Fashion for Girls: Why is it so Difficult for Parents and Daughters to Agree on Clothes?
If you’re like most parents, you struggle to walk the balance between dressing your daughter to meet your expectations and giving her the freedom to choose her own style. No matter how much we want our daughter to heed our fashion advice, girls seem to understand the importance of clothing, even at a very young age. According to Amy Levin-Epstein in Parents Magazine,
“ By age three, most children can handle the basics of getting dressed, such as pulling on underwear, elastic-waist pants, and a sweatshirt.”
Three-year-old's also begin struggling for independence and fighting for their own clothing choices. Maybe that’s why so many daughters, even toddlers, sometimes fight with their parents for the right to wear the clothes they believe are most appropriate for their day.
As parents, adults have always tried to help their daughters choose clothes that are suitable for every situation. Most adults want to guide kids towards apparel that will help them fit into their surroundings in positive ways. But girls have their own opinions on what’s appropriate, and they want their parents to accept their clothing choices. Your toddler may want to wear dress shoes to the park when sneakers are more practical. Your tween may want to wear jeans and a t-shirt to a school dance, even when the dress code is semi-formal. No matter what the age, young girls are often determined to express themselves through their own clothing choices. And they ignore parents in the process.
When this happens to you, remember that you’re not alone. Your daughter, like almost every other young girl in America, is going through a normal phase. Don’t believe us? Look around and you’ll quickly see that other parents are coping with the same struggles. It’s not uncommon to see a toddler in a princess costume at the grocery store. It’s easy to find a well-dressed mom next to a middle-schooler dressed in baggy T's, torn shorts, and shower sandals. And we’ve all dressed up for a family celebration only to and that find some of our relatives have let their children attend the event in beat-up sneakers and sweats.
Should you force your children to wear the clothes you picked out for them? The answer is complicated. Allowing your child to make their own clothing decisions is a healthy, low-risk way to build confidence and independence. Sometimes they will discover that the choices they made were right for them and elicited the desired responses. But in other situations, their clothing choices will make them feel embarrassed, awkward, or inappropriate. However, even when they make mistakes in choosing clothes, they learn valuable lessons about clothing choices, fashion, and fitting in.
While it sounds easy enough to let your children choose their own clothes, many parents feel that when their child wears unusual fashion choices, it reflects poorly on the adult. So, how do you know when to dictate fashions, and when to let your child make their own (good or bad) apparel choices?
On Bustle, a popular fashion website, Taylor Atwood reports that at any age, fashion is a common way of expressing our inner strength and personal growth. Choosing edgy or even sexy apparel signals worldliness and sophistication to their peers. In pop culture, girls can find many examples of celebrities or characters who seem wholesome at first, but then reveal a grittier core, in the way they act and in the way they dress. Atwood writes,
“In the early '90s it was the Sarah Michelle Gellar's steely-but-flawed lead character in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, who sported voluminous leather biker jackets over her homecoming dresses and carried weapons as accessories. By 1998, Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw had joined the movement, pairing prim flared skirts with lengthy stretches of exposed torso and simple tees with skirts slit up to the waist.”
Similar examples are scattered throughout popular films and television, including programming created for very young viewers.
If your daughter wants to dress in ways that seem illogical or even unreasonable to you, don’t panic. No matter how much you restrict your daughter’s exposure to popular culture, your child is learning style from every girl and woman she encounters, from your sister’s crazy daughter to the tattooed sales assistant at the local convenience store.
Girls are surrounded by a world-wide culture that portrays women in many different ways. Some might seem acceptable to you, but others will undoubtedly alarm you. How do you know when to allow your daughter the freedom to choose, and when should you step in?
The Politics of Girls’ Fashion
Although every generation of parents experiences discomfort at changing fashion trends, your children really are growing up in a world that is quite different from the one in which you grew up. Even as gender roles are becoming less relevant in many societies, girls’ fashion is evolving in ways that is becoming more and more polarizing. In 2019, Hayley Krischer wrote in the New York Times;
“Articles and psychological reports called for the media to stop oversexualizing and hyperfeminizing young girls. It was time for girls to go back to being tomboys, many adults felt. But was ‘ tomboy’ even the right word anymore?”
