When 15-year-old Michael Thomas left home for school last May, he couldn't have been prouder. On his feet, thanks to his mother's hard work, were a pair of spanking new Air Jordans--$100 worth of leather, rubber and status that to today's youth are the Mercedes-Benzes of athletic footwear.
The next day it was James David Martin, 17, who was strolling down the street in Thomas' new sneakers, while Thomas lay dead in a field not far from his school. Martin was arrested for murder.
For the Baltimore school system, Thomas' death was the last straw. He was the third youngster to have been killed over his clothes in five years. Scores of others had been robbed of name-brand sneakers, designer jogging suits, leather jackets and jewelry.
This fall, the school board instituted an exclusionary dress code. Devised by parents, students and educators, it prohibits leather skirts and jackets, jogging suits, gold chains and other expensive items.
Clothes, said board president Joseph Smith, had just gotten out of hand.
Across the nation, parents, school officials, psychologists and even some children agree.
They say that today's youngsters, from New York's poverty-ridden South Bronx to Beverly Hills, have become clothes fixated. They worry over them, compete over them, neglect school for them and sometimes even rob and kill for them.
This obsession with clothing, say those who study it, is fueled by the visual media and advertising, is nurtured by overindulgent parents and is reinforced by youthful peer pressure and the child's overriding desire to fit in.
And, they note, the clothing industry is using advertising to court today's youngsters at a younger age and with much greater intensity.
"All of these people understand something that is very basic and logical, that if you own this child at an early age, you can own this child for years to come," said Mike Searles, president of Kids 'R' Us, a chain of specialty children's stores. "Companies are saying, 'Hey, I want to own the kid younger and younger and younger.' "
Thus, as early as age 4, many of today's children embark on a frenetic quest for the right clothes with the right style and the right name in order to maintain the right look.
For schoolchildren, clothes no longer represent just good grooming; they have become symbols of status, indicators of wealth and a passport into the mainstream of today's childhood.
"We've seen that to today's kids, the clothes and footwear are a sense of who they are," said Betty Richardson, vice president of marketing for Reebok. "They represent what they think to be special and what they think to be important to them."
And what is important, youngsters say, are name brands--Nike, Reebok, L.A. Gear, Guess, Bugle Boy, Jimmy Z, Cavarrichi, Edwins, Benetton, Esprit, Public Image, Gitano, Jordache, Ultra Pink and dozens more.
They wear the names like badges of honor. Show up for school without them, students say, and they may be ridiculed, scorned and sometimes even ostracized by their classmates.
"When people look at you and you're not wearing something that has a name brand, they'll comment on it," said Aime Lorenzo, an 11th grader at Beach High School in Miami.
"People will tease you and talk about you, say you got on no-name shoes or say you shop at K mart," said Darion Sawyer, 10, of Tench Tillman Elementary School in Baltimore. Children have developed derisive nicknames for non-name brands--"bo bos, no names and fish heads."
One group of Miami sixth-graders have even developed a sarcastic couplet: "Bo bos cost $1.99. Bo bos make your feet feel fine."
Youngsters, naturally, try to avoid such taunting. Jessica Hoffman, 11, spent three hours earlier this year trying to decide what to wear for her first day at Walter Reed Junior High School in Los Angeles.
"It sounds stupid," she said, "but what I was worried about was whether people would like what I was wearing."
Schoolmate Tim Baca picked out his first-day outfit three days before school started.
"I think there are very few people who dress for themselves," Shelly Ann Gouldborne, a Miami High School student, said of her contemporaries.
Educators complain that because of such attention to attire, schools from the elementary level to high school have become fashion shows as students try to either outdo each other or just keep up with rapidly changing trends.
"I've seen kids come in with wallets and purses that must be well over $100, and I can't figure out why a kid would spend that much money," said Alan Joseffberg, counselor at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. "And they all have to have a label on their jeans."
Robert Davis, a teacher at a middle school in one of Miami's poorer neighborhoods, said as a class exercise he and his class priced the clothes one student was wearing. It came to $180.
"And that was just for one day," he said.
In many cases, students are so concerned about what they and their classmates are wearing, they forget what they came to school for, educators said. Teasing and arguments over clothes, particularly at the elementary level, result in fights and disruptions. On the high school level, counselors report that more and more students are working, often so they can keep up their wardrobes.
"Everybody is spending huge amounts on clothes and the kids who can't afford it--instead of doing homework and studying--are taking jobs after school just to buy designer jeans," said Patrick Welsh, a high school English teacher in Washington, D.C. "It's crazy."
In response, scores of public schools, mainly in Eastern cities, have voluntarily adopted school uniforms to cut down on competition. Paradoxically, educators say, in the current fashion climate, dressing students alike allows them greater freedom to be individuals.
But elsewhere, parents complain that their children are pressing to keep up.
"My daughter wants the $60 pair of jeans, but we're a $30 household," said Pat Anderson, who lives in Geneva, Ill., just outside Chicago. "Maybe if we had a $300,000-a-year income, that would be fine. But we're on a limited budget and there's no way we can afford this stuff."
"Money is always a battle," said Char Christian, who lives in the Chicago suburb of Hinsdale. "I am torn trying to determine the difference between what she needs and what she wants."
