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Jennifer Baumgartner
Jennifer Baumgartner Psy.D.

Back to School Branding

Fashion class is in session!

With the arrival of October, some of the sticky sweet sugar coat of the new school year has worn off. The getting-to-know-you stage has been replaced by cliques, couples, and mounting social pressure to fit in. One of the most powerful ways students establish their personal identity, group membership, and school status is through their clothing and accessories. Even the slightest style error could turn into a social suicide or a boost into the highest reaches of the social strata. Buying school clothing these days can be an extremely expensive and stressful experience for students and parents, but not to worry - Professor B is going to teach you how it is done. Ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, take you seats, because fashion class has begun!

Subject 1: Trends
If you want to be hip and cool in school you need to stay current with the latest trends. The best source for the trends are in magazines, malls, and online. With each stomp of a stiletto down the runway, designers illustrate what we should buy, wear, and covet for the next season. Well, guess where they get their ideas for the latest and the greatest? From you, the stylish teens and young adults wearing the leggings, boyfriend blazers, statement necklaces, and off-the-shoulder tops.

Back in the day, trends were dictated by the fashion houses. For example on Feb 12, 1947, Christian Dior introduced the New Look, so coined by Carmel Snow, the editor of Harper's Bazaar. The New Look, which included soft shoulders, small waists, and full skirts, was a defiant response to the conservative use of fabrics during WWII and the masculinization of women's clothing as they assumed male roles. Women everywhere jettisoned the old and replaced it with the New!

Fashion no longer trickles down from the top fashion houses to the streets. The best fashion inspiration comes from the streets and flows upstream to the design houses. So in essence, you, the student following the teachers of fashion, are the ones providing the instruction. Forget the trends you are told to buy, you are the ones that have access to the newest, latest, and greatest trends, because you are the ones creating them. Trust in your instinct for what is hip and cool. Don't follow those designers that are making a hefty profit from your creative genius. Stay true to what you like and be prepared to see it featured on the glossy pages of your favorite magazine!

Keeping up with the trends can be an impossibility with limited time and a limited budget. Remember that you are ultimately the purveyor of trends, and your style and that of your peers will eventually be copied. Wearing too many trends at once will make you look desperate to appear fashionable, and that is never stylish. When you get older you also want to look at your old pictures and not feel that you were so "80s" or "90s" or "2000". If you keep up with the trends tirelessly you have established an expectation among your peers that you will always be trendy, and that can be exhausting to maintain! Finally, the "you" underneath all of these hip clothes and accessories still needs to shine through. You must incorporate yourself into the fashion equation.

If you must incorporate the trends from the stores and magazines, do so sparingly. Figure out what makes you uniquely you on the inside. Maybe it is your bubbly personality or quiet contemplative manner and find the clothes you love to match those internal qualities. These clothes should be the staples that you can wear anytime and throughout your adolescence and young adulthood. Then add touches of trends, such as a gauzy scarf or neon colored bag. Many of these trendy items are inexpensive and easy to find at stores like Forever 21 or H&M, so you can change them each season.

Parents, you can encourage your children not to get stuck on the never ending chase for the newest items. Perfection is impossible! Trends can never be fully achieved because once they are in the stores the trend is already passé. Stress the importance of their identity and independence in choosing what they love versus what they are told to love. Teach them to tweak what they already own to create trends, such as rolling their baggy jeans, creating off the shoulder looks with old t-shirts, and grommeting old bags and belts. Limit their shopping budget, so they learn to work with that they have and buy lower end trends.

Subject 2: Celeb Worship
Who has not been guilty of this one? At the risk of aging myself, I too wanted desperately to buy a single sparkling white glove to wear on my hand to feel closer to Michael Jackson. Did my family think I had lost my mind? Yes. Did I care? No. Do I look back and wonder what I was thinking and what the deal was with the whole one glove thing? Sadly, yes!

Most of the celebs that you seek to emulate are older that you. Copying their style may be totally inappropriate for your age group. If you are young, you don't need to dress like an adult. You will have plenty of time for that! Additionally, many of these stars have teams of people that help them achieve these looks that you crave. They also have large budgets, receive free clothing from fashion houses, and have access to one-of-a-kind items. If you still need some convincing look at your favorite celebutantes before they had stylists and studio backing.