While parents may feel uncomfortable with fashions that push their daughters into sexualized or adult roles before they are ready, the new generation of gender-neutral or overtly masculine styles doesn’t always feel right either. While children often seem comfortable with a wide range of fashion choices, parents struggle to get their children to wear clothes that reflect the values and expectations of their community.
Today’s parents understand that, for girls, getting dressed isn’t just about staying warm or being able to participate in activities. Clothing choices are sometimes interpreted as political or social commentaries. Clothing also gives girls a way to feel more powerful and brave or to express confidence. Patti Richards discussed the effects of clothing on the self-esteem of teen girls on the Healthfully website. She noted that,
“Self-esteem can be impacted not only by the way they look, but how they feel about the way they look. Self-esteem can also be tied up in how a teen girl feels about her abilities and talents, no matter how successful she is in school or other areas. Anita Gurian, Ph.D., with Education.com, points out that eating disorders, depression and low self-esteem are the most common mental-health problems in young girls. The clothing that teen girls wear can sometimes say more about her self-esteem than her personal style.”
And the problem isn’t limited to Americans, or even to North America. The challenges and benefits of clothing seem to be universal. In one of Britain’s leading newspapers, The Guardian, Natasha Devon reported,
“In a study published by Girlguiding this week has revealed that half of girls feel stifled by gender stereotyping, with children as young as seven believing they are valued more for their appearance than for their achievements or character. It is not, I believe, a coincidence that in the same week a government-funded study has shown a quarter of girls exhibit symptoms of depression by the age of 14.”
With so much at stake, parents have good reason to be concerned about girls’ fashion and the clothes they choose.
Helping Children Understand Modesty
For many parents, modesty is the most frustrating aspect of clothing choices. Increasingly, fashion for girls emulates suggestive or even sexualized clothes created for women. Bra tops, crop tops, low-waisted jeans, thongs, sweatpants with writing on the behind, and revealing swimsuits for very young girls show up in malls and online stores all across America.
Expectations and social norms for modesty are not universal and may be dependent on a variety of factors. For example, wearing short shorts may be acceptable on a December day in Florida, but it might be seen as brazen when the snow is on the ground in Minnesota. Some religions are fine with girls who attend services in sleeveless dresses, while others consider it disrespectful. If your daughter wears a crop top to her friend’s home, it may be regarded as acceptable, but your grandmother might feel that this choice is too casual or revealing for a family dinner.
In almost every situation, most parents agree that adult styles are showing up more and more as a part of girls’ fashions. While a child’s desire to emulate older girls is common, the emergence of revealing fashions can have negative consequences for some.
The American Psychological Association on the Taskforce for the Sexualization of Girls reports that overly revealing or sexualized fashion can create issues with self-esteem that can lead to depression and eating disorders. This taskforce offers concrete advice to help parents steer their children’s clothing choices in productive ways, including questioning choices;
“Girls who are overly concerned about their appearance often have difficulty focusing on other things. Clothes can be part of the distraction. If your daughter wants to wear something you consider too sexy, ask what she likes about the outfit. Ask if there’s anything she doesn’t like about it. Explain how clothes that require lots of checking and adjusting might keep her from focusing on school work, friends and other activities.”
The same report suggests that parents avoid outright “bans” on clothing. The taskforce recommends that parents spend time explaining why they don’t support certain products or fashion choices. Instead of rejecting certain items with a loud “No!,” the taskforce challenges parents to think about why they don’t like a clothing or style choice, and then gently explain their feelings with their daughters. To help a child maintain self-confidence, it’s important to limit concerns or disapproval to the clothing, not the child. (“That top is too revealing,” instead of “You’re wearing clothes that are too revealing.”) It’s also useful to help the daughter understand how complicated clothes that require constant adjusting might keep her from focusing on friends, school, and activities.
Finding a Balance for Personal Tastes
Personal tastes can vary wildly between parents and children. Most adults are bemused to find that their child’s preferences in clothes will change from age to age, and sometimes from week to week. Even if a daughter is dressing modestly, her parents may find her personal taste challenges their beliefs or is at odds with their expectations.
