CHICAGO — Sophia Saverese attended her first day of kindergarten last week wearing a delicate floral print dress, ballet flats and a bow in her hair, no thanks to the displays at the mall promoting glittery miniskirts, wedge sandals and one-shouldered tank tops in kiddie sizes.
“She did see the other stuff, and she picked it out and said she liked it," said Nicole Saverese, the Glen Ellyn, Ill., mother of three, who, with her mother-in-law’s help, steered Sophia away from the adult styles during a recent shopping trip.
“I know girls who dress their 6-month-old babies in mock leather pants, and in those shoes that look like they have a stiletto," Saverese said. “But I just feel that she’s 5. Why would I want to dress her older when she’s going to get older already?"
The age-old question has taken on new meaning in an era of bikinis for babies and skinny jeans for 6-year-olds channeling Suri Cruise.
Across the U.S., mommy bloggers, educators and parents say the mature designs for little girls are hard to avoid these days, with even stores like Forever 21 offering to dress their darling daughters.
“What a challenge it is for a parent to hold your ground," said Cynthia Kalogeropoulos, principal of Grove Elementary School in Barrington, Ill. “I don’t even know if parents have a choice."
Retail experts confirm parents aren’t imagining the trend. While many adult clothing makers entered the children’s apparel industry between 2002 and 2006 offering trend-setting designs not seen before for that age group, the economic downturn put growth of the market on hold. That momentum has picked up again as the economy bounces back, prompting pint-sized designer duds at boutiques and trendy knock-offs at discount stores, according to Marshal Cohen, chief analyst for the NPD Group in New York.
And sociologists monitoring the trend say fashion for young girls has never been more provocative. In a study released last year, Kenyon College researchers found that a third of the clothing at 15 popular stores in the U.S. had “sexualizing" characteristics, revealing or emphasizing body parts and sexiness, according to Sarah Murnen, who co-wrote the study.
“You can walk into any teen/adult retailer and you begin to see how they’re taking it younger and younger," Cohen said. “I shake myself in disbelief and say, ‘Did I just see that?’ It’s a 4-year-old dressing like she should be at a college bar."
Seven years ago, trend watchers at Synclaire Brands in New York noticed an untapped market in children’s apparel. Company officials were convinced that as technology and media exposed children to more than ever before, buyers would jump at the chance to buy little girl shoes bearing the names and designs of high-profile women’s designers Michael Kors, Stuart Weitzman and Cole Haan.
“I have an 8- and a 10-year-old. They know things that I’m shocked that they know," said Evan Cagner, president of Synclaire Brands. “I think it’s just how information moves, quite honestly, and they’re just more aware of what they’re wearing."
The company’s new venture took off — Synclaire Brands now offers dozens of women’s inspired shoes in sizes newborn to 11 — and was soon joined by a rush of other companies eager to cash in as well, Cagner said.
Shoppers encouraged the growth by spending money on their children instead of themselves, another trend that surfaced during the recession, said Cohen, the retail analyst, who noted that shoppers spent $12 billion on clothing for 5- to 10-year-olds in the last year, a growth of 4½ percent.
At Water Tower Place in Chicago, shoppers used to rely on anchors such as Macy’s or the American Girl Place for children’s clothing. Today, adult stores such as Billabong and Adidas have added kids’ lines, said Katie Lindsay, marketing manager.
“As times have evolved, the products that they’re making for children are also evolving," Lindsay said. “I think moms want the opportunity to dress their children exactly how they’re dressed."
But while Cagner insists that Synclaire Brands goes to great lengths to design shoes that look like women’s but keep little girls in mind, companies that don’t make the same efforts — or, even worse, go out of their way to push the envelope — have become a common complaint among parents.
Jennifer Gersten, of Barrington Hills, Ill., was alarmed when she began taking note of the short miniskirts and midriff-baring tops sold at her 9-year-old daughter Eleah’s favorite stores.
“I have to go shopping without her so I have a little bit more control over what she is drawn to," said Gersten."It’s not her fault. She’s just drawn to what everyone else wears."
Laura Kleyweg, 40, in LaGrange, Ill., surprised herself by giving her 9-year-old daughter a serious talk about her body and being conscious of showing skin when Ellen was in the second grade.
After noticing a steady stream of parental rants on this subject online, Jessica Ashley, who writes a popular parenting blog on babblefish.com, posted helpful tips on how to keep children both fashionable but appropriate for their age in today’s shopping world.
First, Ashley suggests sticking with well-established children’s clothing companies, which are less likely to try flashy new looks because they have an image to uphold. She also recommends developing clear-cut wardrobe rules for your family, explaining not just what your kids can’t wear — but also why.
“Pay attention to what you’re allowing on a regular basis," Ashley said. “When is your daughter being sexualized by the clothes that she wears when she’s not even aware that’s going on?"