visions of spring

Flowers, ruffles or bow ties -- colorful details make kids' Easter fashions fun. FOCUS ON FASHION


Bring on spring! It's the battle cry of parents everywhere, and not because of the weather or blooming daffodils. Sure, those are nice features of the season, but for parents used to seeing their children in T-shirts, jeans and a layer of grime, spring means something more. It signals the coming of Easter, and that means finally getting kids to trade in casual clothes for some dressy new duds.

"New clothes signify a new beginning," says Rosemary Schneider, who with her mother owns Pied Piper, a children's clothing store in Cross Keys. "It's one of the rites of spring. People want to get out there in their Easter finery and celebrate."

It's a long tradition: the new Easter bonnet (which is on its way out, by the way), the frilly dresses, the little suits. For families, Easter clothes show respect for the holiday, but they also honor the season by draping kids in its colors.

For kids' clothiers, it's big business.

"It's very important in children's retailing," says Tracy Mitchell, executive editor of Children's Business, a kids' clothing industry magazine, "especially now, because there seems to be a return to dressing up for special occasions, which we'd gotten away from in years past."

But for Easter, "they want that one really special outfit," says Shawny Burns, the fashion manager at Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase. "It's rare that you can really dress your kids up anyway, and sometimes it's a struggle; kids don't always want to do it. So when you do dress them up, you want to do it big."

And this season offers lots of ways to do it big. Fairy-princess-inspired dresses in pastels and flowery prints line shop racks, spilling gauzy layers of tiny flowers and bows into the aisles. Short pants in solid navy and beige checks hang in the boys' section, matched by tiny linen sport coats and bow ties in minty greens and cheery yellows.

Pastels are key, as in years past, drawn from the colors of spring. In boys' clothes, you see this more in the details: the shirts worn under blazers or the suspenders. But for girls, head-to-toe pink or soft blue with accents of green and periwinkle -- flower-garden shades -- are the norm, with brights, which usually rule in kids' clothes, taking a distant- second position.

One of the most prevalent trends in girls' Easter dressing, Mitchell says, "is sheers -- layers and layers of sheers. What's different about that this year is that there's something going on with the sheers: They have details printed on them or they're embroidered or appliqued."

At Pied Piper, ballerina-like dresses in Lilliputian sizes feature creamy sleeveless tops, empire waists and long, full skirts. Saks Fifth Avenue shows silk organdy pinafore dresses, trimmed with delicate braiding along the hem. Nordstrom offers misty-green miniature gowns embroidered with dainty roses.

"Moms look at these dresses, and they're so beautiful," Burns says, "and they know they only have a short period of time to dress their daughters like this. ... By the time they're 7 or 8, they're into Britney Spears."

This year, though, moms lucked out. Styles across the board in women's fashion -- girls, too -- are more feminine, featuring ruffle detailing, soft colors and flowing fabric. For older girls, who are more conscious of trends and tend to shop for themselves rather than letting their mothers do it, the looks are still fanciful, but the silhouette changes.

"The younger girls will have a fuller skirt," Mitchell says, "whereas the older girl might choose a skirt and top or a sheath-type dress with a sheer overlay."

Accessories include matching bags made of woven pink straw or butterfly-dotted silk, detailed hats, the traditional Mary Jane shoe and tights, usually white.

For boys, Easter clothes are just as big a deal as they are for girls, says Michael Neal, Nordstrom's East Coast buyer for boys, in part, he adds, because "Parents know it's the one time they're going to get them in a tie."

But boys, however, have fallen under the same fate as their fathers -- one governed by convention and tradition. Darker colors and conservative cuts are standard.

"Boys want to look more mature, like their older brother or Dad," says Neal. "It's still very much that traditional Easter outfit: a sport coat and pant, or even a vest, and a tie -- maybe a bow tie."

This crosses age boundaries in boys, too, though sailor suits and jackets paired with short pants are still popular for infants and toddlers.

If you're looking for something different, though, many designers (including Ralph Lauren) offer a more casual alternative to the coat and tie: sweater vests. BabyGap and GapKids deliver the preppy layers in bright orange and red gingham-checked oxford shirts topped by sweaters in bold solids.

But layers add up. At Gap, a baby blazer is $58. At Saks, you can spend as much as $400 on a girl's dress. Nordstrom averages in the $100 range. Prices at Pied Piper range from about $65 to $350.

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