This is a common problem, and one that is frustrating for parents. It’s helpful to remember that young girls have a strong need to fit in with their peers or to dress in ways that will help them move into a new social circle. While a parent may be baffled by their child’s clothing choices, the child usually has a solid reason for choosing a garment or style of dressing.
So, before you demand that your child change their clothes, find out why they chose this outfit. Many times, they want to fit in or avoid teasing they received when wearing another style at another time.
If your child is changing the way they dress to avoid teasing, explain to your daughter that no matter what she is wearing, some young girls will use any type of clothing as a cause for teasing or bullying. With that in mind, be understanding of your child’s issues, and accept that, no matter how appropriate you believe the clothing to be, some outfits that you choose may increase teasing, so be understanding of her concerns.
Often parents are confused by their daughter’s choice of outfits for specific events. Adults can help children make good decisions by spending time explaining what will happen at the event, what other adults and children will be wearing, and encouraging your girl to think about what she will doing as she wears these outfits. Do their clothes allow them to do thing things they need to do, without repeated adjusting or feeling constricted? Does their attire make them feel confident and proud of who they are? Or are they dressing to please their peers? What will they miss out on if they wear this outfit?
It helps to talk with girls about how their choice of outfit is in line with the real or implied dress code of their destination. For example, is a crop top appropriate for church? Is a goth T-shirt the best choice for Grandma’s birthday dinner? Will wearing a dress make it hard to have fun in a bouncy castle? Take time to have a gentle conversation with your daughter about dressing in ways that make sense with your surroundings. Explain to her that she has many types of clothing that allow her to express her personality, and she can put them together in ways that fit with who she is and what she wants to communicate.
And finally, be honest about your motives. Some parents say their daughter’s clothes will make the child feel uncomfortable, when, in reality, the parents are not comfortable with what their daughter is communicating with her style. These parents fear that their child’s fashion choices will be seen as a reflection of their parenting.
The Challenges of Mirroring and Twinning
As any parent of an American girl can tell you, women of all ages, from toddler to teen to adult, use clothes, shoes, accessories, and fashion to express and define themselves. Clothing is about individuality and personal style. Apparel is chosen to communicate social, political, religious, and psychological identities. A choice of clothes is also a reflection of self-esteem and world-view.
But what happens when a child chooses her clothing based on the style or choices of a peer? Tweens and teen girls, ages nine and up, can experience constant anxiety about their selection of clothes. Most girls this age openly admit they dress to fit in. Conversely, wearing the wrong thing at the wrong time can bring on insults, bullying, and even change their long-term reputation among their peers.
That’s why copying outfits, or even entire wardrobes, is so common among girls and young women. Stephanie Newman, PhD and author of the Psychology Today article, Why Your Teen dresses exactly like her best friend , reports;
“Adolescents copy their friends’ outfits, it’s not just about clothes. By dressing the same way, speaking the same way, and adopting their friends’ mannerisms, they are actually expressing something complicated about their own developing self-esteem. In psychological terms, they are seeking out—and all of this goes on outside of their awareness—a mothering type function from their friends. When they feel insecure or fragile…they attempt, through minute and routine interactions, to use their friends in much the same way a young infant uses its mother. They try to get approval and attention in tacit and unspoken ways in order to bolster their fragile self-esteem.”
Newman goes on to explain that adolescents do this through two related processes, Mirroring and Twinning. Two or more girls will mirror fashion decisions and even establish a sort of twinship with a friend.
Newman explains mirroring like this;
“…if someone feels unsure but sees him or herself reflected back in another’s appearance, words or actions—say in identical clothing—that person feels pumped up, less insecure. Though this occurs at the blink of an eye, and is mostly out of awareness, it is quite common. And what it all means is that when adolescent girls see aspects of themselves mirrored in their peers, they get an ego boost and feel less vulnerable.”
She goes on to explain that young girls mimic appearances to get approval. Once they receive positive reactions and responses from peers, the behavior is reinforced. The girl may become more meticulous in her mirroring efforts as a result.