"It's awful," said Lissa Thompson of Orange County, the mother of two daughters. "It bothers me that children who are so young--7 and 9--are aware of things that are so unimportant. Don't get me wrong, I like nice clothes too, but I think there's a time and a place to be a kid. This is no time for them to be preoccupied with what you put on every day."
Psychologists say that an interest in trends and fashion, particularly at the older ages, is just a part of growing up.
"Some of this whole clothes business has to do with a normal developmental process," said Maryland psychologist Andrea Vanderpool, "but I think it takes on a more dangerous kind of aura when you see the lengths that these kids have to go to to look like everybody else and how the kids who don't look like everybody else are treated."
For clothing models, children look increasingly to the visual media--television, video and even movies. And, advertising executives say, there is no group more susceptible to advertising than youngsters.
Nancy Shalek, president of Shalek Advertising Agency, which has handled accounts for a number of children's clothing lines, is also a mother who is concerned about the effect of advertising on today's youth.
"Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you're a loser," she said. "Kids are very sensitive to that. If you tell them to buy something, they are resistant. But if you tell them they'll be a dork if they don't, you've got their attention. You open up emotional vulnerabilities and it's very easy to do with kids because they're the most emotionally vulnerable."
Peer pressure can also be a powerful force.
One result is readily apparent in the shopping cycle. Stores say the two biggest shopping periods for school clothes are the week before school begins and the week after school begins.
"The kids go to school and they find out somebody is wearing Reebok instead of Nike or acid-washed jeans instead of tapered," Searles said. "So the desire to fit in drives to more purchases that are totally peer-related."
But, observers say, parents can also unwittingly add pressure.
Prof. Carol Seefeld of the University of Maryland's Institute for Child Study sees too many acquisitive, success-sodden adults chasing after too few superficial advantages for their children.
"It's the Reagan 'You are what you spend' mentality," she said. Seefeld said that parents too often have a need to turn their kids into pint-size status symbols.
"I have parents who tell me they buy $50 Nikes for their kids because the kids really want them. I know developmentally that a 4-year-old doesn't know labels unless it is drummed into him. That's why you end up with pre-adolescents demanding $100 outfits."
She adds that adolescent pressure and advertising aimed at kids can hardly be blamed for the huge amount of money being spent on status items for newborns--$300 strollers, $40 name-brand sneakers, $10 designer booties, $80 coveralls.
Child, a magazine devoted to the nation's newest customers, said a couple can spend $60,000 in the first two years of a baby's life. In interviews for this story, some parents admitted spending as much as $4,000 a year to outfit older children.
"It's a very strong sign of the times when our generation is more materialistic, where greed and consumption are high on the list," said Lydia Caffery, an editor with the Tobe Report, a fashion industry trade publication. "The children learn it from their parents--who has the nicest car on the block, who's redecorating the living room."
A related problem, observers say, is that today's parents are no longer the countervailing voice against their children's desire for unchecked consumption. Consequently, the relationship between parent and child has changed.
"When I grew up, you wore what you were given," said Searles of Kids 'R' Us. "Now, the relationship we see is that parents have veto rights as opposed to selection rights. They can say no, but the child is the one who says yes."
"A lot of parents don't have the control because this society is so confusing that they try to appease their kids any way they can," psychologist Vanderpool said. "A lot of it comes from the fact that parents are more confused today in terms of what's right and what's wrong."
For many youngsters, designer labels are mainly a way of letting other students know that what they're wearing had high price tags.
Yes, students must have name-brand sneakers to be in step, agreed three pupils at Burrville Elementary in Washington, D.C., "and they have to cost more than $40," chimed in one. The others nodded in agreement.
In city after city, when students were asked whether they would wear expensive name-brand clothes without the designer label, they said no. The reason? "People wouldn't know what it costs."
"They see it as a way of stating their own personal conviction and commitments," Shalek said. " 'I'm making a commitment to $60 or $100 versus $19.99. This is who I am.'
"Or they see it as a sign of how much your parents care for you. Sometimes, it's 'I feel good about my ability to control my parents because I made them pay 70 bucks for this.' "
Teens shun discount stores. Linnea Chastain in Chicago refers to them as "loser stores." One Chicago mother said her daughter and son won't even sit in the car in a discount store parking lot. A mother in Detroit said her son actually hid in the restroom when he spotted a classmate as they were shopping in K mart.
Parents, educators and psychologists are disturbed that the emphasis on clothes reflects heightened class consciousness among youngsters. And they are saddened that children judge individual worth largely on something so superficial.
"On one hand, who am I to say that a parent who can afford to buy his 16-year-old a Corvette, shouldn't," said Burrville Elementary Principal Walter O. Henry. "But . . . where do we draw the line? When we start letting children dictate to us, then we've lost them. Simply because parents are able to buy whatever their children want, doesn't necessarily mean that it's the best thing for them."
Lorie Lawson, a Baltimore custodian, agrees. A single parent, Lawson shelled out $1,000 a year to keep her 10-year-old son in the latest clothes, and only stopped this year when her son's elementary school went to uniforms.
"I spoiled him rotten," she said. "I bought him Nike. I bought him Reebok. I bought him BMW sweat shirts. Every day, it was something he just had to have. And the more I got, the more he wanted.
"It ruined him. His grades went down. He couldn't concentrate in school for trying to pay attention to what everybody had on.
"It did something to him and it did something to me. I see what it means for a person to be addicted to cocaine."