Much like the trends, wearing celeb fashion should be copied with a light hand. Don't imitate a highly stylized and perfected product (the celebrity). You will not be more like Miley Cyrus or Angelina Jolie if you dress like them. You will just be a poor imitation. There is no better person to dress like than you. Take the style and fashion ideas you love about Britney Spears or the Jonas Brothers and put your signature on it. Use their looks as an inspiration to create looks that are appropriate for your age, body type, coloring, and lifestyle.

Parents, accessibility to celebs has become increasingly easy with technological advances. Your child can become friends with anyone via facebook, receive updates on Twitter, and download hours of footage on youtube. The opportunities to "connect" with a favorite singer or actor are endless. Most everyone has had a childhood or teen obsession. For some it was Elvis, David Cassidy, Madonna, or New Kids on the Block. This is a normal part of growing up. It is up to the parent to draw the line of the healthy versus unhealthy obsession. Make sure your child is not completely morphing into a favorite celeb. Your child should maintain his or her identity and merely take inspiration from his or her idol. Special precaution should be taken for those who follow reality TV celebs. Because these shows are dubbed "reality," some people actually believe that they can obtain similar fame and fortune. As you know, there is nothing real about reality TV! Your child may have difficulty understanding this, so clarify if necessary.

Subject 3: Peer Pressure
On the first day at my new school, wearing a turtleneck tucked into my mid calf length skirt, covering socks that were pulled up to my knees, I was surrounded by perky girls in untucked golf shirts with collars popped, braces, ribbons in their hair, folded socks, and short kilts. Unfortunately, my parents did not get the memo! My braceless Pan American smile revealed my snaggled teeth and concealed my deep seated elementary school fear of being damned to the life of a social pariah.

Whether you are attending your first day of school or walking into a party, initial meetings are always difficult. First impressions are unfortunately long lasting. In order to avoid what I call first impression stressin' do your research before you go. Is the event during the day or evening? Is it outside or inside? Will it be hot or cold? Will you be sitting or moving around? What is the age range of people there? What is the general style of the people going? Once you gather the information, you can feel relatively comfortable that you won't stick out like a sore thumb but still maintain your individual sense of style.

Such was the case when I was invited to a Big Ten tailgate, something I had never experienced before. My research data was as follows: the event was during the day, it was going to be overcast, chilly and drizzling, I would be sitting and moving around, ages varied but would include mainly college students and young alums, and most people would dress very casually in the school colors. I decided against sweats and opted for skinny jeans, boots to navigate the mud and rain, and a trendy blue and white plaid fitted shirt. In a sea of sweats and sneakers, I maintained my identity without feeling like an outcast.

Once you get through the first day of school, you still must face the fragmentation of your class. Individuals in cliques use clothing and accessories as a membership card to their private club. This membership card can be anything from the Tiffany Tag bracelet to bright purple leggings from American Apparel and are used to clearly define the group and identify its members.

Beware of this tendency. If you are going to sport the membership card, make sure that you really want to be part of this group. When you wear the item, you are saying to the group and the outside world that you agree with the values, beliefs, and actions of that group, so they must be in line with your own!

In addition to the membership card item, those in groups look for intra- and intergroup similarities in overall style to determine the level of interaction and belonging. Here is a reductive example: I play soccer. I love Juicy Couture. I wear Juicy Couture when playing soccer. I play against a team from another school. Jane, from the other school, plays soccer in Juicy Couture. I like Jane.
It is a wonderful and comforting feeling to look and dress like your friends but the adventure often lies in change. Don't be afraid to meet people who don't dress or look like you do. Asking them about their style choices can be a wonderful way to start a conversation, learn something new, and establish a friendship. Don't be afraid to explore your own style options. If your friends are truly your friends, you can stray from the status quo and wear the preppy clothes when everyone else is wearing urban chic. Experimenting with fashion is fun and also promotes internal growth. It can challenge your understanding of who you are, how you perceive yourself, and how others perceive you. See your closet as a costume shop. Who do you want to be today?

Parents, encourage your children to think out of their social group box. If they are too afraid to experiment during the week with their peers, let them try something new during a family event. Emphasize the importance of maintaining individuality within what is most likely a homogeneous group. You can model the excitement of trying new things through your own wardrobe choices. Halloween, after all, is only 30 days away!

Talk to Dr B! (click on join the discussion here link or email me directly Students, what do you do about your dressing dilemas? How do you maintain your identity with your clothing? Parents, what do you do to help your children with their wardrobes and their sense of self?

About the Author
Jennifer Baumgartner

Jennifer Baumgartner, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist who examines the underlying reasons for clients' style choices and creates a wardrobe to facilitate positive internal change.

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