The good news is that mirroring is a short-term phase in adolescent development. And though it may be maddening to watch, it isn’t unhealthy. Dressing exactly like a friend or friends is a common behavior. It’s also normal to reject any type of clothing not yet a part of their peer group. Mirroring is an interim step for girls looking to identify appropriate apparel. The praise and acceptance achieved through mirroring supplies adolescents with outside approval needed to build self-esteem.
Twinning is related to mirroring. When young girls closely mimic the dress and behaviors of a specific peer, they are sub-consciously establishing a “twinship,” with their friend.
Newman explains twinning as an extreme form of mimicry. One insecure teen imitates an admired friend. She explains that the girl,
“…unwittingly performs an important aspect of the mirroring function usually performed by a mother for an infant. When a teen girl mimics the appearance and style of a friend, she feels pumped up, her self-esteem bolstered. It is as if the right jeans reflected in the mirror of a friend’s identical outfit are to the thirteen year old what a warm, radiating smile of maternal approval is to a six month old—a way to obtain narcissistic supplies that are so crucial to development of healthy self-esteem.”
If your daughter is mirroring or twinning, relax. It’s not uncommon. While it may be hard for parents to watch your girl rely on other’s opinions, it’s normal.
Twinning and mirroring can be especially uncomfortable when a tween or teen chooses a peer or peer group that is well outside your comfort zone. At this age, young girls are still unsure of their identity, and becoming part of a peer group is a healthy way to explore identities. Most children join and leave several peer groups as they grow up. Some of these groups will meet with parents’ approval, while others will not. But unless your child is engaging in dangerous behavior, allowing them to mirror, twin, and create their identities is a normal and healthy part of growing up.
Trends to Look for in Young Girls and Teen Fashions
Style matters, and it changes all the time. Young girls look to fashion for guidance and acceptance. If you’re unsure what’s in style for tween and teen girls, or if your daughter is looking for ways to fit in without moving too far off the fashion radar, check out our list of what’s in style. We’ve provided a list of fun clothing trends to help you sort out what’s hot and what’s not.
This is a great time to be a girl. For hundreds of years, girls and women had to ensure tight, fitted, and downright uncomfortable clothes. Today, young girls enjoy more comfort than ever. Almost every popular fabric and style offer excellent durability and comfort. More materials provide stretch. Girls can move freely. Most of today’s most popular styles are wash and wear.
That’s good news! Parents know how frustrating it can be when your daughter throws a new outfit aside because it itches, pulls, or is otherwise less than totally comfortable.
More and more clothes today are designed with comfort in mind. For an easy fit, look for soft, breathable fabrics. Stay away from high collars or fussy buttons. Look for relaxed fits and fabrics that move with the body.
From high-end fashion to discount deals, look for comfort first. It’s one thing that almost every girls’ fashion trend has in common.
Sneakers With a Dress
Few things are less comfortable than women’s dress shoes. Pointy heels, tight straps, and painful heels often end with sore feet or even blisters. While wearing sneakers with a dress might seem a bit off for parents, this is a trend adults should get behind. Girls who want to wear pretty dresses with comfy sneakers are right on-trend. From casual knits to wedding dresses, the sneakers and dress combo is showing up in more and more fashion magazines and celebrity pubs.
Why should you embrace this trend? It’s affordable. When a girl wants to wear her sneakers instead of asking for a new pair of dress shoes, it means you don’t have to invest in special occasion shoes for family events, weddings, proms, or homecomings.
Lots of teens also love the up/down look of homecoming or prom dresses paired with sneakers. And that’s no surprise. After all, the more fun you have in heels, the more your feet hurt. Sneakers, on the other hand, are built for comfort and foot support so that girls can dance the night away. Though this may be a new look, it’s one that makes a lot of sense. If your daughter wants to stick to sneakers, she’s choosing an option that is both practical and better for her feet.
And finally, sneakers with a dress is a young fashion that helps your daughter hold onto her girlhood a little longer. While this trend is catching on with women in their 20s, it still retains an air of childhood fun. Maybe that’s why toddlers, tweens, and even older teens appreciate the sweet, young look of sneakers and dresses.
Dressing in Layers
Dressing in layers is nothing new, but now it’s more fashionable than ever. Tween and teenage girls’ fashion can be marketed as sets, meant to be worn in layers, but more often, the girls are the ones that decide which pieces work together.
