Fashion Bullies

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal last week that I thought was really sad. Fashion Bullies Attack — In Middle School (if that link doesn’t get you in, this one will) says in part:

Teen and adolescent girls have long used fashion as a social weapon. In 1944, Eleanor Estes wrote “The Hundred Dresses,” a book about a Polish girl who is made fun of for wearing the same shabby dress to school each day. The film “Mean Girls” in 2004 focused on fashion-conscious cliques among high-school teens. But today, guidance counselors and psychologists say, fashion bullying is reaching a new level of intensity as more designers launch collections targeted at kids.

As a result, an increasing number of school and community programs focused on girl-on-girl bullying are addressing peer pressure and the sizable role clothing plays in girls’ identity.

I am beside myself with dismay. I was bullied in school, I think mostly for being the fattest girl in my school but it was clothes too. And back then, we didn’t have the focus on brands that we do today. Where do we draw the line, where is our responsibility as producers, marketers -and parents? Tragically, I don’t think we can expect children to do anything other than follow our own example. I am always upset by fashion police who criticize what people wear -and women are the worst about it. If women are catty about each other’s appearances, our children will be no less. You reap what you sow.


I want you all to be successful but at what price? Is this the inevitable consequence in our increasingly brand infatuated economy? And if it’s not fashion bullying, there’s still the matter of child labor among big brands. You’ve got to admit it’s beyond ironic that we have nine year olds sewing kid’s clothes for GapKids. I hypothesize that there’s a natural order to things, that things get out of control once they get beyond a certain size. Many well meaning brands have been WRAP certified yet they still end up in hot water. Their very size makes compliance impossible to monitor. I don’t believe bigger is better.

I don’t know that we can come up with an answer but I feel culpable if I say nothing. I feel that as a group, it is incumbent upon us to do something however small. In a post I never published, I proposed that we support rehabilitation centers for children rescued from sewing factories but I could only get a fix on two. One was RugMark which has rescued more than 3,000 children from weaving looms. They operate 13 schools, using sales proceeds and donations toward rehabilitation, daycare, literacy, formal schooling and vocational training. Another organization is Bachpan Bachao Andolan, or the Save Childhood Movement. Incredibly enough, people try to steal the children from the safe havens and put them back to work!

I don’t know what you will do if anything. Be it child labor or brand bullying, there’s a difference between progress and decay. Unfortunately, at the advent of either, you don’t know which you have. Progress (profit) is often decay and what appears as decay is often progress but you only see it in hindsight.

I can’t make you assume the collective responsibility of our failures as an industry, I only know that I will not continue to do nothing or say nothing. I encourage you to donate to Save Childhood or to Rug Mark to support the rehabilitation of child laborers. In addition to my own contribution, for every donation of $250 or more that you donate, I’ll give a free copy of my book either to you or the institution of your choice. Donate $500 and I’ll throw in an hour of consulting. Either way, it’d be great if between us all, we could select a charity we can all support and have an effect. If we do and say nothing, the public can rightly continue to level its criticisms at us.

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22 comments

  1. KatyRenee says:

    Awesome! Thanks for bringing this to my attention–sad as it is. I’ve been volunteering at a homeless women’s shelter and had so many conversations about jobs and what-not. Did you know you need a social security number and a referral to get into our shelter?!?! Isn’t that discrimination. I can’t wait to start a business to employ otherwise discriminated women (legally I hope, of course). It seems to relate. Thanks again!

  2. Dave says:

    Re; Fashion Bullies

    A paradox: Doesn’t a designer aspire to have their work held in such esteem that the wearer will forsake “inferior” designs? (In capitalist speak: brand loyalty, market share, and pricing ability).

    “Fashion” is ultimately about the ever changing what’s-in-and-what’s-out. The angst over the consequences of success seems somewhat disingenious if one is striving to achieve must-have status. Brand identity is about associating some attribute(s) that set it apart and superior to other choices and by extension imbuing the possesor with these attributes.

    Do I think bullying is right or a desireable? Of course not but it seems to me a Faustian bargain
    of the market place. What I fear will happen is that the “cure/solution” will be the egalitrian imposition of School Uniforms. This is worse than the bullying.

  3. What is so awful about uniforms? They seem like quite a sensible solution to me.

    The article seemed really bizarre to me. Sure, high school is a time of conformity. Before my sixteen year old sister started high school in Canada after six years in a mission school in Africa I took her shopping for protective clothing. I couldn’t tell her which clique she’d be in or what the particular dress requirements were in her high school – she’d have to figure out the details when she got there. But I made sure she had Levis jeans and Nike shoes as a solid basis. (This was in 1983.)

