped by '50s-ish cardigans or shrugs. Vintage '70s-ish pieces picked up cheaply at thrift shops.

Also, layered items are interchangeable and can be put together in different ways, so I think (hope) we're saving money.

Money is the name of the game for retailers, too, especially in the current economic climate. Apparel sales for the 13-to-17-year-old set were nearly $30 billion for the 12 months ending May 2008, according to market researcher NPD Group's consumer tracking service. Add "tweens" and near-tweens -- 7-to-12-year olds -- and college-age kids -- 18-to-24 -- and that figure soars to nearly $70 billion.

Overall, sales are increasing only slightly. Department stores are struggling to compete with discounters like Wal-Mart and specialty merchants like Hollister, Abercrombie & Fitch, PacSun, Aeropostale and American Eagle Outfitters -- which typically feature darker lighting and throbbing music to welcome teens.

And with the economy in a downturn, many teens had trouble getting summer jobs and have less to spend.

"We're in a very challenging time period," said Allison Levy, merchandise manager for menswear and childrenswear at the Doneger Group, which advises major stores on what fashions to buy. "We have to work harder to get them in the door and satisfy them. ... It's about capturing their attention."

That's done not just with colorful clothes in stores in malls where teens congregate, but also on the Internet, where they gravitate for social networking -- and fashion chitchat -- at sites like MySpace and Facebook. Teens also pre-shop online. My daughter, for instance, will check out before she drags me to the store, her favorite place to buy skinny jeans.

The Internet also means that new fashion trends -- whether driven by music or by TV shows like "Gossip Girl" and "Hannah Montana" -- spread with almost viral speed and intensity. That feeds into tweens and younger teens' desire for their favorite celebrities' clothing brands, says Michael Stone, CEO of The Beanstalk Group, an authority on celebrity licensing who developed the Olsen twins' fashion brand when they were young TV stars.

"It's all media-driven," Stone said. "It's about girls seeing celebrities on TV shows, movie and concert tours and now they get to communicate about clothing on social networking sites. More communicating tools are available ... to spread the word about fashion a celebrity is wearing. That drives tween fashion."

In the emphasis on layering, many parents see a welcome trend that is long overdue.

"A lot of the very fashionable looks right now are very modest," said Brenda Sharman, national director at Pure Fashion, a Catholic-based organization that has put on modesty teen fashion shows in nearly two dozen U.S. cities. "It's almost a flashback to looking very demure and proper."

The group has long deplored the low necklines and sexy looks that have marked teen fashion, and they aren't alone. Last year, an American Psychological Association task force reported that cognitive performance and health can suffer when teens and young women make themselves into sex objects by wearing sexy clothing or styling themselves after sexy celebrities. Eating disorders, depression and low self-confidence can result.

Happily, there's evidence that the covered-up styles for teens might continue into next season and beyond.

At the spring Paris fashion shows, Stephanie Meyerson -- trend director for youth culture at Stylesight, a retail forecasting firm -- saw a definite "moving away from overtly sexual" in teen fashion, especially through layering and comfortable baggy looks.

"Girls are dressing for themselves, as opposed to dressing for guys," she said. "The guys might not like it but the girls are not wearing really tight shirts. They're covered up."

Covered up can mean put-together (think "Gossip Girl") or disheveled (a bit of Mary-Kate-and-Ashley grunge meets Amy Winehouse). And even that look can have sexual connotations.

"It's the one-night-stand look," Meyerson said. As in the disheveled morning after, clothes with a slept-in feel.

OK, so parents won't rejoice over that notion. But I'm rejoicing over anything that keeps my girl from looking like a lounge singer.

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