Tweenage stars staking claim in the fashion arena

By Cathrin Schaer

Style icons seem to be getting younger and younger with the latest trend being a focus on tweenage stars. But how young is too young for fashion?

What's all in black, about the same height as Tom Cruise and worries about starting high school as much as whether the paparazzi are in hot pursuit? Yes, that's right: the tweenage style icon. Not teenage. Tween-age. That means barely out of primary school and not yet allowed into R16 horror movies on their own. It also means we're meant to be taking fashion tips from kids who were born in the mid-90s, when the rest of us were getting over the fact that Lisa Marie Presley was going to divorce Michael Jackson.

Hailee Steinfeld (14), Elle Fanning (13) and older sister Dakota (17), Chloe Moretz (14) and Willow Smith (11) are just some of the youthful pretties that big name labels are courting, and that older, wiser fashion media seem to be turning to for wardrobe wisdoms.

Just a few examples of the ageist trend in action: Actresses Elle and Dakota Fanning featured on the cover of December's W magazine. Younger sister Elle, who starred in Sofia Coppola's film, Somewhere, has previously also appeared on the cover of uber-cool magazine, Love. The sisters' outfits are a common subject for celebrity gossip magazines who fawn over everything from Elle's "wacky glasses" to how Dakota's pink mobile phone went so well with her all-black outfit.

There's also Hailee Steinfeld, who starred in this year's movie True Grit and who was last season's spokesmodel for Miu Miu, the little sister label of major Italian brand Prada. Steinfeld, the latest in a series of actresses to do the job, appeared in the label's advertising campaign as well as its front row in Milan.

Check them out: there's Chloe Moretz, star of action film Kick-Ass, wearing Chanel to a recent awards ceremony in London, there's 11-year-old Kiernan Shipka, who plays Don Draper's daughter on the television series Mad Men, and who has been shot for fashion editorials in various magazines dressed in Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent and there's Willow Smith - daughter of actors Will and Jada Smith - who, at the ripe old age of ten, made it on to British newspaper, the Guardian's "alternative best dressed" list and who is apparently already planning her own clothing line. And those are just a few examples.

Interestingly though, while fashion observers are fawning over these pint sized pundits, they're always careful to stick to the rules: one of the biggest compliments these tweens can get is that they are dressing "age appropriate", making couture look easy for the young 'uns. Apart from one creepy comment recently in a British newspaper where the writer described Hailee Steinfeld as "frequently showing off her seemingly never-ending legs", a big part of these young women's appeal appears to be the non-sexual nature of their sartorial showwomanship.

But of course, not everyone likes this. If the thought of 12-year-olds garnering headlines in lashings of makeup, high heels and overly expensive garments unsettles you, then you're not alone.

Earlier this month, an advertisement featuring Dakota Fanning sitting with an uncomfortably phallic looking perfume bottle - the scent Oh, Lola! by Marc Jacobs - between her legs was pulled out of circulation by the British Advertising Standards Authority.

"We understood the model was 17 years old but we considered she looked under the age of 16," the Authority wrote in explanation. Considering all factors, they said, "we considered the ad could be seen to sexualise a child".

And despite the fact that Britain's Daily Mail newspaper regularly writes about these tweenage fashion stars, their style editor Liz Jones didn't think it was appropriate that someone as young as Steinfeld appeared in Miu Miu's ad campaign. Saying she was, quite frankly, "shocked", Jones told her own newspaper (somewhat hypocritically, one might add), that,"I find it obscene that a child of 14, no matter [if] she is a star, no matter how sophisticated, is used to peddle designer fashion."

As American editor Susanna Schrobsdorf concluded in an August 2011 story in Time magazine, that looked at the use of a 10-year-old in a controversial fashion shoot in French Vogue, "the whole scene makes you wonder: do we want to put girls on that treadmill of aspirational hotness at 10 and not let them get off until they're 70-something?"

In an article headlined "The Rise of the Tween Fashionista Plague" on US current affairs website, American author Mary Elizabeth Williams argued that the way in which the fashion media were so keen on a tween was "about a relentless and incredibly twisted industry that worships at the altar of not-even-womanhood. Because if you're Marc Jacobs or Proenza Schouler or any of the designers making clothes ostensibly for adult women but eagerly peddled out to high profile middle-schoolers, you're essentially saying your wares look best on females who perhaps have not yet even started menstruating."

And finally, a personal and extremely unscientific poll of several of Auckland's teenage girls netted this comment: "Elle wears more makeup than me and I'm 16. That's weird."

Cripes. When you all put it like that, it does start to sound a bit dodgy. So what on earth is going on here? And why?

