By Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 5, 2009; A01
The first day of middle school looms, fraught with choices.
A skirt or jeans? Sneakers or flip-flops? Where, exactly, is that perilous line between looking cool and looking like your mom dressed you?
Of all the challenges for girls entering the sixth or seventh grade -- new building, new kids, new rules -- there is none so daunting as The Outfit.
These first-day ensembles are debated for days, sometimes weeks, endlessly vetted by best friends, older siblings and parents. Anxiety over picking the right look continues until the bus or carpool pulls up.
"You're always thinking about it. All summer," said Caleigh Pickett, 12, who plans to show up to the first day of seventh grade at Franklin Middle School in Chantilly on Tuesday in jeans and a white embroidered shirt from Abercrombie & Fitch. "It's the most important day. You want to make a good impression."
Starting middle school is a turning point in the lives of many girls. In addition to the thrill of having their first lockers, they quickly transition from allowing their moms to buy them "cute coordinated outfits" at department chains to doing their own shopping at a handful of stores their friends have deemed cool, said Sandra Markus, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.
Most of these girls have already hit one growth spurt, making back-to-school shopping almost a necessity. And in the next year or two, they will suddenly have figures, push dress code rules and struggle to find their own sense of style, she said. Boys are going through changes of their own, but fashion usually doesn't play as important a role for them.
"Fashion is not what defines a boy and doesn't define their pecking order in school," Markus said. "For girls -- I hate to say it -- it's all about what they are wearing."
And until these girls figure out their style, a discovery process that continues well into high school, they typically want to wear what everyone else is wearing. Brand names take on an outsize importance, and groups of friends often wear the same thing -- making those not in the group feel even more left out.
"In middle school, girls would organize little plans with their friends and text each other. Like, 'Everyone wear a dress tomorrow,' " said Raina Aide, 14, who attended Glasgow Middle School in Alexandria and will be a freshman at J.E.B. Stuart High School on Tuesday.
For the first day, many girls opt for something that's not too edgy but still shows some personality, signaling to others: This is who I am today. Please like me!
"When people think of Kristina Batal, I want them to think, 'Oh, she's someone you can count on. She has a great fashion sense. She's a good friend,' " said Kristina, 12, who is excited -- nervous-excited -- about starting seventh grade at Robert Frost Middle School in Fairfax on Tuesday.
To pull that off, Kristina plans to wear bright, confident colors: A bold green T-shirt with a gray skirt and hot pink leggings. She also has a new pair of see-through Converse sneakers that "change color every time I change my socks," which she hopes will be a conversation-starter with new girls, and maybe even boys, in her classes.
Kristina and her best friend, Julianne Bidus, have been planning their outfits for weeks, modeling in their bedrooms and conferring over video chats. They scoured the mall for ideas, then went to discount stores to find similar looks within their parents' budgets.
"I really didn't want anything too cutesy," said Julianne, 12, who plans to accessorize her bright blue skirt and neon green Converses with peace sign jewelry that subtly tells people she doesn't like petty fights. "It's my first appearance to everyone, so I want to look good. But not like I'm trying too hard."
And fashion includes more than just clothes. Unlike in elementary school, most middle schools allow students to wear flip-flops.
"We're all really excited about it. It's really cool," said Madeleine Tunnard, 12, who will also be a seventh-grader at Frost Middle. Flip-flops are an inexpensive way to add a splash of color to an outfit. A girl might have one pair of sneakers but a bin full of flip-flops.
And then there's lip gloss. Last year at Silver Spring International Middle School, everyone wore lip gloss, said Elia Tzoukermann, 12, who started seventh grade this week.
"I love wearing makeup, but my mom really doesn't let me wear it to school -- but she lets me wear lip gloss," said Elia, who describes her style as "original and eclectic," full of scarves and influenced by her passion for acting.
Lip gloss can have transformative powers, as it did in a Lil Mama music video about a girl who is terrified about going to a new school until her mom gives her a tube of confidence-building lip gloss. Suddenly she is dancing through the hallways, rapping: "My lip gloss is cool, my lip gloss be pop'n. I'm standing at my locker, and all the boys keep stop'n."
Moms are still key fashion advisers for new middle schoolers -- a role they savor, knowing that at any minute they might be pushed away.
Last weekend, Brody Harkless, 11, had to decide what to wear to the first day of sixth grade at Silver Spring International Middle. She laid out four outfits on the floor and then had her mother and aunt vote on which tops and bottoms they liked best. The three finally decided on gray cargo shorts and a black T-shirt that reads "Power to the Planet" in bold white letters.
Turns out, the outfit was perfect and gave Brody the boost of confidence she needed to make friends with a new girl who is in several of her classes.
"She came home and said, 'Middle school is the greatest,' " said her mother, Kelli Harkless. "Luckily, it was a good day and not a come-home-and-cry day."