    This article seemed to be about how fashion-conscious mothers who want to dress their daughters like themselves are having to compete with her daughters’ classmates, because their daughters would rather dress like their peers *in cheaper clothes* than their mothers are buying them. Sounds like a case for parenting classes, not an article in the Wall Street Journal. I’m not saying fashion bullying doesn’t occur, just that the examples in the article don’t appear to be illustrating it.

    I see a reflection of a society with a widening gap between rich and poor, increasing penalisation of the poor, and the need to announce to the world that you are a member of the winning, not the losing team in a world where the stakes are high. Internet culture seems to be exaggerating this tendency, where commenters pile on to deride those they perceive to be weak or on an opposing team.

    Yes, I’m sure the haves in high school use status goods to differentiate themselves from the have-nots. I’m sure that there are schools where the very rich mingle with the not-so-rich who can never hope to have a different Louis Vuitton bag for every day of the week. But really, is that the concern for most kids? I don’t know anyone who can afford the designer outfits being discussed in the article. Certainly not for kids.

    I’m more worried about the kids at the bottom of the heap, the ones who can’t afford whatever the basic Levis-and-Nikes equivalent is these days. Not the ones who are saying Please Mom, Don’t Make Me Wear Missoni!

  4. Kathleen says:

    What I fear will happen is that the “cure/solution” will be the egalitrian imposition of School Uniforms. This is worse than the bullying.

    Uniforms are worse than bullying according to whom? The party who (presumably) doesn’t own a school uniform company or someone who’s being bullied? You can’t ever have been bullied. If you had been, you’d know there is nothing more desirous than melding, blending with the crowd. Uniforms, whether externally or internally imposed, provide a measure of comfort and reassurance. You blend. Blending is the goal, you never want to stand out.

    When my son’s school adopted uniforms, I was very curious about how the students would react. It seemed that the most common reaction was *relief* which surprised me. Even average students expressed relief that they wouldn’t be singled out for committing a fashion faux pas by their “friends”.

  5. christy says:

    My daughter just started school this year, and I was relieved to discover that the school requires uniforms. She wears her school issued tee – one of three available colors – and various khaki bottoms with pride. I can’t even get her to take them off to put on after-school clothing!

    I did find it interesting that once the clothing has been standardized, the accessories become sort of a big deal. The kids scrutinize the shoes, backpacks, and hairstyles of their peers.

    Schoolchildren have enough to worry about without clothing being an issue, and I certainly don’t believe that bullying is preferable to wearing uniforms.

  6. ydorsey says:

    I would have to agree that uniforms provided some comfort to children, but believe it or not, middle school kids still find away to be fashion bullies. My six grader, who attends to a uniformed school, has told me of various occasions were she was teased for wearing off brand Khaki pants instead of “Dickies” or trendy styled shoes instead of absorbingly priced sneakers. As a mom, I really had to explain to her that I was not willing to spend hundreds of dollars on sneakers. Similar to what Alison has already stated, I had to explain to her that she would to have to work with what she had.

    IMO, fashion bullies exist in all facets of life. I remember working on a job were they doled out opportunity and promotion, not based on your merit or performance, but centered it on your social image. (Did you look the part?) Although, I was an adult, I was made to feel less than because I could not afford to purchase the designer clothes that met their approval at the time. With that said I went through the situation and grew from that experience and I am not any worst from the wear. (NPI)

  7. Chiquitagirl says:

    I think that no matter what, bullying will always be in the school ground even if fashion is taken out of the picture or is in the picture. Like a few of you have stated, even if schools enforce a uniform, there are other areas such as accessories, and brand of khakis that will take the place of if you wear abercrombie vs Wal-mart George clothing. Just to shine some ‘good’ light on this, when I was in school my family could never afford ‘kool kids’ clothing. As a result, I was ridiculed, but I decided to fight back and as a result became more creative and started designing and making my own clothes. There is always hope Kathleen even if it seems dire. It is just to bad that this society bases so much on first impressions where how you look on the outside will determine what people think you are on the inside.

  8. Alisa Benay says:

    Part of my grade in college was affected by how I dressed. I hated that. The teacher was never open about it, but it was a very obvious part of his grading.

