Teen dress trend a way to fit in

October 16, 1991|By Pat Morgan | Pat Morgan,Knight-Ridder Newspapers

The word in youth trends?

Overalls. Buckled only on one side, if at all. It is, as my 10-year-old stepson was happy to confirm, "the way everyone's wearing them."

The message is clear: Buckle both sides and you're a geek.

From a grown-up point of view, the look is pretty sloppy. But rebellion isn't about pleasing grown-ups. Never has been.

Oh, you don't think this is rebellion? Right, and neither were the ratty, faded, dragging-the-ground bell-bottoms my friends and I wore in junior high school.

"Young people use clothing as a way to distinguish themselves from their parents and their parents' expectations," says Trish Cunningham, an associate professor at Bowling Green University's Center for Pop Culture.

"It's really a turning point, as children move into broader social spheres and their peers become more important," Cunningham says. "Their clothes become a symbol of this new identity and of their new values."

In order to flaunt new values, young people feel it's necessary to flout current ones. The message? "They want to make their own rules," says Cunningham.

Some of us declared our independence from parental rule by refusing to wear slips or girdles, some by wearing micro-minis, some by ripping our jeans. But the idea is the same: If mom and dad think it's inappropriate, it's way cool.

Young trendoids I speak with and I speak with many in this job never fail to tell me how they want to be "different."

The irony is that often they don't seem different at all. At least not from each other. "Within their peer group, kids usually dress the same," Cunningham says. "It distinguishes them not only from adults but from other groups of kids."

As outsiders and no matter how cool parents may be, they are outsiders adults rarely understand the importance of details, Cunningham says.

But to kids, the difference between acid-washed Guess jeans and acid-washed generic jeans (or between buckled and unbuckled overalls) is paramount. One item says you fit in, you're part of the group. The other says you only want to be.

Consider the recent Levi's 501 Report, which found that, while two-thirds of the college students surveyed say they wear what they like "even if no one else dresses that way," the same number say they are drawn to people whose dress resembles their own.

"It seems college students think they are pretty independent of peer pressure when it comes to their own personal style," says Jill Novak, Levi's marketing specialist. "But our results show they're still most comfortable with people who dress like they do."

In fact, when we object to our kids' haircuts or styles of dressing, we're not just saying, "Don't be like your friends." We're also saying, "Be like us."

If kids can't find true independence when the only thing at stake is who will be their friends, what chance do they have when the stakes are a job offer, a promotion, an election?

And in a world where discrimination is still a daily reality, that can't be good news.

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