Summer quarrels over tank tops, skimpy shorts and slip dresses are still fresh in Sue Barnes Hannahs' mind as she contemplates back-to-school shopping with her teen-age daughter, Leslie.
"That's the next big chore," the Annapolis mother of three says. "We'll have some frustrating moments. ... What's in style isn't always what's most modest."
These days, what's fashionable for the young closely resembles what adults wear, fueling an adolescent's desire to seem grown-up while creating headaches for parents. The provocative, sophisticated styles have left mothers and fathers grappling with questions they never thought they'd have to ask: At what age should a girl be allowed to wear a skirt with a slit? How low should the waistline of a boy's pants be allowed to go? And is it ever appropriate for a girl to leave the house in a camisole top?
Parents are counting on dress codes or uniforms required at many public and private schools to make decisions easier this fall. But there's nothing like a restriction against something to foster a youngster's desire for it.
Peruse any teen magazine or juniors' clothing department and you're likely to see styles that don't pass the principal or parent test. Faux suede minis, tight leopard-print sweaters, low-slung iridescent pants and midriff tops. What's more, 10-year-old girls are now fitting into junior sizes, once reserved for teens.
"Jeans have gotten lower and tops have gotten higher," says Kathy Collins, director of consumer needs for Lee Apparel in Kansas City.
"It's been tough for a lot of moms," she says. "The kids don't like to look like babies and the moms don't want them to look like tramps."
While many girls prefer jeans, T-shirts and casually anonymous styles, others are opting for clothing seemingly inspired by Lolita. For these trendy youngsters and their parents, the middle ground can be hard to find, particularly since teens today are more opinionated about clothes - and have more money to spend on them.
In her own case, Hannahs partly blames herself. "Boomer parents have let kids be involved in decisions for things that our parents wouldn't have even asked us about," she says. "We've created this little monster."
A recent study by Lee Apparel found that only 50 percent of parents say they make decisions about their children's clothing, down from 60 percent five years ago.
Says Collins: "Parents are tired of arguing. They're willing to compromise more than they used to. It's easier than screaming and fighting in the dressing room."
While most of the attention is focused on girls, boys with their low-slung pants and wide cuffs also are making parents uneasy.
"The fit is the big area of friction today," says Gilbert Cohen, owner of Cohen's Clothiers in Cockeysville, which sells clothes for boys and men. "Usually the young man wants to buy something that's more cutting edge than the parents are willing to allow. He wants to wear pants so low that they drag on the ground. ... The oversized influence does not sit well with parents. Very few kids want to wear a garment that's as trim as Dad wears."
Parents blame the Spice Girls, the inventors of Lycra and MTV for such racy attire, but the influences are broader than that.
Cable television, the Internet, music videos, teen magazines and catalogs have helped make young people today more sophisticated than previous generations, savvier about style and more knowledgeable about who's wearing what.
"They know all about their favorite celebrities and they want to look just like them," says Dawn Yoselowitz, senior market editor for Seventeen magazine. "It's this whole, 'I want to look like [singer] Natalie Imbruglia or Drew Barrymore.' ... They see it on the Academy Awards and they want to wear it to their prom. Or they see it on the MTV awards and they want to wear it the first day back to school."
The tone of girls' magazines today reflects the new attitude. "Teen magazine itself used to be naive and wholesome," says Irma Zandl, president of the Zandl Group, a youth marketing firm in New York. "Now it has more of a bite to it. Seventeen's fashion spreads are more contemporary and edgy than they've been in the past. They're trying to be more consistent with the times."
In a two-page advertisement in this month's Seventeen, Zana-di - a sportswear line for girls, juniors and plus sizes - sums up its back-to-school trends in pictures and words. They include a "Gothic Punk" model wearing stretch bondage pants, an "80s Glam" girl in a satin tube top and a midriff-baring "Femme Fatale."
Charles Jebara, assistant vice president for the company, says the ad plays off a teen's desire to look like a movie star. "In our advertising, we opt to be tasteful," he says. "You can still be sophisticated and edgy and hip without being provocative. ... But it's also a very personal thing."