This year, the extremes don't make the grade

August 18, 1994|By Suzin Boddiford | Suzin Boddiford,Special to The Sun

When the school bell sounds again in a few weeks, moms can breathe a sigh of relief -- at least for this semester. Faddy kid clothes have gone the way of New Kids on the Block and the baggy, unkempt grunge movement has cleaned up its act. The latest back-to-school looks that parents and kids are agreeing on have a traditional neo-preppy style or rugged utilitarian edge that will be seen in the hippest home rooms from preschool through senior high.

"The only difference today between younger and older kids when it comes to fashion is size," says David Wolfe, creative director for the New York-based Donneger Group, a fashion retail buying and advisory company. "We have an educated kid consumer out there who is demanding more say about what to wear by picking up all sorts of fashion messages from peers. It's a sign of the times."

Case in point: This fall, instead of striving to look older, pre-teen and teen-age girls will be dressing like little schoolgirls in plaid mini-kilts, "shrunken" sweaters, cropped vests, white uniform shirts, knee socks and Maryjane shoes. And because baby sister wants to emulate her big sis, she'll end up dressing like the little school girl that she is. Go figure.

Other styles to get girls psyched for the classroom are short, flippy A-line skirts, slip dresses over T-shirts, oversized sweaters with patterned leggings, denim shortalls and bib-front dresses. Older girls have more sophisticated alternatives such as opaque thigh-high stockings, pinstripes, shiny fabrics like vinyl and metallic silver, mohair sweaters and pea coats.

For the coolest unstudied style, "wear everything untucked," advises Rene Bernstein, owner of Body and Sole Kids in Pikesville. "Girls should let their shirt tails hang out over something slim on the bottom like leggings, and then layer a cropped vest, sweater or jacket over it."

Boys are also twisting classics. The Children's Place has the latest "Zap" pants combining the traditional styling of chinos with comfortable elastic at the waist and ankles like sweats. Gap Kids updates its jeans with fun suspenders, novelty print shirts and varsity jackets. And Talbot's Kids basic silhouettes arrive in brilliant colors.

While urban Cross Colours have lost their cool, anything with the preppy Tommy Hilfiger logo on it is currently considered cutting-edge among teen boys. Snoop Doggy Dogg, the popular rapper who sported a "Tommy shirt" in one of his music videos, catapulted the preppy label into hip-hop fame.

Although the grunge look has for the most part perished, its fashion mainstay, the plaid flannel shirt, remains a favorite, according to Gilbert Cohen of Cohen's Men and Boy's Clothiers in Cockeysville. "It looks best when layered underneath the latest polar fleece hooded pullovers or worn open and untucked over a T-shirt," he says.

These cozy flannel shirts are part of the back-to-nature/great outdoors look which also shares a unisex appeal. For chilly days, look for oversized barn jackets with corduroy collars and plaid linings, denim shirts and bib overalls, corduroy or quilted fishing vests, cargo-packet pants and thermal waffle-weave separates.

To ground this rugged trend are worker and hiking boots even for the pre-schooler's first steps into the classroom. For "the real deal," teens are heading straight for the Georgia Boot Company, the American version of British working class Doc Martens. "Their logger boots and pole climbers now rival Docs -- which in turn have also gone much more outdoorsy," observes Gilder Meakin, Nordstrom's junior department shoe buyer. But authenticity does have its price (approximately $120) although, says Meakin, "Georgia Boots and the like are leading the way for a flock of copy cats that for the same look can be easier on parents' wallets."

With all the multiple choices in kid clothing, which for parents can be not only overwhelming but downright expensive, there is something to say for the school uniform. Elementary schools in Baltimore city, and only a few in surrounding counties, have a standard uniform policy depending on what stage of participation they have implemented. "Parents not only save money in the long run, the children who don't have to make the effort to pick out a different outfit every morning have more time to spend focusing on their studies and not on whether they measure up to their peers in appearance," explains Ray Bennett, former feature reporter for WBAL-TV and now the country's only public school uniform consultant. He pioneered the concept in Baltimore eight years ago.

"Most importantly, children who wear a school uniform or version thereof to school exhibit a higher level of self-esteem, and a stronger willingness to learn. Plus, it makes getting dressed in the morning so much easier," says principal Claudia Brown of Brehms Lane Elementary in East Baltimore, who herself wears a navy and white uniform to school.

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