By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 17, 2006
Anyone flipping through current issues of men's fashion and lifestyle magazines will have come across advertisements for Hickey Freeman boyswear in which two 10-year-olds are posed like a couple of jaded GQ models.
The blond boy stands with his hands in the pants pockets of his tan poplin three-button suit. He's wearing a blue striped shirt and a candy-colored rep striped tie. His hair is deftly gelled into a faux hawk, a style that is at once brutish and sweetly juvenile. His pose is studiously nonchalant, like that of a man waiting for the valet to come around with his car -- or, in this case, his scooter -- and there better not be a scratch on it.
The other child, who has exquisitely tousled chestnut hair, wears a navy blazer, tan slacks and a tattersall shirt. He is perched on the arm of a chair, leaning forward with one hand on his knee. He has the body language of someone in the habit of brokering deals and getting his cut off the top.
The boys are adorable in that freckle-faced, clean-cut, preppy way. (And undoubtedly they are well mannered and saving their modeling fees to pay for college.) But there is something discomforting about the manner in which they stare at the reader in their extremely grown-up clothes.
The boys have been starring in Hickey Freeman advertisements since they were 7 years old. And if there is anything unnerving about the photos, it may simply be because "people just aren't used to seeing boys dressed so well," says Julie Beynon, a spokeswoman for the century-old American company known for its traditional men's tailoring. Indeed, the kids are exceptionally spiffy. Both youngsters are even wearing pocket squares. More than a few gentlemen in the public eye could take lessons in style and grooming from them.
But go to any wedding, religious service or musical recital and it's possible to see spit-polished children. It's the unnatural facade of maturity modeled by the Hickey Freeman boys that causes the hairs on the back of one's neck to twitch. The image has a subtle "ick" factor akin to the one evoked by the sight of little girls dressed like women.
Of course, obvious concerns about sexual exploitation arise from images of girls dolled up in slinky gowns or any sort of suggestive attire. But there's also something distressing about girls simply wearing clothes intended for someone much older, wearing lipstick before they're out of elementary school, or wearing hair extensions when they should be in pigtails.
There's a sense that innocence has been lost, perhaps even violated. It's disturbing because girls can't possibly recognize or navigate the cultural maze associated with women's fashions.
For girls, dressing like an adult is inexorably linked to gender, body image and, of course, sex. So much of the fashion industry is dedicated to female sexuality -- celebrating it, exaggerating it, obscuring it. Sexuality is the obsession of womenswear designers. Sex-ed classes should include a subscription to Vogue.
The image of boys dressed like men underscores something else. Menswear designers only dabble in male sexuality. Their most pressing concern -- at least when addressing a predominantly straight male audience -- always has been in expressing power: financial, social, physical and cultural.
The Hickey Freeman boys are cloaked in that expression of power. They are posed to suggest that they understand the meaning of strength, authority and influence. But they're only little boys. And so the ultimate image leads one to think of power that is reckless, unearned and, perhaps, even infused with playground cruelty. The advertisement reminds one of the stereotypical indulged child of a corporate titan who threatens the headmaster at his private school with dismissal for some perceived offense.
Hollywood portrays virtually every snot-nosed pre-adolescent antagonist with a navy blazer, an adult stare and a kindergartner's sense of entitlement. These are the kids who terrorize the nanny, take advantage of the housekeeper and hate the way the cook makes a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Fire her, Mommy!
An over-sexualized little girl makes folks want to call child protective services. A boy dressed like a miniature master of the universe makes folks want to watch their back.