With her pale green Fila warm-up suit, monogrammed gold earrings and Louis Vuitton handbag, Shereka White is, acccording to her classmates, the best dresser in her class at Potomac High School in Oxon Hill. It is a title that the 16-year-old junior wears proudly and one that does not come cheap.
To send her daughter back to school in style, Shereka's mother spent $1,000 on such must-haves as Calvin Klein acid-washed jeans, Guess? denim miniskirt and Nike tennis shoes. Even so, there were a few things she had to do without.
"I love clothes and I like to have expensive things," Shereka said matter-of-factly. "The more something costs, the more I want it. I sulk and cry until I get it."
Such demonstrations are not unusual. Many young people today are under unprecedented pressure to dress in the latest styles and seem to go to new extremes for the sake of what's chic, according to educators, retail store workers and the children themselves. The money for wardrobes, sometimes thousands of dollars a year, the students said, come from earnings from jobs, their parents -- and sometimes drug sales. In some schools, teen-age drug dealers are the fashion leaders, setting pricey trends that have all the longevity of a Top 10 record album.
Classmates who don't invest that kind of money in clothes or who buy designer imitations, students said, are often called names such as " 'bama," someone who lacks sophistication, or even worse, they're called "off-brands." At the other extreme, clothes consciousness has led to violence as students fight over $95 sunglasses and designer sweatshirts.
At a few public elementary schools in Baltimore and the District, principals are trying to control the situation by requiring students to wear simple uniforms to school. While the idea has not yet caught on in the suburbs or at the junior high or high school levels, where the fascination with fashion is the most intense, several administrators said they believe uniforms would be beneficial.
Sizing each other up in hallways and parking lots last week during the opening days of school, thousands of Washington area junior high and high school students silently preached the latest fashion gospel from T-shirts and pants pockets: Polo and Bugle Boy are hot, Izod and Jordache are not. Adidas is okay, but Mistral and Le Coq Sportif are better.
"I don't finish school shopping until the end of the school year," said Monica Griffin, 17, a senior at Coolidge High School in the Brightwood section of northwest Washington, who estimated that she spends between $4,000 and $5,000 a year on her wardrobe, including Gucci sweatsuits, Gortex jackets and suede suits from Raleigh's-items that cost upward of $200 each.
"Kids are influenced by their peers and in turn put the pressure on their parents to dress them in a certain manner," said Leonard A. Upson, principal at Roosevelt High School in a working-class section of northwest Washington. "When the parents cannot afford to, they feel like they are not being the kind of parents they should be and make all sort of sacrifices. I know of situations where parents take on second jobs so they can command the kind of salary to buy their kids the designer whatever."
Each generation of teen-agers has had its own cravings for clothes. The difference in the 1980s, according to several retailers, is the number of outfits teen-agers buy and the prices they are willing to pay.
These young consumers are often influenced by their favorite musical groups, slick advertising campaigns aimed at the youth market and, in some cases, the upscale tastes of older friends and relatives who get money by drug dealing and stealing, students and educators said.
"I hate to say it, but it's the hustlers who really put out the styles," said Bertrand Gilliam, 16, a junior at Ballou Senior High in the Congress Heights neighborhood near Bolling Air Force Base. "They are the ones who can afford to have the best clothes and nicest cars. What they're wearing, everyone else starts wearing too."
John Caldwell, manager of Four Dudes, a popular shoe store at Iverson Plaza, said it isn't unusual for teen-agers to pay cash for $500 worth of sportswear and shoes. "The only thing I ask is, 'How many pairs do you want?' " Caldwell said. "Where they get the money is none of my business."
Caryl Stalick, a mother of two teen-agers from Bethesda, said she is no longer shocked at having to shell out $30 for a T-shirt from Benetton and has resigned herself to spending more for her daughter Cathy's clothes than for her own.
"They never want anything on sale," Stalick said. "Personally, I don't see the harm in getting them a few designer things if it means that much to them. But you do have to set limits and know when to say no." Recently, Stalick put her children on a $100-a-month clothing allowance, which, she said, forces them to learn to budget their money and make their own choices about how much to spend.
Some educators said their students' concern with appearances is basically harmless and at best can be a positive force in school. This is especially true in wealthier areas, where families can afford to keep up.
"I think kids are dressing better now than at the end of the '60s, when I was teaching kids in halter tops and miniskirts," said Jesse Smith, principal of Wilde Lake Middle School in Howard County. "Many of them have gone to a preppy look, which is more appropriate for school and forces them to take themselves more seriously."
"Parents care about your appearance. How much it costs doesn't seem to matter," said Larry Bergenfield, a senior at Winston Churchill High School in Bethesda.
Wealthier students said they tend to indulge their passion for fashion with a studied casualness; in other words, the idea is to care about clothes without looking as if one cares about clothes.
"If you dress too nice, people make fun of you," said David Titus, 11, a sixth grader at Howard County's Wilde Lake Middle School.
However, the appearance of wealth is sometimes very important among those with less money, educators said. Dr. Sterling Marshall, principal of Potomac High School in Prince George's, said that some of his poorer students' concern with clothes is so excessive that it "takes away from the learning experience and their overall social development."
"They tend to rearrange their priorities. If they need to buy an accounting book, they may put it off so they can buy a Coca-Cola sweatshirt that costs $50," Marshall said. "They may work until 11 o'clock at night on a daily basis to pay for this stuff, then they get behind and their skills become deficient and their self-esteem plummets. Some of our dropouts are our best dressers."
For students from families with low or middle-level incomes, clothes confer status, some school principals said. And the more something costs, students said, the better.
"The girls pay a lot of attention to what I wear," said Derek Thompson, 19, who admitted a certain fondness for Pierre Cardin dress shoes and Fila sweatsuits that can cost up to $400. "They go for it because they think you got money."
For Thompson, Thursday was payday and that meant one thing: a trip to Iverson Mall. Skipping his classes at Gwynn Park High School in Brandywine, the 19-year-old senior spent the better part of the morning shopping for back-to-school clothes.
By early afternoon, he had made three purchases: a pair of black Guess? jeans, an $84 pair of Nike sneakers, and a new Russell sweatsuit. His $200 paycheck was gone, but Thompson was happy.
"I don't wear stuff I wore to school last year," said Thompson, who plans to return to the mall when the weather cools to buy two of the season's other hot items -- a fur-trimmed leather coat and knee-high Timberland boots. "Why? I like keeping up with the styles."