BOSTON — Children who can't afford designer clothing have invented their own status symbol: price tags.
Teen-agers around the country, many from low-income city neighborhoods, are flaunting price tags on their clothes. Some substitute the tags for the logo of an expensive clothing line they can't buy, while others use them on designer clothing, educators and retailers say.
"It's their status symbol," said Tim Johnson, who sells clothing for teen-agers in a Chicago store. "They can't afford Polos or Izods. It's their way of doing the same thing."
Hattie McKinnis, president of the Boston schools' parents council, said she recently tried to take the price tag off a garment her 4-year-old granddaughter was wearing, but the child said, "No, no, no, Nana, leave that on."
Youths display their tags on almost anything they wear--baseball caps, jackets with sports team logos or pricey tennis shoes with brand names such as Nike.
Owen Brown, 14, said he kept a tag on his hat and his sneakers. Asked why, he shrugged and said, "It's a style."
The tag wearing is a "ghetto version" of the way wealthy people show off their possessions, said Elijah Anderson, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.
"It's a very literal presentation of status," Anderson said. "People have to make sure that the ambiguity is gone, 'I am somebody, look at this.'
"With the upper and middle classes, you can imply, you can suggest. Your aura of civility protects you from further questioning."
Roy Turner, director of ABCD, a Boston youth center that offers after-school education and counseling, said impressionable teen-agers between 14 and 16 years old are most likely to wear the tags.
"You could just probably slap Madison Avenue on the back," Turner said. "Look at how they get the kids to buy $100 sneakers. They tell them that wearing expensive things is very cool."
The trend has some parents worried about the addiction many children have for buying expensive clothing.
The Dallas board of education adopted a strict dress code after parents complained about the prices of designer clothing and wanted uniforms worn in school.
"Kids are doing that (wearing tags) in school--not a lot of them, but some of them are," said Rodney Davis, spokesman for Dallas public schools.
Others sniff at the style simply because they don't like the way it looks.
"Our kids aren't really into that," said Duane Ewalt, a counselor at the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas.
Carole Barker, a parole agent in the Watts section of Los Angeles, disputes speculation that the tag style is chic among members of inner-city street gangs.
"Our guys are all gangsters; they aren't into that trendy type of fashion," Barker said. "They pretty much wear khakis that are three sizes too big and jeans."
The origins of the trend are hard to pin down. Barker says it was made popular by members of Bell Biv Devoe, an offshoot of the rap group New Edition. But Flavor Fav, a rapper with the group Public Enemy, said he started the fad more than a year ago when he performed with tags left on as a gimmick, Boston Magazine reported.
Nayo Sanford, assistant director of the Boys and Girls' Club in Boston's Roxbury section, said she doesn't see many youngsters wearing tags, only because the style has been around the city for three years.