Dressing in layers is another trend parents should love. It gives girls the freedom to add or remove pieces as needed throughout the day to be warmer or cooler. It also allows girls to add a jacket or scarf in ways that give them to be more modest without looking out-of-step. Targeted layering can also help them camouflage or hide the parts of their body that feel awkward, embarrassing, or uncomfortable.
It’s helpful for parents to know that some fashions are built to wear in layers. So, if a sweater has a neckline that drops to your daughter’s belly, ask her if it’s meant to be worn over a tank or tee. Small crop tops and bra tops are often part of the layered look, meant to work with other layers or items to make them acceptable in a broader range of situations.
Dressing in layers also allows girls the chance to use items in different situations. A pullover sweater can be great with jeans for school or a playdate but can also be recycled over a dress for a family event or worn as a jacket with shorts.
Boyfriend Jeans and Other Boyfriend Gear
Boyfriend jeans were first introduced at the height of the skinny jean craze. While many girls wanted the tightest jeans or jeggings they could find, other girls longed for a bit more comfort. The sexy name implied the clothes were borrowed from your (larger sized) boyfriend, and the marketing compensated for a decidedly less sexy, loose-fitting look. Using the boyfriend descriptor now refers to a loose fit or an androgynous style that feels more comfortable for many young girls.
So, when you’re shopping with your daughter, don’t get alarmed by the marketing. Boyfriend items are showing up for almost every age group. Boyfriend jeans, boyfriend shirts, boyfriend sweaters, and even boyfriend sweats are actually loose-fitting, long, and comfortable. They rarely follow men’s sizing or proportions, but they make sure girls’ fashions offer just as much comfort as the boys.
While some clothes are becoming more androgynous or gender-neutral, other types of apparel are embracing traditionally feminine elements, including lace.
No longer limited to trim or a collar, lace is showing up on everything. And it’s being used in a lot of different ways. Look for lace as an overlay, an accent, or a girly frill. You’ll also find lace-lined pockets on jeans, lace worked into sweaters, lacey baseball caps, and sweaters knitted to emulate lacey patterns.
Denim has been a mainstay of tween and teen fashion for decades, but now it’s moved into all kinds of apparel options. While there are thousands of options out there for denim jeans and shorts, more and more types of denim are showing up. If you want jeans, you’ll usually have to choose from dark denim, light denim, stretch, stone-washed, white denim, and even dyed denim.
Denim clothing is also easy to dress up or dress down. For example, many girls like to use a staple, like a denim jacket, and mix it with formal apparel (like a dress) or more casual gear (like leggings), making it one of the most versatile apparel options out there.
Denim works well as girls move from one fashion look to another throughout the day or during the week. A denim jacket pair nicely with a school uniform on weekdays, but it’s also popular among goths, jocks, and arty types on the weekends.
Denim is also showing up on a variety of apparel, including dresses, sneakers, and hats. And it’s smart to remember that a little denim goes a long way, so head-to-toe denim is not a trend (yet!)
Short Jackets and Coats
Looking for a coat or jacket? Trench coats and three-quarter length coats are becoming less popular as girl’s jackets and outdoor coats are getting shorter and more fitted. More and more jackets stop at the natural waist, and fewer coats feature lapels.
Zippers and new fabrics make it easier to create a form-fitting jacket that can keep girls warm in all kinds of weather. Light jackets work for chilly fall nights while cold-weather and miracle fiber coats can protect girls from harsh winter weather.
While short jackets are a cute look for young girls, short coats without insulation may not be the warmest option in colder climates. If your daughter is going to be out in the severe cold for long periods and wants to wear a short jacket, help her find additional clothing that will help her stay warm all over.
A Last Word on Girls’ Fashions
Most parents will struggle with the balance between dressing your daughter to meet your expectations and giving her the freedom to choose her own style. Many girls will go through many fashion stages, and even mirror her peers along the way. But with support from parents, young girls will land on a look that expresses who they are and who they want to be and build their self-esteem along the way. With a little patience and support, you can help your daughter find the look that works for her, at every age.