Dressed for school in a V-neck T-shirt, bell bottoms and thick-soled Mary Janes, 15-year-old Leana Miller apologizes for having a bad clothes day. What she should be wearing with her bell bottoms, she says, are platform shoes.
And so it goes across Southern California, where adolescents--poised between grammar school innocence and high school insouciance--try to score as high in fashion as they do in reading, writing and arithmetic.
In a scene that looks like Norman Rockwell meets Hammer and Mary Quant, platforms, clogs, funky work boots and battered tennis shoes pound the junior high pavement. The nitty-gritty of grunge mixes with the more outrageous sag and bag of rap-inspired clothes. In the new melting pot, sexy status labels have lost out to a more down-to-earth mix that includes Stussy, Converse, Vans, Dockers, Levi's, Miller's Outpost and the Gap.
At Palms Middle School, Miller and Jesse Shatkin, are revered for their fashion savvy. Shatkin is a 14-year-old who likes to wear his father's old plaid shirts and a pair of brown suede K-Swiss shoes he bought recently, "because no one else has them." In typical teen style, he uses an allowance to help pay for some of his clothing. He also sells his used finery to other kids at school.
As students like Shatkin write each new chapter on junior high school cool, they are closely watched. By companies that cater to them--and their bill-paying parents. And by educators, determined to keep their charges safe through dress-code regulations.
At Palms, Principal Hugh Gottfried says the regulations "are kept to an absolute minimum. Kids should be able to express themselves as long as it doesn't go beyond reasonable boundaries."
The girl who colors her eyebrows with lipstick is considered within the limits. But all head gear is banned. And boys must keep their pants at waist level.
At Griffith Middle School in East Los Angeles, Assistant Principal Wallace Hugo says girls' summer clothing puts an added strain on the the operative phrase: "appropriate dress." A case in point is Barbie Anzaldo's very bare black top.
At Toll Middle School in Glendale, written rules ban bare tops as well as short-shorts, professional sports logos and any garments that promote drugs, alcohol, sex or violence.
Thanks to the year-old regulations, "the kids are neater," says Assistant Principal Sandra Banner. "And you don't see extreme differences between the well-to-do and the not-so-well-to-do. It comes a little closer to a uniform situation for the students, in which they can do some unique things within the dress code."
Of course, the rules can't protect every fashion victim. Asked to name some "in" items, one Toll student pointed to her clogs, saying: "Wooden soles that kill your toes."