Emily Yoffe was online on Aug. 30 to chat with readers about this article. Read the transcript.
My 11-year-old daughter and I just did her back-to-school shopping. Shopping for a 'tween is a little like being a presidential candidate—you try to find some middle ground in a world of clamorous extremes. I want her clothes to reflect the fact that she's still a girl, but I'm willing to let her hint at the young woman she is about to become. What I don't want her to bring home from the mall are clothes—and there are plenty of them—that inspire this sort of paroxysm: "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins."
Fortunately, my daughter shares my goals: She wants to look stylish while still sweet, trendy but not trampy. The designers at Limited Too, a shrine to 'tween fashion, and I differ on how to achieve this. The chain, which has about 570 stores in the United States, sells clothes to girls ages 7 to 12. According to a Limited Too spokesman, Robert Atkinson, the company was instrumental in creating the 'tween fashion category 20 years ago. This year, 'tweens of both sexes are expected to account for $13 billion of apparel sales.
Limited Too was awash in shimmer; virtually every item was encrusted with rhinestones or sparkling with glitter. Most of these clothes provided sufficient coverage, but my daughter doesn't like ostentation, so we looked through the T-shirts for something more subdued. There we discovered what I have come to think of as Nitwit Wear. These are T-shirts with slogans such as: "I Left My Brain in My Locker," "I Only Shop on Days that End in Y," and "Spoiled and Proud of It." (At least you only want to shake your head at these. Making you believe in corporal punishment is the Happy Bunny line of clothing, available online and at various department stores, which features phrases such as "Wow you're ugly," and "It's cute how stupid you are.") It's a comfort to know that if your child can't come up with her own insolent remarks, clothing manufacturers are there to help.
Moving through the store, I wondered if insolence was preferable to suggestiveness. I reached my limit at what Limited Too sold to go under their clothing: a line of padded, underwire push-up bras for girls with nothing of their own to pad or push up. Maybe it's a sign of progress. Back when I was a girl, those unsatisfied with the speed of their development were forced to turn to balled-up Kleenex.
Adult fashion trends eventually work their way to the 'tween set. Low-rise jeans have been ubiquitous for so long that they seem to have settled in immovably like a warm air mass in August. My daughter hates them because when you sit down or bend over, they expose your underpants. Women have solved—or compounded—this problem by wearing skimpy, provocative underwear. A few years ago, Abercrombie, the 'tween division of Abercrombie & Fitch, got in trouble for marketing thong underpants—with phrases such as "eye candy" printed on them—to prepubescent girls. Now scanty panties for girls are standard. At Limited Too there were pairs with rhinestone hearts or printed with cheeky sayings such as "Buy It Now! Tell Dad Later!"
Down the corridor was Abercrombie itself, whose guiding fashion principle seemed to be to print or appliqué the word Abercrombie in the largest letters possible on as much of the clothing as possible. Some clothing didn't have enough fabric to support a logo. A pair of shorts was the equivalent of a jeans G-string. Its microskirts would have gotten my daughter sent home from school. We fled. On our way to our next destination, I tried to avert her eyes from the Victoria's Secret window, where their clothing was emblazoned with the words "University of Pink." (I don't want to know that school's most popular major.)
Hypersexualized clothing is not necessarily skimpy. Macy's sells the line by Kimora Lee Simmons, the ex of hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, called Baby Phat. "This is gross," my daughter said, holding up a T-shirt. There was nothing provocative about the cut of the shirt, but embroidered in pink across the chest were the words "Baby Phat" under the large, stylized logo of a cat. My daughter doesn't understand the references this logo is clearly meant to evoke, but she instinctively knew wearing this shirt would be so wrong.
Because department stores have to appeal to many types of consumer, over the years we've had great success with their in-house brands and nondesigner labels, which are usually reasonably priced and decent. At Macy's, my daughter was drawn to the tops in its Greendog line. Like the low-rise jean, the baby doll top has migrated to 'tweens. My daughter found one that was cute but not sexy, made out of blue sweatshirt material ($17) that she immediately layered with a pink, lace-trimmed tank top ($3.50—I'm not kidding). She also picked up two versions of a Greendog deeply scooped tee with a contrasting band of fabric at the neckline ($10 each).
At Lord & Taylor, she found a girlish yet sophisticated gray and black polka-dot empire-waist dress. It was $40 and perfect for a party or piano recital. The store also had that Brigadoon-like item: pants that were high-waisted enough to keep her underwear choices to herself ($30).
Department stores are where you can also find the junior versions of chichi adult labels at chichi prices. Nordstrom in particular was full of these offerings. There is no way I'm buying my daughter a $74 Lilly Pulitzer sweatshirt. Nor am I shelling out for Ralph Lauren—for her or myself. And I'm certainly not buying her anything by Juicy Couture. The single most repulsive item we saw on our expedition was something on the Juicy carousel that looked like a book. It was titled "A Week in the Life of a Juicy Drama Queen." Open it, and you find a set of days-of-the-week underpants for the prepubescent ($58). A close runner-up was the girls' gym bag ($175), which declared "Juicy and Happy." I don't understand what mother wants to advertise her child's sexuality by letting her proclaim she's juicy. If I have to choose between Baby Phat and Juicy Couture, I choose mandatory school uniforms.
Sensitized by such clothing, a mother has to be careful not to overreact. I appreciated the fact that at Old Navy there was nothing come-hither about its clothing—its baby doll tops were sloppy, not sexy. And the prices! T-shirts were two for $10. But when I tried to push some on my daughter, she shook her head. "How can they make a plain T-shirt look bad?" It was at Old Navy that we found the most hideous piece of clothing of our trip: a mud-colored top that recalled the smocks worn by lavatory attendants ($10).
And unless you can actually say to your daughter, "That would be perfect to wear at the club," Talbots Kids, a spinoff of the preppy, sensible women's line, might not be for you. With clothes for infants through 'tweens, it's the place to train your kids in the finer points of WASP style while they're still in training pants (although no miniature martini shakers are available in the accessories department). The store was bright, airy, and empty—the two saleswomen were thrilled to see us. I hoped to find some pants that didn't sit below my daughter's hip bone. Talbots had them, and I showed her a pair in navy blue. My daughter shook her head. "They're like nautical pants. They're so ugly." Then I held up a pair of beige polyester pants that looked reasonable to me.
"Mom, I'm 11!" she said. "I'm not Harriet Miers!"
She (child of Washington that she is) had given me a useful parameter of 'tween fashion. While you don't want your daughter to look like Britney Spears, she doesn't want to look like a failed Supreme Court nominee from the Bush administration. In between those two poles, if you have patience and good arch support, you can find enough nice stuff.