One of the obvious and major reasons: clever marketing. Ever since that gap between adulthood and childhood was invented in the 1950s, teenagers have been big spenders - they don't have any financial responsibilities yet but they often have disposable income and they make their own choices about what to purchase. So it's logical that a consumer culture that wants to sell us more and more, should like the idea of expanding that gap. Whether inadvertently or on purpose, that is exactly what has happened.

The fact that 30-somethings are taking their time to grow up and settle down, hanging on to their youth and their youthful discretionary spending, has been well documented by sociologists. But the expansion of adolescence also goes the other way, with kids under 13 being encouraged into teenage habits early.

You can blame Britney Spears, if you like. Or maybe the Spice Girls. "In Britain, many marketing professionals date the rise of tweenagers quite precisely - to 8 July 1996, the date of the release of Wannabe, the Spice Girls' first single," journalist Maureen Rice wrote in British newspaper The Observer back in 2000. Rice went on to note that even back then, the tweenie market, as it is known, was already worth £30 billion (NZ$62 billion).

In the US, New York magazine reported that, currently, the tweenage market is worth an estimated US$50 billion (NZ$66 billion). And there are plenty of other ideas floating about as to why tweenagers are having such a successful fashion moment.

It is "perhaps the ultimate, inevitable result of a fashion culture that is obsessed with youth," Eric Wilson wrote in the New York Times earlier this year.

"Simply put, skinnier people are easier to dress," American journalist Alyssa Giacobbe glibly wrote in New York magazine in March. Prepubescent-looking models being replaced by actual prepubescents: It's genius, really." Additionally, Giacobbe concluded that, "Well-versed in impeccable fashion and moderate makeup and free of visible tattoos, these girls represent a softer, safer side to ascendant fame that appeals to editors and designers who've had their fill of skanks".

And hey, while we're being a bit smartass, here's another possible reason: maybe the fashion industry is just stupid. Or bored. Maybe because the celebrity-and-style obsessed media need to find something new to write about every day, and because fashion labels need to find new ways of selling their wares, the tweenage style icon is simply the latest novelty.

By this stage, you may well be wondering exactly who these tweenagers are posing for, who exactly is being inspired by their style. Studies have shown that tweenagers are big on branding and conspiracy theorists may like the idea that global fashion labels are encouraging brand loyalty at a younger age - so that when these girls do grow up, they will buy what the likes of the Fanning sisters, Steinfeld et al were clad in.

Then again the older fashion shopper won't be emulating them - 30-somethings may want to look 10 years younger but it seems unlikely they want to look 12.

And outside of a relatively small, relatively wealthy group, it also seems unlikely that there are that many 12-year-olds out there persuasive enough to convince their parents to buy Chanel for the intermediate school dance.

In the end though, maybe the biggest question that this small, starry-eyed troop of tweenage style icons should be inspiring is not "what was she wearing?" but "what is age inappropriate in today's consumer culture?" Or let's put that another way: "how young is too young for fashion?" There's nothing wrong with playing dress ups - after all, that's one of the most enjoyable things about fashion, at any age. But could it be that this particular kind of dressing up comes with its own set of uncomfortable, social pressures? And when is that pressure - to look trendy, to fit in, to buy the right clothes, to look hot and sexy - too much, too soon? After all, when it comes to columns in print, the tweenage fashion icons already have competition from a whole bunch of even younger stylistas - that group is being led by the likes of Tom Cruise' daughter, Suri and Angelina Jolie's offspring, Shiloh Pitt, both of whom are just five years old.

Maybe we should leave the last word on this subject to another Auckland teenager, 16, part of that unofficial poll on the subject: "Fashion can help girls express themselves and it's a big part of people's lives," she sagely notes. "And you don't want to be wearing the same clothes every day. But," the high schooler muses, no doubt thinking of her siblings, "I think at 12, you should be having fun and running around, not worrying what you like and whether your clothes are in style."

Tweenage style icons:

Lola Teller, daughter of fashion photographer Juergen Teller

Lourdes Leon, 15, daughter of pop star Madonna

Abigail Breslin, 15, best known for Little Miss Sunshine

Cecilia Cassini, 11, American fashion designer whose clothes have been worn by Kelly Osbourne and Heidi Klum

Tavi Gevinson, 14, style blogger and fashion icon

Thylane Loubry Blondeau, 10, best known as child model who appeared in controversial French Vogue shoot

Nicola Peltz, 16, best known for role in The Last Airbender

Madeline Carroll, 15, best known for her role in The Spy Next Door

- NZ Herald

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