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Barometer Of Cool First Week Of School Defines What’s In And What’s Out For Months To Come

For young people, the first week of school is the World Series of trend-setting.

It’s when the definition of “cool” gets tweaked once again.

It’s when parents hear, “Mom, I’ve gotta have some stuff that makes me look like I’m a hippie from like a hundred years ago.”

And it is right around the corner.

Sure, consumer-demand forecasters and marketing experts get paid a lot of money to predict what clothes and lifestyle accessories will be hot and not. And to an extent, the late summer blitz of back-to-school advertising can help shape purchasing choices.

But it’s not until kids actually find themselves immersed in the social swirl of the classroom and locker-lined hallways that the annual style parade’s true winners and losers get sorted out.

It happens fast, like the transition of a herd of buffalo from stillness to stampede.

For kids, school is the take-no-prisoners front line of fashion.

Paisley shirts, Davy Crockett lunch boxes, bell-bottom pants, Earth shoes, overalls, troll dolls, Dickies, cords, saddle shoes, Speed Racer stickers, knee-length shorts, the street-gang wannabe look, retro hairstyles, peace symbol medallions - you name it. The first week of school offers the big thumbs up/thumbs down.

You know it’s true. You’ve either been there or you are there.

Now no one is suggesting that summer is somehow devoid of fad-fueling pop culture obsession. Moreover, it’s probably fair to say that a lot of what kids wear to school was selected by parents who haven’t been within a connecting flight of hipness since Bobby Sherman was a heartthrob.

Still, the first week has a special dynamic. It’s when off-the-rack nominees for the title “The latest thing” undergo the ultimate test - the opinions of other students. Every year, young people go through the sometimes agonizing process of comparing and contrasting their own look and manner with those of their peers. And many decide to make adjustments.

The particular trappings might seem silly. For instance, YWCA administrator Joanne Shiosaki cringes when she recalls the psychedelic color schemes that were all but inescapable when she was going to school in Spokane in the early ‘70s.

But the motivations for following fashions of the times - insecurity, the desire to be accepted, yearning to explore an emerging sense of personal style - are no joke.

Over the decades, Labor Day has marked a point of change. It’s when perspectives shift about everything from the appropriateness of white socks to the desirability of madras shirts or painter pants.

One minute something is in style. Then, quicker than you can say “penny loafers” or “mohair sweaters,” it’s relegated to yesterday status.

In a way, kids returning home after the first few days of school are like football coaches who have been intensely studying game films of an upcoming opponent.

After they’ve had a chance to see what’s going on out there, they can come up with a plan.

For art gallery director/shop owner Derald Long, a 1955 graduate of Rogers High, the anointed outfit isn’t hard to remember. “White bucks, Levis and a white shirt.”

It’s not that everyone makes the same choices. After all, jocks and computer geeks seldom share values or have the same definition of what constitutes a winning look.

Even at schools requiring uniforms, few horrors compare to being mistaken for a member of the wrong clique.

Here’s the thing, though. Kids watch each other like predators crouching in deep grass.

Athletes, rock stars and TV personalities can provide suggestions about what to wear and what to say. But social scientists have told us for years that nobody makes a more persuasive role model for school kids than other kids - at least the ones who, rightly or wrongly, happen to be admired.

Of course, there’s nothing saying a girl or boy can’t evaluate a trend and then reject or modify it.

That’s what Trink O’Connor did when she was in junior high in Connecticut back in the ‘60s.

Seemingly everywhere she looked, girls were wearing white gogo boots. She didn’t care for them, to put it mildly.

“So I went with these really cool brown suede boots,” recalled O’Connor, director of sales for Inland NW Family Magazine.

In other words, not everyone is a follower.

When Spokane tavern owner Gail “Gabby” Johnson was a sophomore at Seattle’s Nathan Hale High School in the ‘60s, she was a leader in the mini-skirt movement.

“I was not one of the cool kids in school, but I wanted to wear them,” she recalled.

So she did.

And how did she look? “Excellent,” she said. “And I wasn’t the only one who thought so.”

What will be the mini-skirt of 1997?

We’ll find out in a few days.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Staff illustration by Molly Quinn

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