WHEN TEENAGERS GO SHOPPING

Applied Fashion: Should parents act as stylists or stay outside the changing room door? Rebecca Willis treads a fine line...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, May/June 2012

The youth of every generation, it seems, finds a way to keep parents out of its shops. When I was young—a phrase which causes my children to roll their eyes, and at which I remember rolling my own eyes when I was young (there I go again)—it was ear-achingly loud music to which the shop “assistants” were self-absorbedly gyrating while ignoring the customers. The atmosphere was more disco than retail, and it had the desired effect: any parent unwise enough to enter would soon make tracks for the door.

Today’s solution is even simpler. Instead of going for the ears, they go for the eyes. As anyone will know who has been inside a branch of the upmarket teen-brand Hollister, they just turn the lights off. Or at any rate, they’re on so low that, for anyone over 30, they might as well be off. You feel as if you’ve wandered into someone’s bedroom in the small hours. Tables hold piles of fabric, which you guess are clothes. If, once night-vision has kicked in, you are able to discern something clearly enough to be interested in what it costs, you stumble around until you trip over an assistant, who will kindly—so kindly it feels patronising—read the price-label out to you.

Strictly speaking, of course, it is the retailers who erect these “keep out” signs, because they want to profit from our adolescents as they separate from the motherships and explore new planets. And the adolescents are only too willing to buy (I use that word advisedly) into these new worlds of sensory overload.
My son’s enthusiasm for Hollister, which I indulged with some shrewd eBaying in the fully lit surroundings of my own home, was short-lived: he changed school, and changed tribal markings. Tribes and belonging are what teen dressing is largely about. Clothes are instant shorthand, legible from a distance and giving out subtle signals that make adult dressing look straightforward. As a parent, you don’t want to encourage your child to be a fashion victim; but neither do you want them cast into the social outer-darkness because their peers mock their clothes. Like so many other aspects of parenting, it involves treading a fine line and not knowing whether you got it right until years later. Perhaps never.

Now 14, my son likes clothes but resents time spent shopping. He considers it “a waste of life” when he could be relaxing—an attitude that perfectly captures that teen blend of vehemence and torpor. He recently suggested charging me £1 for every minute I made him shop for school shoes. No deal. But I want him to get out there and shop for his own clothes. Neuroscientists say there’s a massive rewiring job going on in the adolescent brain, and that to grow best it needs to experiment and seek novelty. Clothes are a much safer way to take risks than cars or motorbikes.

The risks girls take choosing their own clothes, however, can have implications for their safety: I don’t want to spark a Slut Walk, but friends with daughters say the big bone of contention is the amount of flesh bared. Protective instincts and desire for independence meet head-on, causing many a tantrum in the changing room. But while some parents fail to grasp that it’s their credit card, not their opinion, that is wanted, there are others trying to help girls shy of their changing bodies into clothes that boost their confidence.

Ideally your role would be similar to the one on the touchline. You make sure they get to the match, you offer advice if asked, you support them and cheer them on and worry they’ll get injured, but you don’t actually play the game for them (though I’ve seen some parents have a good try). There will be misses and fouls and defeats along the way, but you have to stand back and let them happen. I’ll find it hard to relinquish control, particularly since I have to look at the results, but if I’m lucky I might end up with a son who can dress himself within budget, know what suits him, and maybe even work out what’s appropriate to wear for a particular occasion. Which is not the same as actually wearing it.

There’s a joke that goes: what’s the difference between a mother and Rottweiler? Answer: in the end, the Rottweiler lets go. In fact we parents are letting go, gradually, from the moment our children are born, but teenage shopping feels like a sudden lurch in this slow transition to independence. That’s because we, who were so recently indispensable, are uniquely unqualified to help. It is right that our adolescents should visit dark, alien planets where we can’t see. My son laughs at the way I say “Topman”; apparently I get the emphasis wrong. To my surprise, I don’t mind a bit. 

Rebecca Willis is associate editor of Intelligent Life and a former travel editor of Vogue

Illustration Bill Brown