Clean-cut, wholesome and decidedly demure. Look at the ultra-Disneyfied costumes in this month's "Hannah Montana" movie and you'll see the latest reflection of the accelerating shift toward more parent-friendly tween fashions.
Forget Britney-era bling 'n' bras or clingy American Apparel spandex -- 16-year-old "Hannah Montana" star Miley Cyrus wasn't even allowed to wear leggings while the cameras were rolling. Spaghetti straps were verboten, as were bare bellies, micro minis, one-shouldered tanks and anything resembling a camisole.
In part the decision was a pragmatic one aimed at keeping Cyrus connected with "Hannah Montana's" 6- to 14-year-old tween demographic, even as the actress herself moves beyond it. "We wanted her to look as natural, normal and neutral as possible in most of the film -- hair and makeup of course, but especially costumes," says director Peter Chelsom.
Veering away from "Hannah Montana's" garish TV get-ups, as well as Cyrus' increasingly grown-up off-camera style (remember her glittering, somewhat stately, scalloped Zuhair Murad couture gown for this year's Oscars red carpet? Not your average 16-year-old's party dress), he and the film's costume designer, Christopher Lawrence, dialed down their young star's look.
The goal was to clearly differentiate between Miley Stewart, the carefree girl in the "Hannah Montana" franchise (and alter ego of its flashy fictional pop star), and Miley Cyrus, the real-life star whose brand is valued around $1 billion. And they were mindful of the impact of "Hannah's" style, which plays out in a vast array of branded apparel, not to mention body shimmer, guitar picks and even a "Hannah Montana" ceiling fan ($99.95 from Disney's shopping site). "Miley Cyrus is a role model for young girls," Lawrence says. "And that's something we took very seriously."
Movies set in the present day tend to feature store-bought looks, but Lawrence knew that the clean-cut, Hayley Mills-inspired image he wanted for his star would be a tough find in Abercrombie & Fitch, Limited Too or American Eagle Outfitters, stores that are popular among tween and teen shoppers.
"When you go out shopping for young girls, colors are acidy and fabrics are clingy," he says. "You see lots of spandex cotton, tank tops and spaghetti straps, really short skirts and tight jeans. Some of this stuff is way inappropriate." With that in mind, he made nearly all the costumes himself. (Original costumes were also necessary for licensing reasons, as several are being re-created in miniature for new "Hannah Montana" dolls.)
Lawrence brainstormed with fashion designer Nony Tochterman, founder of the House of Petro Zillia label and boutique on 3rd Street, known for its uber-feminine, whimsical designs. Then he went away and created a series of guilt-free, girly looks -- coquettish Carrie Bradshaw-esque outfits for the glamorous Hannah Montana character, and rustic "Little House on the Prairie" get-ups for girl-beneath-the-star Miley Stewart. "Feminine, pretty clothes -- but the kind a girl can still climb a tree in," Lawrence explains.
Like a ruffled powder-pink dress with a bow and ruffled skirt, for instance, paired with a Chanel-inspired mini jacket for Hannah Montana's Rodeo Drive shopping moment. The most memorable of the film's looks -- a demure-yet-punky white cocktail dress that channels Audrey Hepburn in "Sabrina" -- was worn with a mini cardigan to cover the actress' pale shoulders.
When the Hannah Montana character quits L.A. for Nashville, reverting to her Miley Stewart persona, we see her in an array of country girl looks -- and not the haughty Ralph Lauren equestrian kind. Think down-home plaid shirts, sweet '70s-style prairie skirts worn with Frye boots, and denim tight enough to be trendy, but that always flares to a practical boot cut.
The most risqué get-up in the entire movie is a slinky sheath dress covered in multicolored paillettes, conjuring images of the Studio 54 dance floor -- but even that sexy little number had its siren potential dimmed thanks to "nice broad shoulder straps" as designed by Lawrence, who was always careful to leave plenty to the imagination.
The movie's tendency toward the tame is very much in line with what's happening in tween fashion, says Gloria Baume, fashion director of Teen Vogue.
"There's a general shift away from 'Britney style,' " she says, referring to the kid-ult, exploitative fashions that started appearing in stores around the turn of the millennium: Padded bras and high heels for 8-year-olds. Tube tops for babies. Thongs for 6-year-olds. The kind of kids' styles that ventured far beyond Renaissance-era conventions of dressing kids like adults, entering into distinctly Humbert Humbert territory.
The backlash against such suggestive styles has occurred in part, she says, because magazines like hers have promoted more tasteful dressing for youngsters. Teen Vogue, for instance, garbs its young models in clothes by Tory Burch, Rebecca Taylor, Alexander Wang and 3.1 Phillip Lim, ostensibly adult designers whose chic-but-insouciant wares (ballet flats, mini-dresses, shorts, oversized tees) easily cross over to much younger consumers and the stars they love (Sophia Bush, Hilary Duff, Mandy Moore and others).
The new modesty could also be linked "to what we're going through economically," Baume says, citing the old hemline index that had skirt lengths falling in concert with the stock market. "Either way, girls are embracing more classic looks, and they're putting them together in a more wholesome way." Think tailored blazers, nautical prints, white cotton tees, practical plaid and even the once-again ubiquitous Ray-Ban Wayfarers, the classic sunglasses frame that Gen Next has so thoroughly reclaimed as its own.
That's evidenced by girls like 9-year-old Phoebe Nance from Mount Washington, from whose fashion-fluent lips fall advanced sartorial terms such as "form-fitting." An extra on the "Hannah Montana" movie, she favors a simpler, more Miley Stewart aesthetic -- jeans, simple dresses and layered tees -- for her personal wardrobe. But finding her favorite looks isn't always easy.
"There are some stores that are supposed to be for kids, but the skirts are like really, really short," says Nance, whose favorite store is Forever 21. "And they sell shirts that show your belly. I don't think it looks good." Her own daily uniform comprises long, tight T-shirts that are "sort of halfway between a dress and a shirt" worn over skinny jeans (preferably brightly colored ones) with Converse Hi-Tops.
Actress Vanessa Williams, who plays a rapacious publicist in the "Hannah Montana" movie, feels Nance's pain. A mother of four (including one 8-year-old girl and a boy of 15), she is all too familiar with the challenges of tween shopping.
"The bottom line is that they are much more self-conscious about their bodies than we are," she says. "I have had issues with my girls feeling too exposed -- there is a lot of stuff out there that is very clingy, and when you have a little belly or baby breasts it makes the girls feel insecure."
What about Miley Cyrus? The furor surrounding her recent Annie Leibovitz photo shoot for Vanity Fair, for which she was draped in a sheet with her back and shoulder on display, only served to underscore the push-pull between innocence and experience that comes into play as tweens become teens.
But even for a young star who seems to be growing more glam by the minute, admitting to a penchant for Prada and Louis Vuitton purses, there seemed to be a certain comfort in the movie's more restrained looks.
"I believe there's a way to be cute and sexy and also not give everything away," says Cyrus, who also says she "can't believe" the over-the-top sexy looks she sometimes sees high schoolers wearing. "And honestly -- who on Earth has the body to fit into the shorts at Abercrombie?"
The clothes she was happiest wearing on the "Hannah" set, she says, were the comfy Miley Stewart pieces.
And tellingly, she singles out the one that made her feel "most confident."
It was a simple, rose-colored tee.