RACY SCHOOL FASHIONS UNDER FIRE
Byline: Melanie Kletter / Peter Braunstein
NEW YORK — When hot pop singer Britney Spears whipped off her clothes to reveal a barely there, flesh-tone halter top and tight pants at the MTV Video Music Awards in early September, many parents were up in arms.
This squeaky-clean teen, who has used her position to extol the virtues of moral living, suddenly became a force with which to be reckoned. In one brief moment, she became a sex symbol more akin to stars such as Madonna and Jennifer Lopez than the youngsters on the “Mickey Mouse Club,” where she got her start.
The issue involves more than just another canned “scandalous” teenybopper appearance on MTV. Parents across the country realized immediately that Spears, being both a role model and fashion icon to many teenage — and younger — girls, might inspire her legions of followers to dress in a similarly pseudo-nudist fashion.
As it turns out, too-sexy clothing for teenage girls has become an issue at school and in the wider media — the subject was a recent Time magazine cover feature and the storyline of an episode in last season’s HBO series “Sex and the City.” The recurring question in all these forums is the same: When it comes to 14-year-old girls, how much is too much or, more appropriately, how little is too little? Should teens and the younger girls who worship them be allowed to wear skimpy clothing a la Christina Aguilera?
Fashions in recent years have gotten tighter and sexier both for teens and women. Recent trends, such as halter and open-back tops, belly-baring shirts and low-cut cleavage tops, are being marketed to teens, pre-teens and girls. So the idea of what is considered “appropriate” has become a contentious topic. Although teens have had a love affair with music and fashion since the days of a crooning Frank Sinatra and a hip-swinging Elvis, today’s youngest stars are wearing clothes that rival what’s shown in the raciest of men’s magazines.
“A lot of it is in the eye of the beholder,” said Irma Zandl, president of the New York-based trend and consulting firm The Zandl Group. “The standard of what is considered cute and sexy has been redefined by a new generation. Adults look at it as being sexy, while teens think they are being cute.”
Zandl said it has happened before, adding, “What happens is that all of a sudden 90 percent of people start wearing tube tops and at a certain point in time, that becomes OK.”
Fashions across the board have gotten racier, and many teens are taking cues from their older siblings and parents, who are heading off to work now in items such as skintight knit sweaters from Wayne Rogers and even snug tank tops from more mainstream stores such as Banana Republic.
Sex isn’t the only issue.
Not only have schools around the country banned clothing for being too sexy, but they’ve also clamped down on apparel deemed gang-related, racist, sexist or even “sociopathic,” such as the black outfits worn by the perpetrators of the Columbine High School killings. The list of what has been banned in some schools ranges from understandable to extreme, from two-piece prom dresses and hip-hop gear, to expensive sneakers and skimpy tops and underwear. Many schools have outlawed T-shirts featuring beer and tobacco prints, and what they see as controversial logos, such as “Porn Star.”
Among other recent incidents:
Administrators at Sam Barlow High School in Gresham, Okla., banned a 17-year-old gay student from wearing a button that read “Because I’m Gay, That’s Why,” as well as a T-shirt proclaiming “Sorry Girls, I’m Gay.” Angered by what he deemed suppression of free speech, the student showed up the next day in a black velvet dress, high-heeled pumps and red lipstick.
In an attempt to clamp down on controversial iconography, Lincoln Park High School in Detroit, banned a 17-year-old honor student from wearing a pentacle, or five-pointed star, associated by some with satanism. The school ban also applied to the Muslim crescent and star and Jewish Star of David. The student, a self-described witch and member of the Wicca religion, took her case to the Witches Anti-Discrimination League (WADL) and the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit against the school on her behalf. The school has since changed its policy on this issue.
To combat gang-related violence back in 1996, Calumet High School in Chicago banned black, white and red clothing, including a red and black version of Air Jordans. The colors, incidentally, are the same ones worn by the Chicago Bulls.
The Jordan School Board in Utah instituted a policy banning the word “Vegan” from clothing, and suspended one student who repeatedly defied the prohibition. The school district claimed there was a gang-related faction of potentially violent “straight-edge” vegans who needed to be suppressed. Vegan is a form of dietary regiment that generally excludes dairy and meat products.
Last year, Carver Middle School in Harris County, Ga. suspended several white students for wearing the Confederate flag symbol. In turn, some of the students’ parents insisted that black students should not be able to wear the Fubu brand of urban clothing, a brand that has been worn by many high-profile hip-hop stars. While the parents didn’t specify why they chose Fubu, they seized on the label, which stands for For Us, By Us.
