In many cases, students are so concerned about what they and their classmates are wearing, they forget what they came to school for, educators said. Teasing and arguments over clothes, particularly at the elementary level, result in fights and disruptions. On the high school level, counselors report that more and more students are working, often so they can keep up their wardrobes.
"Everybody is spending huge amounts on clothes and the kids who can't afford it--instead of doing homework and studying--are taking jobs after school just to buy designer jeans," said Patrick Welsh, a high school English teacher in Washington, D.C. "It's crazy."
In response, scores of public schools, mainly in Eastern cities, have voluntarily adopted school uniforms to cut down on competition. Paradoxically, educators say, in the current fashion climate, dressing students alike allows them greater freedom to be individuals.
But elsewhere, parents complain that their children are pressing to keep up.
"My daughter wants the $60 pair of jeans, but we're a $30 household," said Pat Anderson, who lives in Geneva, Ill., just outside Chicago. "Maybe if we had a $300,000-a-year income, that would be fine. But we're on a limited budget and there's no way we can afford this stuff."
"Money is always a battle," said Char Christian, who lives in the Chicago suburb of Hinsdale. "I am torn trying to determine the difference between what she needs and what she wants."
"It's awful," said Lissa Thompson of Orange County, the mother of two daughters. "It bothers me that children who are so young--7 and 9--are aware of things that are so unimportant. Don't get me wrong, I like nice clothes too, but I think there's a time and a place to be a kid. This is no time for them to be preoccupied with what you put on every day."
Psychologists say that an interest in trends and fashion, particularly at the older ages, is just a part of growing up.
"Some of this whole clothes business has to do with a normal developmental process," said Maryland psychologist Andrea Vanderpool, "but I think it takes on a more dangerous kind of aura when you see the lengths that these kids have to go to to look like everybody else and how the kids who don't look like everybody else are treated."
For clothing models, children look increasingly to the visual media--television, video and even movies. And, advertising executives say, there is no group more susceptible to advertising than youngsters.
Nancy Shalek, president of Shalek Advertising Agency, which has handled accounts for a number of children's clothing lines, is also a mother who is concerned about the effect of advertising on today's youth.
"Advertising at its best is making people feel that without their product, you're a loser," she said. "Kids are very sensitive to that. If you tell them to buy something, they are resistant. But if you tell them they'll be a dork if they don't, you've got their attention. You open up emotional vulnerabilities and it's very easy to do with kids because they're the most emotionally vulnerable."
Peer pressure can also be a powerful force.
One result is readily apparent in the shopping cycle. Stores say the two biggest shopping periods for school clothes are the week before school begins and the week after school begins.
"The kids go to school and they find out somebody is wearing Reebok instead of Nike or acid-washed jeans instead of tapered," Searles said. "So the desire to fit in drives to more purchases that are totally peer-related."
But, observers say, parents can also unwittingly add pressure.
Prof. Carol Seefeld of the University of Maryland's Institute for Child Study sees too many acquisitive, success-sodden adults chasing after too few superficial advantages for their children.
"It's the Reagan 'You are what you spend' mentality," she said. Seefeld said that parents too often have a need to turn their kids into pint-size status symbols.
"I have parents who tell me they buy $50 Nikes for their kids because the kids really want them. I know developmentally that a 4-year-old doesn't know labels unless it is drummed into him. That's why you end up with pre-adolescents demanding $100 outfits."
She adds that adolescent pressure and advertising aimed at kids can hardly be blamed for the huge amount of money being spent on status items for newborns--$300 strollers, $40 name-brand sneakers, $10 designer booties, $80 coveralls.
Child, a magazine devoted to the nation's newest customers, said a couple can spend $60,000 in the first two years of a baby's life. In interviews for this story, some parents admitted spending as much as $4,000 a year to outfit older children.
"It's a very strong sign of the times when our generation is more materialistic, where greed and consumption are high on the list," said Lydia Caffery, an editor with the Tobe Report, a fashion industry trade publication. "The children learn it from their parents--who has the nicest car on the block, who's redecorating the living room."