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Special days like Easter used to bring out best in kids’ clothes

Sun., April 24, 2011

There are those who seem to regard it as a harbinger of the apocalypse, a breakdown of civilization, good manners’ final surrender after a long erosion of standards.

Others insist it’s not the end of the world.

But there can be no denying it. No matter how special the occasion, many children do not get dressed up these days.

Perhaps you have noticed.

Kids at weddings, funerals and church services often look as if they just decamped from Silverwood.

Whether you regard this as a ho-hum nonissue or a searing indictment of contemporary parenting says something about your world view. It doesn’t, however, answer the overarching question.

How did we get here?

How did we go from a time when virtually all middle class children owned and occasionally wore dress-up clothes to an era when a kid wearing his newest, cleanest Seahawks jersey can be considered spiffed up?

Theories abound. Some who take a dim view of this trend blame the ’60s, point a finger at the general slobbing-down of America or suggest it is a result of permissive parents deciding to be friends with their children instead of assuming the role of in-charge life guides.

Others suggest this change has more to do with simply getting real.

“I think the more casual approach of today makes more sense for children,” said Alison Highberger, a Spokane parent. “And why buy a suit, tie and dress shirt plus nice shoes for a young boy who’ll grow out of the ensemble in 10 minutes? It’s a nutty expense.”

The move away from special-occasion outfits didn’t happen overnight. It took decades. But maybe the ascendance of casual apparel hasn’t even peaked.

Sales of dress-up clothes for children are down in the last year, said Christina Groth, a Portland-based merchandiser for a regional department store chain.

Dismal economic conditions may be one factor, she said. But even in better times parents have recognized that less formal clothes, in addition to being cheaper, tend to be more versatile.

Of course, the most fiercely contested battle lines aren’t drawn over price. The culture clash over the way children dress for certain events is, at its root, a doctrinal dispute.

How do we show respect?

In the view of some, the first step is not arriving at a special occasion looking like a 9-year-old street walker or a small goalie on his way to soccer practice.

To its proponents, getting dressed up for certain gatherings teaches children about values. It underscores our societal sense of what is important in life.

More than a few adults can think back on conversations that echo through the years.

“Why do I have to wear this?” says the squirming child.

“Because this is one way we demonstrate our regard for others and for significant ceremonies that bring us together,” says the grown-up.

Still, some with a more skeptical view decline to cede the moral high ground. They argue that the whole dressing-up-the-kids thing can actually be about image-conscious parents wanting to present the picture of a perfect family. They say this performance might reveal something about surface appearance, but maybe not that much about what’s in a young person’s heart.

Clergymen have debated this for years. Is it worth making a big deal about congregants showing up for services in the equivalent of beach wear or yard-work clothes?

Sometimes, though, the most heated disagreement about what children should wear can be found within extended families.

There’s no need for a show of hands.

Experts on family dynamics can disagree about how to handle tensions that might arise. But one suggested trying to focus the conversation on just why it is important for the child to be present at the event and what it is hoped the boy or girl will glean from the experience.

“Take a pick-your-battles point of view,” said Chris Koehler of WSU Extension-Grays Harbor.

It would be difficult to conclusively demonstrate that our area embraces a relaxed dress code for children to a greater extent than other parts of the country.

Observational evidence confirms that quite a few local adults favor the jeans and ballcap look for all sorts of events. Some could reasonably be expected to pass that down to the next generation.

And as church attendance in the Northwest typically lags behind other regions, it might be fair to assume fewer kids here are exposed to the classic, regular dress-up opportunity.

But there’s no reason to think going casual isn’t a national phenomenon.

Nor would it be correct to suggest that no children here ever get dressed up. A few know all about clip-on ties and patent leather shoes.

They would seem to be outnumbered, though.

Maybe the transition to casual clothes started as pointed nonconformity and gradually morphed into a mainstream choice. Perhaps parents decided they were too busy to fight with their kids about the need to don the finery. Or maybe people just stopped caring.

It’s fair to wonder, though, if children who never or seldom experience getting decked out in their “Sunday best” attire are missing something. Memories of learning how to tie a necktie or of wearing bright Easter dresses, perhaps.

“Guess they don’t know how cute they would be,” said one Spokane grandmother.

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