    My daughter went to a uniformed school. I can see the desire to take away a certain amount of peer pressure, but I have to say my husband & I were appalled at the absolute level of control doled out by the school. Only braided belts. Only their brand uniforms, no cheapies. Only certain color shoes. Tucked in shirts for everyone, even 5 year olds. No piercings. Only certain hair color allowed (the last 2 were for high schoolers). I hope that when my kids are teenagers if they want piercings and green hair, that I’m o.k. with that. Self expression, to me, seems to be one of the higher forms of self confidence. The whole system seemed very stifled to me. Like they were afraid of what would happen if they just allowed the kids to be themselves instead of fitting a certain mold.

    Also, just to buy the MINIMUM amount of clothing and appropriate shoes/belts, etc. to get through the year, we spent about 3 time the amount we would have to just buy regular clothing.

  9. Connie says:

    As an educational consultant, I see this as a real issue in schools of all socio-economic backgrounds. What I find interesting is…in schools where uniforms are required, disciplinary referrals go down as much as 75% in the first year.

  10. Kai Jones says:

    There will always be bullying in life; better to learn to respond to it and cope with it. For that I recommend Suzette Hayden Elgin’s “The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense.” (I am not affiliated in any way nor will I profit from this referral.) She is a linguist and the book usefully explains the various dynamics, possible responses, and typical consequences. There are exercises to work through and practice problems to help you learn to and make a habit of responding to verbal bullying in helpful ways.

    Some of the sample dialogue reads a bit dated at this point but I have read on her blog that she is negotiating for a new edition.

  11. Myrte says:

    The thing we forget about uniforms here, is that if it’s not the clothing, it’s something else. I’ve never had to deal with uniforms, (I did have to deal with the bullies)but I saw in England that even when you put them uniforms on, there are kids who know how to customize them in the slightest way so teachers don’t see the difference, but the kids do. Or suddenly, earrings are a big deal to girls, and the prescribed tie for boys is a silk one for some and a polyester for others. The thing is(I think)there will always be bullies. Everywhere.
    As an idealist you can try to fight the market and in some ways you will succeed. But fashion is just THE business where the wrong people earn the most money. I’d say don’t buy big labels and support your local designer who sews the clothes with a few people in the back of the shop and uses environmentally friendly fabrics. If everyone does that, it’s gonna be a trend. But if no one starts, then it won’t work. (this might even be good for the local market of the countries we all exploit in the western world)

  12. sfriedberg says:

    I have a bit of an extreme experience with school uniforms. I went to a military boarding school for 8th grade and high-school. The uniforms were completely uniform, from a single vendor, down to socks and shoes. Accessorizing of any form was either prohibited or spelled out in agonizing detail (i.e., if you have three different award ribbons to wear on a dress tunic, in which order must they be displayed). Wristwatches might have been one exception. I think underwear was the only article of clothing not spelled out by the dress code.

    Despite that, there was a large degree of hazing and bullying, driven substantially by the “haves” from wealthy families from Detroit and Chicago, their desire to dominate younger or weaker students, and their contempt for students from “poor” local farm families. I attribute this more to the “boarding school” aspect than the “military school” aspect. If anything, the military aspect served to dampen the worst abuses.

    So, in my experience, adolescent bullying is a social phenomenon that is best defeated by adult supervision and copious examples of civilized behavior (especially at home), and regrettably encouraged by social displays of prejudice and contempt either in the home or in society at large.

    We are surrounded by feverish political and sports partisanship, skillfully promoted commercial brand loyalties, religious intolerance, racial and cultural prejudice. This environment is training our young people to make immediate, exclusive social discriminations. It continually reinforces the message that only stupid, ugly, repulsive, defective losers belong to the “wrong group”, and therefore they deserve derision, contempt, or at best pity. How could adolescent bullying not arise in such a culture?

    There are anthropological reasons to believe some degree of such behavior is inherent in human nature. But culture certainly plays a large part in how much takes place.

    To steer my comment back toward apparel, I think the small DE has limited leverage on this issue. Larger manufacturers, specifically their marketing and advertising policies, might have a notable impact. But it would require sporting goods makers (to take an example) to stop associating their brand with winning 1st place or winning at all cost. Instead, less stratifying messages like quality, performance (absolute rather than relative), and appearance could be communicated. Makers of “designer” clothing could similarly downplay the association between their brand and the social status implied by luxury items. However, this would mean abandoning the most effective and consistently reliable marketing strategy for personal goods of any sort (see Dave’s comment near the top of this thread), and I would not hold my breath waiting for such a change.

