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How short is too short? Teens walk fine line between mall fashions, school rules

Sunday, September 07, 2003

By Cristina Rouvalis and Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

In teen fashion, there's a fine line between stylish and suggestive, and Brittany, a statuesque 15-year-old hanging out at Ross Park Mall, thinks she is definitely on the tame side.

"My mother thinks this is leaning toward a slutty outfit, but I say you should walk around school and see what slutty looks like," Brittany says. "This is preppy."

Preppy? Not L.L. Bean, lime green turtleneck preppy but a tight, white cotton shirt that curls up at the bottom, exposing three inches of flesh above a blue denim hip-hugging miniskirt. "I don't mean for it to roll up so much," she says. "It came out of the wash like that."

The thick belt on the skirt accentuates its shortness -- maybe a foot in length. When she stands up, she tugs it down in front to cover a brief exposure of underwear.

"Slutty is your boobs hanging out of your shirt. Or too tight. If you buy a shirt that makes your stomach hang out, it's too tight. It also depends on your makeup. To look like a slut, you have to put on a gallon of makeup."

Teen fashion has always been about dressing in a way your parents hate. But some adults and marketers are struck by the latest wave of skin-baring fashions, a la pop stars Britney and Christina, being pitched to younger and younger girls -- in middle school and even elementary school.

Dressing your daughter for school has never been so fraught with so many judgment calls. CNN and Fox News commentator Betsy Hart calls the wardrobe battles between parents and daughters "the whore wars." And school districts are being forced to make awkward decisions about how deep a sweater's V-neck can be and how high a miniskirt can graze the thigh.

Cathy Fitzgerald is winning the skirmish in her Squirrel Hill home, exercising her motherly veto more and more often when she takes her six daughters, ages 6 to 17, shopping. But it's getting increasingly hard to find something "cool enough but not trampy" for even the 10- and 11-year-old daughters.

"Nobody with any common sense is designing anything for girls. They are trying to make these little girls mature beyond their years. They are losing a lot of innocence. Eighty percent of what is out there is inappropriate. And I'm not dressing my kids in turtlenecks and frocks like Amish children," says Fitzgerald, 42, who usually goes to off-price discounters such as Marshalls and T.J. Maxx.

She ignores her daughters' pleas that "everyone else is wearing" off-the-shoulder, see-through and cropped shirts and super low-cut pants.

Other mothers say they try not to make an issue out of the trendy clothes that are not just in the saucy mall teen shops, but also in mainstream department stores and discounters.

"If you say no, it becomes more attractive to them," says Holly Maurer-Klein, a Squirrel Hill mother who says her 12- and 17-year-old daughters dress relatively conservatively.

She didn't say anything when her 12-year-old wore green eye shadow to school recently. "She wore it one day and said, 'I don't know why I wore it.' She got it out of her system."

Still other mothers are baring as much midriff as their daughters, leading some to label them "hoochie mamas."

"We are moving to a reveal-all society," says Gayle Marco, associate professor of marketing at Robert Morris University and mother of a 10-year-old daughter. "Some of the mothers are dressing the same way. And not everyone looks good in this."

But fashion is cyclical, and Marco predicts the items hanging in teen boutiques will soon swing back to something more demure.

Others aren't so sure.

"Just remember there is no bottom in America," says Jack Trout, a marketing consultant based in Greenwich, Conn. "We are going to keep going down, driven by culture, music and movies."

The "American Pie" trilogy is played for raunchy laughs, but the new movie "Thirteen" is a provocative and cautionary portrait of teens co-written by one of its then-13-year-old stars, Nikki Reed. Low-rider jeans and body piercings are the standard uniform of the popular girls in the movie.

Whether or not flesh-baring fashion sticks around in real life, there are some practical concerns to putting risque fashions on prepubescent girls. How does she play at recess when she is hobbling around in platform shoes and a skimpy dress?

Middle schools and junior high schools have taken a pragmatic approach to policing fashions that were once the province of Vegas showgirls, not Pittsburgh schoolgirls.

"Appropriate" and "inappropriate" have become the watchwords that cut across all school boundaries. Administrators spell out the rules and pick their battles, and most give the student a chance to go home and change or cover up with a borrowed T-shirt or more modest insurance outfit the student conveniently tucked into a locker.

