Tween Beat

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.

In Victorian times, the length of skirts dropped as a girl aged; the reverse appears to be true chez Justice. But one is hard-pressed to find anything truly offensive, especially considering that Justice evolved from the Limited Too, a juniors’ store that Tween Brands, Inc. has now phased out and that once, among other offenses, sold a pair of panties emblazoned with the phrase, “Buy it now! Tell Dad later!” At Justice, the string bikini undies in a size 6/7 seem a bit unnecessary, but still offer ample coverage in patterns that do not advertise one’s jailbait status. The strangest find was what appeared to be a padded sports bra.

Unsurprisingly, 11-year-old Cosette Rinab forewent the bra when shopping with her father, Martin, recently.

“I don’t think that goes together too well. It’s a little wild for me,” observed Martin when she came out of the dressing room in skinny black jeans with a stripy tie-dyed pattern and a camisole printed with enough bubbly slogans to make Pollyanna claw out her eyes just for spite.

Cosette tugged at the pants, and looked in the mirror. “Yeah,” she finally agreed, “I just realized it doesn’t go so well.”

She eventually settled on a comparatively sedate Union Jack–and–zipper tee and a glittery plaid scarf.

“It’s summer, though,” Martin pointed out. “You’re going to wear a scarf?”

“Yeah, why not?”

Martin shrugged. “Well, you’re the fashion expert. What do I know?”

If the assumption is that being fashion-forward at this age means dressing older, or more provocatively, then Chloe Blackshire, age 10, suggests that may not be so. “This is my side, and this is my sister’s side,” she says, opening the closet in an East Village bedroom she shares with Ivy, 14, that’s cluttered with the detritus of girlhood (stuffed animals, Hula-hoops, stray socks). Raising her eyebrows, she points again to her sister’s side. “But sometimes my clothes end up here.”

Chloe favors outfits that are just as busy as her room. She has no qualms about mixing pinks and reds, plaids and stripes. Her style unfolds in a parallel fashion universe, one that is aware of adult trends, but not necessarily following them. A grown-up could never pull off Chloe’s look; on her, it’s divine, complementing both her shape and her temperament without giving away too much of either. But it hasn’t evolved without its growing pains. “Kids’ clothes always have stuff with, like, puppies on it. But I’m not, like, a puppy-lover.” In order to find clothing that fits but is not too childish, too vampish, or simply too boring, Chloe has often had to get creative, pinning up shirts from American Apparel, using jean-parts as leg warmers, and wearing adult tunics as dresses. She will look to Ivy for fashion guidance but also has learned from her that there are lines one shouldn’t cross. “Sometimes my sister is wearing, like, a wifebeater and sometimes it’s too small so it kind of shows her bra and stuff, and my mom’s like, ‘Hey! Come on!’ ” Chloe smoothes her patterned skirt demurely over her striped leggings. “But there are creepy people that do think that it’s fun to see young girls like that. So it’s better to not, probably. ”

Back at Macy’s, Connor tells her mother to wait outside the dressing room while she tries on the Material Girl outfit she’s selected: the zebra-print leggings, along with a plaid jacket and a black bodysuit. This last causes some confusion.

“You put the bodysuit on, and then you do the pants over it, okay?” Linda explains to Connor through the slatted door.

“Oh. The pants … ?” Connor pauses, trying to work out how things should go. “No, the pants go first.”

“Well, with the bodysuit, you have to snap it down … there,” Linda responds, dropping her voice to a whisper. “It goes on kind of like underwear, all right?”

Eventually, Connor emerges and does a little spin, wearing a getup that would be adorably daring if she were only a decade older and a foot taller. The leggings will have to be bunched up or shoved down into boots. The jacket hangs well over her fingers. Under the jacket, the clothes are a bit snug—not revealing, really, but they cling. Still, the look of sheer ecstasy on Connor’s small face is crushing. To deny her these clothes now would require a resolve few harried parents could muster.

“I like it,” Linda says haltingly. “The plaid and the zebra … it works. Who would have thought?”

Delighted, Connor runs off in search of jewelry.

Tween Beat