    Returning to (non-military) school uniforms specifically, there is quite a bit of evidence that uniforms can be a positive factor in education and little to suggest a drawback. Obviously, they are neither necessary nor sufficient to good education. They can serve to give a student body a common identity, reduce the conflicts between different social groups, and remind students of the whole point of hanging about the school grounds. For troubled school systems, the very act of making a change (such as imposing a school uniform) may have a positive psychological effect all out of proportion to the change itself. This is known as the Hawthorne effect in industrial psychology.

  13. Sandra B says:

    I was part of a group discussion at teaching college, where we discussed the issue of uniforms. One young man was fervently opposed to the concept on the grounds that uniforms eroded one’s sense of personal identity. It was quite ironic – he was dressed head to toe in the uniform of a young surfer, logo cap, logo tee, logo shorts and logo sneakers.

  14. Oxanna says:

    And why do we consider it a good idea to stuff every child into school for 6-8 hours, mixing only with their own peer group? I wonder. I’m not terribly in favor of uniforms, although they can have their place. They seem to be treating the symptoms rather than the source of the problems.

    Frankly, the cattiness that is associated with fashion bugs me. The art and science of design I can appreciate. Knocking down your fellow woman because she isn’t Right This Moment Molly or Creative Combinations Cathy, however, is silly. However, it’s been going on for centuries, as one can tell by reading Louisa May Alcott.

    I don’t know what the industry can do, but personally, we can try to be respectful to others despite their lack of “fashion” or brand name clothing.

  15. Lesley says:

    I was bullied all through elementary school and middle school, some in high school. The clothes are just a part of it. The only “designer” item I ever owned was a pair of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans which, frankly, didn’t fit really well. I was also shy and not wealthy, and not ever in the key demographic for one reason or another. Saddle oxfords were “in” two years AFTER I begged my mom to stop making me wear them. In retrospect, though, I fear more for the character of the kids who ARE the bullies than those who are subjected to them for we as parents are allowing tyrants to be unleashed onto our society. As for the bullying, “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” seems to have been true for me.

    Apart from having their chains yanked, kids need a little humility, hence my argument for requiring all High School students (maybe even starting earlier in middle school) to spend 3 weeks in a 3rd world country in order to graduate.

  16. Mimi says:

    I know this is a really lat epost, but I MUST say it… My daughter and I sew many of her things, and she is really cultivating an interest in ART! Clothing as a canvas and a means of personal expression may be the answer… We have to change what it stands for.

  17. Eric H says:

    Having gone to a Catholic school and a private school (with help, thanks to their endowment), I have been on both sides. The Catholic school required not just a uniform, but a very specific uniform supplied by one store. Just before I started at that school, the store burned down. I can’t remember if we bought something or if Mom made something “close enough”, but it was always obvious that my uniform was slightly off color from everyone else. But there was very little teasing — what were they going to say, they were wearing a freakin’ uniform!

    The private school ditched the blazers before I started there, but they still had a dress code: no shorts, no “dungarees” (jeans), no t-shirts, belts must be worn with pants with loops, etc. So we weren’t traditional prep, but we weren’t a bunch of slobs, either. Every day was a fashion show in which I couldn’t compete, and it caused a lot of anxiety on my part, and probably exasperation on Mom’s (“What’s wrong with these?” “Mom, this is K-Mart!” “So?”).

    When they started proposing uniforms in the mid-schools here, I found myself ambivalent. On the one hand, I’m not sure we need any more regimentation than they are already trying to induce. On the other hand, it levels the playing field a great deal and directs more attention to schooling than to the fashion show. Yeah, you can still differentiate on the basis of accessories, but snappy ties and earrings are a $15-20 highlight instead of a $150-200, Nike- and Izod- or Tommy-fueled arms race. It’s subtle rather than overt, and therefore not as likely to result in beatings and drive-bys over Air Jordans.

    The thing that really drove me in that direction was the parent-supported argument by one girl in front of the school board: “My clothes are how I express myself.” I’m sorry, but you aren’t expressing yourself with your Marilyn Manson t-shirt so much as you are expressing your affinity with your clique. Today, they are literally using branding and ear-tagging to identify their herd. If you want to express yourself, try writing or learning a craft or art.

