"Kids are more modest than they would care to admit," says Kristen Taylor, owner of Juvie, a tween boutique in Silver Lake that caters to those seeking preteen fashions that straddle hip and wholesome. "They want to be comfortable -- they are still playing in the playground every day at school, after all. They want to be fashionable," she says, but not over the top.
She carries lines like Splendid Tween, Splendid Mills JR (for boys) and Ella Moss Girl: brands, she says, that "offer coverage on top, are long enough so that they hit at the hip rather than the belly button and have enough width so that they are not skin tight." On their feet, girls are wearing Chuck Taylors, Doc Martens, Vans and ballet flats. Lip gloss is still very much de rigueur, she says, with most parent-tween disputes arising over the use of eyeliner.
Franchises such as " Hannah Montana," "High School Musical" and Nickelodeon's "iCarly" are among the biggest style influencers among her pubescent clientele today, she says. Compare this with 25 years ago, when tweens were obsessing over much racier fare: "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," "Weird Science" and "The Goonies" -- all of which featured cursing, references to drugs and alcohol and cheerfully candid portrayals of teenage sexuality. (Who can forget what Phoebe Cates' character did with a carrot in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"?)
Taylor, like many of those interviewed, cites Abercrombie & Fitch as the chief enabler of precocious tween dressing. "You walk into their stores and there are giant pictures of shirtless boys. Seven-year-olds will be shopping there, and yet it is kitted out like a nightclub: very dark with loud music and spotlights. These kids are totally overstimulated by the time they leave."
But that doesn't mean most tweens are dressing to seduce.
"Kids are still buying the skimpy stuff because that's generally what's out there for them -- but they'll layer it and customize it to create their own kind of look," says Jane Gould, vice president of Consumer Insights for Nickelodeon/MTVN Kids and Family Group. Gould helmed an extensive study on tween fashion in February, meant to inform the makers of "True Jackson, VP," Nickeldeon's hit show about a teenager (played by Keke Palmer) who becomes vice president of a fashion label.
Following a number of in-home sessions with tweens, her researchers noticed one key thing: Today's tweens want to please their parents, which may have a lot to do with the sweet 'n' sensible styles they're opting for.
Their shopping habits are distinct: Tweens will pick out trend-oriented elements of an outfit from a defined pool of stores, namely Aéropostale, Old Navy, Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, American Eagle, Limited Too, Forever 21, Gap, PacSun and Victoria's Secret (Pink brand). After locating that "must-have" gestalt garment, they then fill out their look with items "from the cheapest place possible."
Ten seems to be the magical age when children enter into sartorial consciousness, Gould says, the fig leaf moment when T-shirts stop being things people wear to keep from being naked and turn into part of an outfit. She also discovered that tweens' relationships with celebrity may be more complex than previously thought. "They're certainly inspired and influenced by celebrities, but they don't want to completely copy everything they're doing," Gould says. "They look to stars as guides and will adapt their looks, but only to where they are comfortable." Meaning that only the most daring kids are likely to step out in a multicolored paillette mini-dress à la Hannah Montana. Most would probably interpret the look, via a sequined scarf in the same shades, for example -- a much subtler homage to the star.
Most interestingly, Nickelodeon's team noticed that today's tweens are very conscious of not upsetting their parents with their wardrobe. And no, it's not just because Mom carries the credit card. Rather, it's because the cultural gap between kids and their parents is narrower than ever.
"Every piece of research we have done has shown that the generation gap is closing," Gould says. "Girls and boys truly look to their parents for second opinions, and they want to make sure they are doing what their parents feel is appropriate for them."
So kids don't think their folks are square anymore? Apparently not. "Kids tell us overwhelmingly that family is the most important thing around them -- it's no longer the 'us versus them' mind-set," Gould says.
Unsettling news indeed for anyone who came of age during the punk rock or hippie eras, when shocking your middle-of-the-road parents was the biggest fashion statement you could make. Now it seems like being good is gold again. Parents, enjoy it while you can.