BALTIMORE — When 15-year-old Michael Thomas left home for school last May, he couldn't have been prouder. On his feet, thanks to his mother's hard work, were a pair of spanking new Air Jordans--$100 worth of leather, rubber and status that to today's youth are the Mercedes-Benzes of athletic footwear.
The next day it was James David Martin, 17, who was strolling down the street in Thomas' new sneakers, while Thomas lay dead in a field not far from his school. Martin was arrested for murder.
For the Baltimore school system, Thomas' death was the last straw. He was the third youngster to have been killed over his clothes in five years. Scores of others had been robbed of name-brand sneakers, designer jogging suits, leather jackets and jewelry.
This fall, the school board instituted an exclusionary dress code. Devised by parents, students and educators, it prohibits leather skirts and jackets, jogging suits, gold chains and other expensive items.
Clothes, said board president Joseph Smith, had just gotten out of hand.
Across the nation, parents, school officials, psychologists and even some children agree.
They say that today's youngsters, from New York's poverty-ridden South Bronx to Beverly Hills, have become clothes fixated. They worry over them, compete over them, neglect school for them and sometimes even rob and kill for them.
This obsession with clothing, say those who study it, is fueled by the visual media and advertising, is nurtured by overindulgent parents and is reinforced by youthful peer pressure and the child's overriding desire to fit in.
And, they note, the clothing industry is using advertising to court today's youngsters at a younger age and with much greater intensity.
"All of these people understand something that is very basic and logical, that if you own this child at an early age, you can own this child for years to come," said Mike Searles, president of Kids 'R' Us, a chain of specialty children's stores. "Companies are saying, 'Hey, I want to own the kid younger and younger and younger.' "
Thus, as early as age 4, many of today's children embark on a frenetic quest for the right clothes with the right style and the right name in order to maintain the right look.
For schoolchildren, clothes no longer represent just good grooming; they have become symbols of status, indicators of wealth and a passport into the mainstream of today's childhood.
"We've seen that to today's kids, the clothes and footwear are a sense of who they are," said Betty Richardson, vice president of marketing for Reebok. "They represent what they think to be special and what they think to be important to them."
And what is important, youngsters say, are name brands--Nike, Reebok, L.A. Gear, Guess, Bugle Boy, Jimmy Z, Cavarrichi, Edwins, Benetton, Esprit, Public Image, Gitano, Jordache, Ultra Pink and dozens more.
They wear the names like badges of honor. Show up for school without them, students say, and they may be ridiculed, scorned and sometimes even ostracized by their classmates.
"When people look at you and you're not wearing something that has a name brand, they'll comment on it," said Aime Lorenzo, an 11th grader at Beach High School in Miami.
"People will tease you and talk about you, say you got on no-name shoes or say you shop at K mart," said Darion Sawyer, 10, of Tench Tillman Elementary School in Baltimore. Children have developed derisive nicknames for non-name brands--"bo bos, no names and fish heads."
One group of Miami sixth-graders have even developed a sarcastic couplet: "Bo bos cost $1.99. Bo bos make your feet feel fine."
Youngsters, naturally, try to avoid such taunting. Jessica Hoffman, 11, spent three hours earlier this year trying to decide what to wear for her first day at Walter Reed Junior High School in Los Angeles.
"It sounds stupid," she said, "but what I was worried about was whether people would like what I was wearing."
Schoolmate Tim Baca picked out his first-day outfit three days before school started.
"I think there are very few people who dress for themselves," Shelly Ann Gouldborne, a Miami High School student, said of her contemporaries.
Educators complain that because of such attention to attire, schools from the elementary level to high school have become fashion shows as students try to either outdo each other or just keep up with rapidly changing trends.
"I've seen kids come in with wallets and purses that must be well over $100, and I can't figure out why a kid would spend that much money," said Alan Joseffberg, counselor at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. "And they all have to have a label on their jeans."
Robert Davis, a teacher at a middle school in one of Miami's poorer neighborhoods, said as a class exercise he and his class priced the clothes one student was wearing. It came to $180.
"And that was just for one day," he said.