That Rings A Bell Fashion: This year, back-to-school means back to the '70s.

August 15, 1996|By Vida Roberts | Vida Roberts,SUN FASHION EDITOR

For most parents, the prospect of the annual back-to-school shopping trip with the kids is about as welcome as tax time. It has to be done, but you don't have to like it. Elementary school-age children are the short form, but they're not necessarily all that easy. Aside from the investment of money and time they put into clothes buying, parents still have that nagging insecurity that they've made mistakes.

Let's dispose of the guilt factor at least. It is impossible to scar children for life with occasional lapses in parental fashion judgment. Youngsters are resilient. Children who have parents geeky enough to buy them Sesame Street wear while the kids' peers have moved on to Rugrats can explain that away by saying "Mom bought it" and get on with their lives.

This season, in fact, geeky parent modes and kiddie chic have converged. Call it the Retro-R-Us school of fashion. "Partridge Family" and "Brady Bunch" style has been resurrected at retail, and '70s influences are strong in children's lines. Remember flare-leg jeans? Hip-huggers? Poor-boy tops? "That Girl" jumpers with textured tights? Clunky clogs and Maryjanes?

Girls today think vintage is cool. Yes, Mom, even though you still think of yourself as a fairly fabulous babe, you've crossed over into the vintage years. There's a lesson here. If you and your third-grader are trying on the same styles, one of you may be heading for disaster.

Boy-style retro dips even further back into the past, and it is granddad influences from the '50s that abound. Boys are being presented with dweeby Kramer bowling shirts, flat-front chinos, lace-up oxfords, V-neck sweaters and gramps-shirt jackets.

"Kids become conscious of trends at a very early age," says Doreen Thompson, a spokeswoman for Marshall's. Sometimes the trends come with a specific label and price attached and that sets parents to budget-crunching. A survey by Opinion Research Corp. for Marshall's projects this year's back-to-school spending at $380 per household; $11 billion nationwide. That's a lot of family budgeting.

Experienced parents make do with redistributing clothes among the kids, swaps with neighbors and friends, thrift-shop fill-ins, and predictable gifts from the grandparents. Children, however, want to start the school year with a new clothes treat.

Laura Cervone, the fashion consultant for T. J. Maxx, says parents have to balance the labels children want with the reality. She suggests satisfying a child's label desires with small-ticket items such as socks and small accessories and sticking to budget basics in more expensive clothing items such as coats.

"Parents want practical, kids want cool," says Corbin Seitz, style consultant for Target Stores. The coolest thing now is polyester, because it's so new. In their lifetime, today's children have not experienced wrinkle-free, wash-and-wear, glow-in-the-dark fabrics because their parents were the generation that nearly succeeded in wiping synthetics off the face of the Earth. Kids tend to like poly, and this may be a break for parents because the material is nearly indestructible.

Mary Kwan, vice president of the children's division of Sears, sees the pattern of children's fashion as a miniaturized version of what's happening with kids' hipper and older cousins. Children are sure to get big fashion hints from this fall's new TV sitcom "Clueless," based on the 1995 movie that was the definitive style sensation for teens.

As much as we want children immunized against the dictates of trendiness, they do live in the information age and they are quick to pick up on changes.

Here's what's out there for them this season:

For the girls

Zippers. They come with ring pulls and they close jackets, trim jumpers, accent hip-hugger pockets and are used as closures on skinny, striped T-shirts.

Today's turtles. The stretch mock turtle neck replaces the T-shirt as a kiddie basic. Cute in black and paired with bright plaid.

The A-line. It's out there as jumpers and dresses and short skirts paired with little tops. After years of wearing rugged looks, girls seem to be interested in dressing up again.

Novelty fabrics. If it shines and stretches, it's hot. That means vinyl and patent touches and appliques and a rerun of bright treated nylon.

Denim. It's a perennial. Besides its use in jeans, denim is made up in bib overalls, skorts, scooter skirts, cropped jackets and granny dresses. The denim color now is deep indigo or black.

Black. It has become a kid color and acts as a great foil for accents and prints in brights like kelly green, orange, pink and red.

Knits. They're loomed light in stretchy thermals, ribs, fleeces and double knits.

Gear. The '70s yellow smiley face trims clothes, carryalls and barrettes. With a new movie in the works, those 101 Dalmatians are coming on strong again. And Esmeralda and the Hunchback are remaining big. The traditional book bag is edging out the backpack.

For the boys

Zippers. On retro-striped pullovers and cold-weather gear.

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