Consider, for instance, the written guidelines issued to students and parents by Brashear High School.

"Spandex low-cut revealing blouses, body suits, midriffs, muscle-men tops, tank tops, tube tops, fishnets, spaghetti straps, bathing suit tops, open-shouldered tops and see-through tops are a distraction and are not appropriate. ... Tight, revealing clothing is never appropriate for school and cannot be worn," and skirts and shorts must be no shorter than 2 inches above the knee.

North Hills Junior High School bans, among other items, low rider shorts/jeans/trousers, sports bras as outerwear, sunglasses, torn jeans and midriff-baring tops. Undergarments are to be kept under garments and boys' pants or shorts worn at the waist, not south of there.

"Fall fashions are creating a challenge," acknowledges Tina Vojtko, spokeswoman for the district, which has 1,218 seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders in its junior high building. "The jeans are getting tighter and lower on the hip, and the shirts are getting tighter and shorter around the midriff," she says.

Low-cut jeans aren't an immediate flag, but must be worn with a shirt long enough to conceal any flesh.

If a girl turns up in a midriff or spaghetti strap top, Vojtko said, Principal Joe Belotti "may send a note home with the child saying she was dressed inappropriately on Monday, I hope you will address this with her, sign it and return it."

Or, he will give an offender the choice of going to the nurse's office to change, perhaps putting on a gym class white T-shirt, or heading home to change clothes and return.

"The administration of the junior high, they have to walk a very fine line because they're not the fashion police but, at the same time, they need to make sure that the environment is appropriate for education. ...

"You can't address every single student that you see in the hallway. You have to pick and choose your battles. That's all you would do all day," Vojtko said.

And every year, it gets worse, she said, adding with a laugh, "My daughter's not even 3. ... My daughter's wearing overalls till she's 18."

The Chartiers Valley School District, which has 847 pupils in grades six through eight, adopted a dress and grooming code in October 1999.

"It seems to have really withstood the test of time. ... We have not had any dressing/grooming infractions for the [2003-04] school year to date," says Althea Azeff, director of communications. "Like any school district, there's always the possibility that one student or another will try to stretch the limits of our policy."

At Penn Hills Linton Middle School, Building Principal Sherry Conrad and her staff oversee 2,100 sixth-, seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders. That's a lot of belly buttons, bra straps and sagging pants to monitor. Newsletters sent home and first-day assemblies remind everyone what's suitable.

"Generally what we just do is we pull the person aside, we just tell them what they have on is inappropriate for that day. We usually will have them call home, so that the parent is aware, and then that's usually the end of it," Conrad says.

Girls wearing one-shoulder tops, for instance, are told to find a shirt or borrow one from the school for the day, some of them emblazoned with "Student Ambassador" or "Dressed for Success", and return it washed and folded.

"Usually what happens, though, especially with the young ladies, they'll say, 'Oh, I'll go to my locker and get my other shirt.' They usually come prepared."

Parents, of course, often say their offspring were dressed properly when they left the house.

"Our students have been very cooperative. I think probably this year, I've had four or five students I've asked to put a shirt on over what they had," says the Linton building principal.

Conrad says not many parents tell her the policy is too harsh. "Sometimes what is in style is not always appropriate for the schoolhouse," where common sense must trump fashion sense.

Consider a recent exchange at the Wet Seal store at South Hills Village. Hannah Gutowski, 14, picks out a pleated denim skirt hanging on the rack. It's an outfit for her freshman year at Baldwin High School.

"Where's the rest of it?" her mother, Linda, said after gasping at the skirt that is maybe a foot in length.

Linda, who says Hannah is a relatively conservative dresser by teen standards and doesn't buy shirts with plunging necks, buys the short skirt and a V-neck pink tee. The V, she says, isn't too deep.

But the teen shopping in itsy-bitsy gray shorts deemed too short for school by her mother has only cleared one parent with her denim skirt choice.

"We'll see what Dad says about it," Linda Gutowski says. "He's a protective father."

Cristina Rouvalis can be reached at or 412-263-1572. Barbara Vancheri can be reached at or 412-263-1632.

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