What’s hip?

School’s back, and the high-school fashion parade is marching through a mall near you

Illustration By Steve Ferchaud

“And there’s a million of us just like me … who dress like me; walk, talk and act like me…”

—Eminem, from
The Real Slim Shady

It’s been the same old song for every kid every year since we first stopped dragging our knuckles when we walked: Where do I fit in?

It’s a big issue and one that is in no way confined to the fertile ground of youth. Establishing an identity is lifelong brain stress, and what we choose to wear can offer plenty of clues to how we define ourselves. But, at no other time does the picture on the outside so closely match the intentions on the inside than in the early years of high school. The clothing one fits oneself into during those formative years nervously outlines what identity is being tried on.

My mom was always really cool about school clothes. I could explore just about any style I wanted, and since I came of high-school age in the mid-'80s, my choices were as varied as they were unfortunate. The paragon of my insane fashion sense was the pair of Levi’s from which I removed the seams, then perforated up and down the legs with a hole-punch and finally, in homage to one of my earliest childhood heroes, Mr. Eddie Van Halen, re-sewed with multi-colored shoelaces.


And it wasn’t just a passing whim—I wore those pants for two years, only retiring them when my frequent repair jobs could no longer keep them from falling off my body.

It was around that memorable garment that my thoughts revolved as I took my niece and nephew to the Chico Mall recently. I wanted to find out what the kids are wearing to high school this year as well as get a tour of the fashions these two specifically had on their agendas as they prepared for their first year of high school. What I got was a reminder that fitting in doesn’t necessarily mean following “the crowd,” and that the crowd’s choices are fairly limited.

Illustration By Steve Ferchaud

My niece is a pretty typical 14-year-old girl. She has a very clean look—this day she was wearing a small white top with jeans shorts, a black belt and a cute little black backpack/purse—and like most girls her age she tries to get away with looking as grown-up as her parents will allow, wearing clothes that get tighter and more revealing the older she gets. She takes her fashion very seriously, though, and she sees her clothes as a direct link to who she is.

“It’s a lifestyle,” she freely admitted, cementing the idea that the look her friends and her share ("Everyone thinks we’re ‘prep'") has a meaning specific to the particular style. “My friends are kind of known [read: popular]. We always do what’s right. We always get good grades—people have expectations.”

While directly opposite in look, my nephew Drew is just as focused on fashion as his stepsister. “The punk thing, I guess,” was how he saw it, further explaining, “I like more hard-core punk.” There was no mistaking that punk was his look as he scuffed his giant black leather Doc Marten boots across the mall’s shiny floors.

“It more than just a style … it’s a way of thinking,” Drew said, and it was obvious that he’d found a place he felt comfortable, even if the style he’d chosen seemed to fly in the face of fitting in.

As our observant associate editor, Devanie Angel (who was along for the shopping fun), noticed, Drew’s comfort level went down several notches as we waited for Jessie to try on an outfit at the shiny Citiwear shop. He and his girlfriend Haley, who shares his enthusiasm for punk fashion, soon gave in to goofing around to break the tension.

Jessie was in her element, though, and she quickly found and modeled an outfit that she liked. Very snug low-riding white pants and a tiny silky blouse that looked clean and pretty.

Next up was punk-rock-fashion emporium Hot Topic, and even though Drew was eager to check it out, it wasn’t without a pang of caution.

“Hot Topic’s kind of a poseur store,” he admitted. “I like thrift stores more.”

In fact, Drew doesn’t usually spend his clothing budget—a big chunk of the roughly $500 apiece his parents are allotting to each kid for their entire back-to-school budget, which includes supplies in addition to the clothes—at the mall, preferring to go cheap by mining the thrift stores, buying his Dickies at Wal-Mart and doing his punk-rock shopping online at www.angryyoungandpoor.com instead.

FASHION POSSE <br>Left to right, Haley, Drew and Jessie dressed and ready for high school.

Photo By Tom Angel

Jessie’s spending habits aren’t exactly exorbitant. As I listened to her talk about looking for sale items, I saw that she’s not at all concerned with seeking out the high-ticket items and is just looking for stuff that will make her look nice. She said she’d buy clothes anywhere as long they were cute—even Hot Topic isn’t off limits: “I’d get, like, belts here.”

After visiting a few more stores I had a pretty good idea of what was important to each kid, but not much of a sense of what was “in” this year. With all the pressures inherent in getting ready to find a niche in the social hierarchy of high school, neither of these kids is really worried about what everyone else is going to be wearing.

I went back to the mall a couple of days later to find out what I’d missed. I approached employees at several of the clothing stores that target young folks. I went to Zumies, Wet Seal, American Eagle Outfitters, The Gap, Hot Topic, Footlocker, Citiwear and Buckle and conducted a little survey to find out what they thought were the overall trends for the upcoming school year for high-school boys and girls.

I was a little surprised by what I found. Despite the seemingly disparate styles of the various shops, there was almost a consensus of opinion on what the “typical” high-school student was wearing this year.

“Retro” and “vintage” are the key terms, with both guys and girls wearing low-riding, pre-faded (with the sub-genres of “dirty denim,” where the jeans come already dirty, and “whisker wash,” which is the term that describes the white wrinkles that fade into jeans that are too tight across the front") jeans and corduroy pants, vintage faded T-shirts and flip-flops.

Add to the guy’s list the requisite baseball cap, an occasional two-pocket button-up Western shirt, and a choice between any kind of leather shoes and Converse low-top Chuck Taylors, and you’ve got the picture.

Add to the girl’s list anything corduroy (hats, skirts, shirts), long scarves and Etnies or the same Converse shoes, and you’ve got that picture. Aside from a splash of “urban wear” in the form of Ecko or Shady Wear (Eminem’s clothing line) sweatshirts, some expensive Nike Jordan Team Elite shoes or an oversized Atlanta Falcons jersey with “Vick” on the back, that’s it.

When I wondered aloud at the possibility of all of the stores pretty much hawking the same style, Buckle employee Brett Hardin spelled it out .

“All the stores get sent the same stuff. Whatever is sent to the stores is what’s going to be in.”

It’s interesting and refreshing to see that two young and impressionable teenagers were so painlessly able to cast off the pressures of target marketing and see that there are many choices available to them and that they had the power to make their own choices.

Now I’m on the lookout, watching for all the Madonna and Ashton Kutcher clones in their fitted, Western-ish, vintage uniforms, proud in the knowledge that my young relatives are going to be pretty cool individuals this year.