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Tween Beat

From zebra patterns to Madonna’s Lourdes: a shopping trip through the weird world of adult-girl fashion.


Photographs by Martynka Wawrzyniak

Connor Morse has come dressed for the occasion. She’s wearing neon-pink Converse sneakers, a flouncy blue skirt, and a sequined jacket over what appears to be a football jersey. A men’s tie is knotted into a large bow on top of her head, and she’s completed the look with a pair of heart-shaped sunglasses, which she persists in wearing inside. The outfit is her best impression of Madonna circa Desperately Seeking Susan, cobbled together from thrift-store finds to wear specifically in honor of the launch of Material Girl, the clothing line the singer and her 13-year-old daughter Lourdes (Lola) Leon debuted this month.

The Material Girl line is perfect for you if you are an NYU art major with a killer body. There’s lace and leather and a lavish assortment of body-con dresses. But Connor doesn’t really have curves. What she does have is some softness about the middle that signals a coming growth spurt. Connor is 8 years old.

Not that her age or physical development diminish her fervor for Material Girl as she runs about the shop that’s been set up in the juniors’ department on the fourth floor of Macy’s Herald Square.

“Mom!” she squeals at the sight of a faux-fur vest. “Oh, Mommy, come here!” Then she’s darting off after a short tulle skirt. “Can I get this, Mom? Can I?” A pair of sequined zebra-print leggings stop her in her tracks. “Mommy, will this fit?” She holds them up against her small frame.

“How about the little cardigan?” asks her mother, Linda, who is dressed in a sensible button-down in a neutral shade.

“I want the zebra pants!”

“She can have the taste of a stripper, if I don’t watch it,” Linda sighs. “I just let her go with it as long as it’s not low cut or too high. No belly. We don’t show our tummy.” Linda points to a pair of long, dark plaid pants. “Do you like that, Connor?”

“Kind of,” Connor replies, scrunching up her nose. “Kind of, but not.”

If Connor spends $50 she will get to have her picture taken, not with Santa, but with Taylor Momsen, the actress who plays the naughty younger sister on the TV show Gossip Girl. The front woman of a band called the Pretty Reckless and now the face of Material Girl, Momsen has only just finished performing (in a midriff-baring bustier, over-the-knee stiletto boots, and enough black kohl about the eyes to make her look like a victim of domestic abuse) on a makeshift stage set up between racks of clothing. “She’s 16 years old. What the...?” one woman in the audience mumbled as Momsen sang/growled the lyrics “Does what I’m wearing seem to shock you? Well, that’s okay” while lolling her head about in a manner that seemed both suggestive and drug-induced. This pose was dropped the moment she got backstage. “I took an interest in fashion at a very young age,” she tells me, smiling brightly. “Pretty much at like 3. I was the weird kid at school who wore, like, cutoff black T-shirts and leather jackets and combat boots every day. And I had a bunch of heels.” Not that Momsen, who just turned 17, approves of the same wardrobe for her younger sister, who is 13. “When she starts going, ‘Can I wear your heels?’ I’m like, ‘No, you’re a baby! You can’t wear my heels. What are you talking about?’ ” She giggles behind her scrim of dark makeup.

If Momsen’s affect is bipolar, she’s hardly to blame. It’s difficult to know how, exactly, to represent a line that peddles pleather bandeau bras and sequined hot pants to a junior demographic, just as it’s difficult to know what, exactly, one should peddle to them in the first place. Throughout history, cultures have had strict dress codes relating to age, but no longer: Our fetishization of youth not only means that older women are dressing younger, but also that young girls are dressing older, pushing themselves into sexualized terrain. For tweens at the intersection of childhood and adulthood—an age that’s a natural fashion fault line—this role reversal can present particular confusion. No one knows quite what to wear. Not even Madonna. “I always have two reactions when Lola comes into my room with an outfit on,” she says in a video discussing the line. “One is, ‘Oh my God, she looks amazing, what incredible style.’ And then my second reaction is, ‘She’s dressed completely inappropriately for school.’ ”

The current mecca for tween couture is Justice, which proclaims itself the “largest premier tween speciality retailer in the world ... for girls ages 7 to 14.” It’s a suburban staple—the only stores in New York are in Queens and Staten Island—though from the “catazine” no borough is safe. The inside of an actual Justice store looks like a rainbow got drunk and upchucked all over a strip mall. There is a blinding profusion of pinks and purples and aquas amid aisles roughly the shoulder-width of a 9-year-old. Fall tween trends are there in force: jeggings, graphic tees, gauzy scarves, bright plaids, camo, and tutus. One pattern is not sufficient; pants clearly require two, shirts three or more. If just seeing apparel leaves your senses wanting, you can find clothes that smell: T-shirts of the scratch-and-sniff variety.

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