hoosing back-to-school clothes is a student's rite of self-expression.
Whether we're talking about a goth girl, an AV nerd, band groupie, jock or cheerleader, the right pair of jeans or the perfect counterculture T-shirt can immediately invest a student with campus cred. Certainly, if they want to stand out from the crowd, there are a hundred ways for kids to dress to attract attention or break away from the pack. And if they're looking to fit in, there are key back-to-school pieces at their disposal.
Either way, the stores are brimming with choices. The psychology of what kids choose when they're buying their BTS threads says a lot about where they see themselves fitting in the student body.
"Teens are using their clothing as an instrument of self-expression, to show their independence, their originality and their acceptance among their peers,"said Ava Hill-Gaunt, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for Bob's Stores.
That's why something like a simple T-shirt, innocuous as it may look, takes on significance. Silk-screened with the logo of the band Staind or the face of Che Guevara? In like flint.
"We're judged so much on our outward appearances. That's all we care about. You have to have the right stuff -- otherwise you don't fit in; you're not cool," said Rebecca Weinberg, fashion spokeswoman for Amazon.com apparel and accessories store. "Back to school is always scary. Are you going to fit in? Will you like your new school? Are you wearing the right jeans?" Within this realm of uncertainty there's also some fierce independence going on. Kids want to be taken seriously by both their peers and their parents and are using their BTS clothing to assert themselves and craft identity.
"Kids see fashion magazines and say, 'Why can't I dress like that, too?'" said Debbie Weisberg, spokeswoman for T.J. Maxx stores.
"They're much more educated in fashion. They don't want things that are boring. They want things that are different, colorful and fun."
So what's new and fun this year? Lots. The trends for BTS dressing (from ages 12 to 18) are all about funky styles, comfortable active wear and athletic-inspired performance. Just like on the runways for adult fashion, the fall message for teens includes Mod inspiration and feminine diva for girls, pseudo-military and punk '80s for boys. Fleece, terry, corduroy and camouflage rule.
"Fashion for kids is so much more fun this year," Weisberg said. "A few years ago, the preppy look was in. This year it's completely opposite. It's funky, it's T-shirt, it's cargo, it's miniskirt. There's a lot to choose from. But it's just more fun and interesting this year."
So what are the looks? Here's the 411 on BTS for '03:
For her: The hot news is all about tops. T-shirts with embellishments, whether studs or cartoon characters. "There's no such thing as the white T-shirt anymore," Weisberg said.
Diva dressing is in. Cargo, denim or plaid minis will be in. These will be paired with an embellished T-shirt and zip-front jacket.
"Her look says, 'Look at me,'" Hill-Gaunt said.
Even the '60s Twiggy mini is making a comeback. "The Mod trend is definitely coming into the collection," said Karen Belva, spokeswoman for H&M. "There's a big emphasis, too, on tights, belts and handbags." Cargos continue to carry the day. The new cargo pants may have military leanings, but they are more feminine. Pull-string hems, plenty of buckles, zippers and pockets, and a slimmer silhouette give this season's cargos a softer edge. "It's not your hard-core military. It's not macho," Hill-Gaunt said. "It's not your masculine look."
Jeans may fade but our need for them doesn't. Jeans remain the most important of all BTS purchases. "They're the top item in sales," Weinberg said. "They're a comfort garment. They're a fashion garment. You can wear them for days in a row. And you can doctor them in lots of different ways." Low-rise styles for girls remain popular. But the leg shape has blossomed a bit with flares coming on strong.
For him: Active wear meets street wear is the biggest trend for boys, according to Marshalls. This would include logo-driven and athletic number T-shirts, jackets and warm-up pants boasting professional sports teams. What professional athletes wear to relax is the fashion statement for guys: fleece and velour pants and jacket sets abound.
Urban, hip-hop looks are also key. Think phat and you've got the right idea. "He's cool. He can bounce with the best of them" is Hill-Gaunt's description of the boy who wears this look. "He lives his style. His urban style is inspired by his favorite basketball superstar, his favorite rap artist." The clothing is comfortable, oversize and logo-driven.
Corduroy is king. Yes, denim will always be strong for boys, but cords are this season's new staple. Retailers are stocked with cord pants and jackets with clever zip and pocket details. Crinkled and rumpled, these cords still look good paired with chunky knits, hooded sweatshirts or jeans.
Boys' fashion also takes a cue from living in the extreme. Extreme sports (especially boarding and surfing) has a definite influence in the clothing for this season. The look is oversize cargos and screened tees in dark browns, olives, charcoal and khaki. "It's all about the adrenaline rush," Hill-Gaunt said. "He's an extreme risk-taker."
For boys and girls: Accessories are just as important as the actual clothing. Backpacks, scarves, knit or crocheted handbags, wedge or thick-soled shoes and knit caps are on all the lists. Cell-phone holders, sunglasses and water bottles are big, too.
But how are we affording all this? With a saggy economy, the emphasis this year will be on making good choices. If the family budget is tight, then you'll need to invest in a couple of versatile items.
"While trends and brand names are key factors for teens, parents often stick to a budget -- making the back-to-school shopping experience a struggle on both fronts," said Marshalls shopping expert Jennifer Debarge-Goonan.
Begin optional trim
One way to cut down on ancillary spending is to shop online. Online retailers often offer the same discounts that are taken in the stores. Whether it's shopping online at Amazon.com or Gap.com, the budget-conscious consumer will find bargains just like those in the mall (without the mall's other temptations).
End optional trim
"Today's kids," said Debarge-Goonan, "are extremely fashion-conscious with very strong opinions about their wardrobe."