WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — Dream Ali-Cherry is a fashionista. Hanging out at Sunvalley mall in Concord, Calif., the 9-year-old is wearing dark skinny jeans and a pink Baby Phat tank top lined with big, diamondlike studs. Dangling from her tiny wrist is a Juicy Couture purse.
Lately, Dream has been eyeing the colorful panties at Victoria’s Secret. She also wants a pair of fishnet stockings. But her mom, LaPrielle Ali, refuses to buy her those things.
“That is not OK,” said LaPrielle Ali, of Benicia, Calif. “Ever since she was 5, I’ve tried to explain to her what is appropriate. She gives me a hard time, but at the end of the day, it’s my say.”
Naturally, parents don’t want their tweens dressing provocatively. Neither do schools. Most of the clothes on the racks don’t come close to meeting their dress codes. So, shopping for 8-to-13 year olds can be challenging. Developmentally, they are at a turning point: Looking to peers and celebrity tastemakers instead of parents for what to wear.
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Too old for the girls section and too young for their older sisters’ duds, preteens like Dream are responding in part to a $43 billion tween fashion industry that crafts children’s versions of most everything women wear, down to this fall’s leopard minis and skintight jeggings, or denim leggings.
A good example is “Material Girl,” a line of punky leather and lace that debuted last month at Macy’s. Madonna’s 13-year-old daughter, Lourdes Leon, designed the clothes. Yet even Madonna has said there are items in the line that Lourdes is not allowed to wear.
It is imperative to set dress codes as early as girls show interest, even in kindergarten, said Palo Alto, Calif., marriage and family therapist Carol Campbell. Parents should discuss place-appropriate and age-appropriate attire and impart values that counteract the media messages girls receive.
“Ideally, the conversation should start before you head to the mall,” Campbell said. “You want to explain that how you dress is a reflection of your values and what matters to you.”
For starters, determine what stores are off limits, Campbell says. Ask your daughter why she wants or needs a particular halter top or short shorts. You may learn it’s the color or fabric that she admires. Or, her response may indicate a serious issue, such as body image.
Sometimes, something as simple as fit can be an issue. Vivian Minaise of Pleasanton, Calif., says shopping for her 8-year-old, Kira, is difficult because she is a little chubby, and the clothes at stores such as Justice, which bills itself as the largest tween specialty retailer in the world, are too tight to begin with. Size is not the only issue.
“Most of the clothes I feel are not appropriate for her age,” Minaise said. “It’s just too much for an 8-year-old.” Justice has plenty of non-racy options, but a recent trip revealed some eye-openers: Sequined accessories, frayed, denim micro minis available in a child’s size six “slim,” and jeggings in “extreme skinny” cuts.
Why would an 8-year-old with short legs and no hips need extreme skinnies? Because she probably saw Heidi Klum on “Project Runway” wearing them, says Sally Miller, a New Jersey-based tween fashion designer who counts Malia Obama among her clients.
When designing, Miller thinks about contemporary trends, such as lace, a fall runway favorite. Then, she reinterprets them in a way that’s hip and appropriate for her market. She often invites the mothers of her models into the studio to get their take as well.
“Most of the time, those moms are in the room with us, and I’m asking them, ‘Would you let her leave the house in this?’ ” said Miller, whose fall collection includes cropped cardigans and empire-waisted dresses. “I think it’s important to let a girl choose her aesthetic and explore who she is.”
Campbell concurs. Parents can even encourage tweens to express themselves as it relates to the world of grown-up attire.
“They can play dress up,” she said. “Let them do the makeup and jewelry and high heels at home. It gives them a wonderful chance to try on roles in their imaginations.”
Dream Ali-Cherry has broken the school dress code twice. Once, she wore a tank top with thin straps. The other time, Dream stuffed a short, tight skirt she’d outgrown into her backpack, and changed into it at the bathroom at her school. To avoid a third strike, mom now performs random backpack checks.
“If it happens again, the clothes are gone,” LaPrielle Ali said. “I don’t want to be like my mom, where there was no compromise. But I will take the clothes away.”