    Incidentally, Megan McArdle makes this interesting observation about school uniforms in Viet Nam:

    http://meganmcardle.theatlantic.com/archives/2007/11/tradition_for_thee_but_not_for.php

    I think she’s right about men in the traditional dress of their native elite: in an airport in Hawaii, I once saw a man (maori? He didn’t look Hawaiian, but he did look pacific islander) in very formal looking native wear consisting of a sari-like “skirt” and interesting combo that looked like a cross between a western suit and native religious wear. Between that and his bearing (40ish and fit, which is rare in the islands), the effect was impressive.

  18. Babette says:

    Kathleen, I don’t think that by helping DEs to build and grow businesses you are contributing to the massive marketing machine that helps to drive fashion bullying.

    You always encourage an umbrella of environmental awareness toward production to the point of less product, longer life. This is directly contrary to the speedier and speedier fashion lifecycle of garments that must be discarded for the newest, latest thing before its first wash.

    Further, bullying is a feature of children’s behaviour and just manifests itself in the elements which show points of difference be it clothes or accessories.

  19. Sue Melin says:

    It’s clear to me from the above posts, and my own experiences, that the one’s who benefit most from the “freedom” of a relaxed dress code, are the exclusivist fashion divas, the queen bees, the prima donnas of the class.
    Sociologist have clearly demonstrated in numerous studies that all teens observe a definate rank of popularity very similar to that of queen bees and their drones. Without exception, each teen who participated was able to place each of her female peers into the same rank number according to popularity. There was absolutely no confusion amongst them as to who ranked where (amazing!!!)
    The beauty of uniforms is the leveling effect that they have on this social structure. (Which, if you have ever been bullied, you surely recognize as ominous).
    Even if the students do personalize the uniforms, there is still a clear message of unity and equality that prevails in the classroom.
    Enforcing a uniforms-only dress code may not be a cure all to all bullying, but it most definately wields a heavy blow to the most basic platform of snobbery among teens (i.e. fashion)

  20. Andy McDonald says:

    I’m with the second poster (Dave) on this one…

    The problem lies with the notion of trends – this is the mechanism that underpins the whole theory of fashion. You cannot actively encourage grassroots capitalism whilst simultaneously distancing yourself from its damaging effects. Whether it be brand bullying or child labour, the common cause is the very subject your site seeks to promote. I do not wish this to seem like a personal attack – it just strikes me as somewhat inconsistent logic.

    Perhaps the site content could be recalibrated to focus on teaching people to design & make clothing for themselves rather than dictate trends to others? To my mind, this is simply returning to the craft philosophy that predates the emergence of fashion during the industrial revolution.

    Cheers, Andy (Scotland)

  21. Kathleen says:

    Andy, I think you miss the nuance of what I represent to visitors. Just as it is not inevitable that one exploit child labor, one need not strive to be a “brand”. If visitors elect to do the latter, that is their personal choice. I think there is little doubt to regular visitors that I espouse smaller lines characterized by high quality craftsmanship and innovative design, rather than template coffin clothes. The demand for the former is driven by their inherent value, not the artifice of media marketing. I think the greatest integrity is attained by cut, not a slapped on logo. Ideally, a consumer would purchase an item because of the value it represents, not because the “brand” is obvious to anyone. If you make really nice stuff, you don’t need to promote it the way things are these days. The epitome of design integrity means people will purchase the *item* based on its own merits -regardless of whoever made it- rather than an item that is a vehicle of what is in effect, a facsimile reproduction of your logo.

    Perhaps the site content could be recalibrated to focus on teaching people to design & make clothing for themselves rather than dictate trends to others?

    First, “dictate trends to others”? Are you serious? I have never dictated style trends to anyone -ever- nor will I. That is a design function; I am not a designer. I feel that dictating style direction and trends is an insult to my visitors who *are* designers. That’s their job, I’m not going to second guess them. I’m an engineer; I just make what they envision, happen.

    Second, sure, I could recalibrate to focus on teaching people to design and make clothing for themselves but there’s a big downside. It’s called making a living. As in, I have to make one. Iow, how would I make a living posting free content? The value is only flowing one way. I give and you compensate me with ______? As it is, there’s tons of free educational materials to help improve the quality of one’s output. See the tutorials index under the ADMIN heading in the left sidebar. Lastly, I will be starting another site along the lines of what you mention but it won’t be free. Similarly, it will focus on commercial standards of excellence (lamentably abandoned as of late) which I think enthusiasts would do well to adopt.

  22. Elena says:

    Fashion bullying is broadcast everyday on tv on the show with Joan Rivers = Fashion Police.

    It is adult bullying plain and simple… and sets an example for every school child and adult who has every watched it.

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