The Harris County school superintendent responded by temporarily banning both Fubu and the Confederate flag from school premises.
Following the shootings in the spring of 1999 at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., some schools began to crack down on what they saw as “subversive” trends. The long trench coats worn by the two Columbine high-school shooters, both of whom were seniors, suddenly became a warning sign of kids who were at risk or potentially dangerous.
Even the Billabong brand — an outdoor label most associated with sports — has been banned because of the name’s similarity to the word “bong,” a term for a certain marijuana pipe. The principal of Winneconne High School in Winneconne, Wisc. banned clothing with the Billabong name because he felt that the word “bong” should not be advertised in school.
In response to the proliferation of controversial apparel, many schools have instituted dress codes and uniforms. For example, last fall in Kansas City, Kan., the Turner School District instituted for the first time a standardized attire policy for all students, which includes the banning of jeans.
Jim Hass, a spokesman for the district, told local papers that the district thought “there was a lack of distinction between play and outside work and school.”
The current spate of banned clothing is reminiscent of the Vietnam War protest days of the late Sixties and early Seventies, where peace signs and radical sayings adorned all sorts of attire and the American flag was sewn into unusual places, leading to suspensions and counter protests and adding to the political rancor of the day.
Of course, today it’s also been great publicity for the labels that make the list. Porn Star, a label owned by L&H Apparel in Santa Barbara, Calif., has been at the center of its own controversies since it first opened its doors five years ago, according to Sean Murphy, a founder of the firm.
However, driven by its logo, bawdy slogans and body-conscious silhouettes, the line found a following among flashy customers who wanted to get noticed. Porn Star courts controversy with its racy name, and because it is marketed as a teen brand.
“From the start we have had resistance, but its been a good way for people to identify us,” said Murphy.
As the line became more prominent in the marketplace, several conservative factions, primarily parental groups in the South, refused to let their daughters wear apparel that had the Porn Star logo on it. Many stores, including at least one large specialty chain, Hot Topic, withdrew the line from its shelves.
In 1997, the firm launched a new label called Starlette, which is oriented to younger customers and carries tamer slogans with slightly less attitude, such as “I Rule” and “Talk to the Hand.”
Last year, to make up sales from the chains that dropped Porn Star, L&H launched a third label called FOS, or Freedom of Speech. FOS offers many of the same looks as Porn Star, but the shirts do not contain the word “Porn.” Among its offerings are shirts with sayings such as “Hucci” and “Drama Queen” and ones with stick figures in sexual acts.
Now the label is sold in fashionable boutiques in the U.S. and in Europe, and has also found a home online. Sales this year are expected to reach about $10 million, according to executives.
“Kids should be able to wear whatever they want,” Murphy said. “As long as they are not hurting anyone or doing anything bad.”
The firm does have some limits. Murphy, who was featured in a recent episode about risky teen fashion on the “Jenny Jones” show, said he will not put the “f” word on shirts.
“We try not to be too hard core or freaky,” he said.
The firm also doesn’t do any advertising, but has been recognized by some bands, including Blink 182 and Foo Fighters, who regularly wear Porn Star apparel.
At the same time that schools are cracking down on teen fashions, formerly “subversive” apparel brands are starting to find appeal beyond the underground boutiques found in major cities.
Hot Topic, a fast-growing specialty teen chain, has pushed the limits of mainstream fashion and offers a wide range of labels that were once relegated to streetwear shops. The publicly held, music-oriented chain is located in malls, a typical teen hangout, and it has found wide appeal among young men and women. Its offerings range from gothic to punk, and includes labels such as Lip Service and Serious.
With its chrome fixtures and blaring music, Hot Topic resembles a nightclub more than the traditional teen stores such as Pacific Sunwear of California and American Eagle Outfitters, which carry sportier and preppier looks.
Other firms are trying to do the sexy looks of Britney Spears without going too far.
“We try to keep some sort of balance,” said Maria De’Angelo, designer at Star City, a junior company. “We want to get the sexy looks without getting skintight. A lot of girls can’t fit into those looks.”
She said her company offers plenty of Lycra spandex, which clings to the body, but draws the line at super-short or extra-clingy items.
“You can’t stop kids,” De’Angelo noted. “They are always going to wear sexy things.”
Atoosa Rubinstein, the editor in chief of CosmoGirl, said her magazine doesn’t just feature what teen icons like Spears wear, but tries to show fashions worn by “real teens.”
“We are very conscious of the way teens really want to dress,” she said. “Most of our readers don’t embrace what Britney and Christina wear. Our slogan is ‘If you can’t wear it to school, it’s not cool.”‘