In this week's Teen Talk column, a young adult explains how clothing plays an important role as teens navigate social trends and explore their identity.

By Brandt Matthews
June 11, 2020
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Illustration by Emma Darvick

A large part of the transition from childhood to adolescence is learning to make decisions and handle new responsibilities. While your teen may bemoan more chores around the house or a growing workload in school, one area where many are excited to explore their newfound freedom is dressing themselves. Middle school and high school are some of the first opportunities teens have to develop their personal style. With this, experimentation is bound to occur. Not only is how you dress a large component in how your peers perceive you, it's also a crucial frontier for exploring one's identity.

When talking with your teen about clothes, it's important to remember how personal curating their wardrobe is to them and that they still have a lot to learn from you! From constructing outfits for different day-to-day weather, learning what's in or out of season, and balancing comfort with style, the journey of developing a love for fashion is fraught with mistakes to be made that parents can help with. They may not see a problem with wearing their favorite T-shirt multiple days in a row or wearing basketball shorts to school through the winter months, but I bet you do. It's important to guide your teen in a subtle yet affirming manner to help them look their best while also letting them find a style that feels uniquely their own.

Clothes Are More Than Just About the Look

In middle and high school, how one dresses has the potential to be a massive factor in navigating an often chaotic social environment. It's important to allow your teen some freedom, whether that be taking them shopping with you, giving them pocket money to shop on their own, or encouraging they get a part-time job for this spending money. In early adolescence, they may reject clothing you buy for them simply because they want their style to feel their own. Talking with your teen about what types of clothes they like is a great way of showing them you care about their world while also saving money by avoiding purchasing anything they'll refuse to wear.

Teens use their wardrobe to explore parts of their identity that they're still discovering. Should your teen stray from standard gendered clothing, they'll appreciate it if you giving them the room to experiment on their own. When my mom expressed her disdain for me carrying a handbag, it created a level of distance between us greater than she intended. As I began to question my perceptions of traditional masculinity, purses became a way for me to express that in a way that was comfortable for me. Her negative comments about them felt like an attack on me personally, amplified by my own self-consciousness about this exploration. It's important to remember that directly confronting or questioning your teen about wardrobe changes may seem harmless to you but could feel hostile to them simply because of the personal exploration at the heart of it.

A parent's support and encouragement can make all the difference. When I was bullied in high school after making pink and purple prominent colors in my wardrobe, I never doubted myself because my parents always affirmed that I looked good. Their encouragement gave me the confidence to continue expressing myself in ways that fulfilled me, while also grounding me in the idea that wearing certain colors wasn't as big a deal as some of my peers made it out to be.

Use Trends to Teach a Lesson

Trends have the capability to open doors for teens, such as new gender-neutral lines from brands like Banana Republic that encourage shoppers to style themselves based solely on what they look and feel good in. Other times, however, trends can feel restrictive. Your teen may feel isolated or unstylish if they aren't wearing the popular coat of the season or a brand that's considered cool.

Luxury brands have recently taken the spotlight with musicians and actors often seen in outfits covered in patterns signature to brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton. The prohibitive price point of these brands may frustrate your teen, leading them to dislike clothes they loved wearing weeks earlier or looking to sell what they don't wear anymore in order to save up for more expensive items. While your teen's fixation on luxury may alarming, it's important to remember the strong lessons that it can bring up around finances, sustainability, and labor conditions in the garment industry around the world.

Teens Use Clothing to Go Green

The growing concern regarding climate change and global warming has created a major boost in second-hand and thrift shopping amongst young people, and teens are no different. Looking through second-hand stores furthers the idea of fashion as a personal signature that teens crave—they don't want to just buy a jacket or a pair of pants, they want to find something they like and give it a new home. Likewise, your teen may be drawn to new sustainable lines from their favorite brands. It's important to remind your teen that a major part of eliminating clothing waste is making sure they wear everything they have for its proper lifespan before buying something new.

The Bottom Line

For your teen, clothing is a major factor in both expression and exploration. As they determine their personal style, it's important to give them the room to experiment on their own. Be gentle with your teen when talking about their clothing choices—figuring out their look can be a personal process and it's easy for them to misinterpret guidance for criticism. With affirming words and tasteful suggestions, you'll be able to set your teen up for stylistic success.

Brandt Matthews is a 22-year-old from Rye, New York. He is a senior at Johns Hopkins University majoring in writing and film, with a particular interest in the intersection of storytelling and education. He's excited to continue exploring the ways in which media can simultaneously entertain and inform.

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