Don't count on Kathleen Mortensen to get excited about back-to-school shopping for her 11-year-old daughter. She's dreading it.
"I see midriffs, shirts with necklines way too low, and all those leopard fabrics," bemoaned the 42-year-old mother from Boise, Idaho. "They look like they're for lounge singers. Whether you go to Kmart or an expensive department store, all I see are risque outfits."
Like Mortensen, a growing number of parents are becoming outraged by the proliferation of provocative clothes on the shelves, particularly in the preteen departments. And they say they won't buckle under to societal pressures to transform their daughters into clones of Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera.
"Retailers are forgetting that it is the parents that are paying for it," said Mortensen, who wants her daughter to look trendy - not trashy. If she finds nothing suitable on the racks, she says, she just won't spend her money.
With this fall's lineup, the fight in the store aisles between mother and daughter could get fiercer.
Miniature versions of the hot fall looks - low-rise jeans, tight miniskirts and stretch T-shirts with sexually loaded phrases like "Wild Thing" - are taking center stage in departments aimed at the 8-to-12 age group, known as "tweens."
"It will be the question of how far can the retailers and how far can the parents go," said Wendy Leibmann, a New York-based trend consultant. "Who will blink first?"
Carol Levey, 40, of Los Angeles, lamented that even her 5-year-old daughter has grown out of frilly dresses and patent leather shoes.
"She loves to wear short skirts and tops where the belly button shows," Levey said. "What happened to my little girl?"
In response to fashion's new direction, dozens of schools around the country, even elementary schools, have begun to enforce dress codes.
"The fall fashions do worry me," said G.J. Tarazi, principal of Glasgow Middle School in Fairfax, Va., citing the bombardment of TV ads from the likes of Levi and others trumpeting low-rise jeans. He said he'll be closely monitoring the situation this fall.
"Everyone is re-evaluating dress codes," said Steve Cantees, principal of DeSoto County High School in Arcadia, Fla., which last year established a committee of students and teachers to firm up a dress policy.
Midriffs and short shorts are banned.
"The problem is that the fashions are getting too provocative," he said. "My wife is even having problems shopping for our daughters in the third and fourth grade."
The young have always rebelled against more conservative dress codes in school, but in the past two years, school administrators say, the looks are becoming overtly sexual. What's more disturbing, parents say, is that fashion marketers are going too far in chasing after the increasingly sophisticated tween.
Since 1999, retailers, such as Bloomingdale's and Macy's, have overhauled their departments stocking up on clothing that are miniaure versions of adult looks. So far, the strategy has proven profitable.
In an effort to target the tween customer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. rolled out an exclusive line under Mary Kate and Ashley, named after TV's teen stars the Olsen twins. The line, which includes pleather pants and studded mid-calf boots, has done so well that the chain is doubling orders for fall, according to Wal-Mart spokeswoman Susanne Decker.
Meanwhile, a slew of apparel manufacturers that target teens, such as Steve Madden and Paris Blues, have expanded their offerings to the preteen consumer.
At least one new department store resource, Crank2, which markets the label She's Charmed & Dangerous under 22 different licenses, is taking a different direction. The line, which broke into 121 stores, including Macy's and Bloomingdale's, offers trendy but not too edgy clothing.
"We have tank tops, but no spaghetti straps," said Robert Reda, president. "We don't have bare midriffs. We are showing bell-bottoms, not low-rise pants."
Plenty of retail executives insist they are providing enough balance.
"We make sure all of our clothes are age appropriate," said Paula Damaso, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of tween retailer Limited Too. The chain uses 10 girls as fit models, and consults with them and their mothers on fit issues, she said.
As for the hipster pants, Damaso said, "They are an inch below the waist. They just have a nice shape. They are not meant to show any skin."
For Mortensen, she expects she and her daughter will have to make some compromises. Her daughter can wear short skirts, but only if they provide appropriate coverage.
"I am going to have to do some persuading," said her daughter Megan, who likes tight pants, mini skirts and tiny T-shirts.
By Anne D'Innocenzio
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