Calling herself a leader in urban style, Jody Orso said she has no sympathy for those who can't afford the hip, "fresh" and "dope" designer duds that she and many of her Westchester High School classmates drape themselves in.
"At my high school, and schools like Crenshaw, Manual Arts and Dorsey, it's a big fashion show," said the South-Central resident. "And if you can't afford to dress for the party, you should go somewhere else."
To pay for her Guess? jeans, Nike tennis shoes and the rest of her brand-name wardrobe,Orso works part-time as a lifeguard and telemarketer. She estimates that she spends $500 a month on clothes, shoes and accessories--about what she earns at her jobs.
"Image is important," the 16-year-old said. "People talk about you if you don't dress up. But people know I'm a good dresser, so if I don't dress up, they'll say, 'Oh, Jody must have a cold or be in a bad mood.' "
Throughout Los Angeles, school hallways have become fashion runways for thousands of teen-agers who crave the attention and respect they think brand-names clothes and shoes give them. In Central Los Angeles, where many of the hip-hop and street styles originated, the desire to follow fashion trends is intense.
Some students spend hundreds of dollars a month on clothes and shoes. At some schools, the need to look good is so overwhelming that some students take extraordinary risks to acquire designer apparel.
"When people can't afford the clothes, they'll steal (them)," said Susie Hernandez, a 16-year-old junior at Locke High in South-Central. "When they go in the dressing room, they'll hide (stolen) clothes underneath their baggies."
Because of the heavy peer pressure and the fact that many of the styles that youths are drawn to are associated with gangs, many schools have introduced voluntary uniforms--with mixed results.
"About 75% of our students are wearing the uniform," said Marguerette Smith, principal at 36th Street Elementary School in South-Central. "Children compete to have the most expensive tennis shoes and parents can't keep up. The uniforms make all students equal."
The Los Angeles Unified School District, which allows schools to set their own dress codes and introduce uniforms on a voluntary basis, doesn't keep track of which schools have adopted them. But district officials estimate that dozens of Central Los Angeles schools--mostly at the elementary and junior high level, but also at Washington High School--are trying the new outfits.
"I saw other kids at school wearing the uniform, and they looked pretty good," said Shayleen Hillary, a fourth-grader at Woodcrest Elementary in South-Central, where about a third of the students wear the school's hunter-green pants and jumpers. "I told my mom, and she was like, 'Oh, you like it?' She was happy to buy it for me."
Parents generally welcome the uniforms because they are less expensive and more conservative than designer wear. Boys' pants for a uniform can cost as little as $10, and a girls' uniform blouse is about $6.
In contrast, a pair of Guess? jeans can run $60, a Karl Kani jacket can sell for more than $75 and the price tag on a pair of Nike Deion Sanders shoes can be $75.
"I could not afford to keep buying my son the expensive shoes and pants that he was asking for," said Troy Jones. His 13-year-old son, Jonathan, a student at Foshay Junior High, and 6-year-old daughter, Christina, who goes to 36th Street School, both wear uniforms. "I think clothes can mess up kids' minds because they're constantly checking each other out instead of worrying about their school work."
Although uniforms are a big hit among elementary children, school officials have had a harder time interesting older students in them.
Only about 100 of the 2,100 students at Foshay, near USC, wear the school's yellow, green and white plaid uniform that was introduced this fall, Principal Howard Lappin said.
Foshay's dress code prohibits students from wearing extra-baggy pants, white T-shirts with khaki pants, colored shoelaces and all college sweat shirts, except USC's and UCLA's. The banned clothing has been deemed gang-related by school officials.
Similarly, students at Dorsey High School in the Crenshaw area can't wear red shoelaces, belts with initials, or hats--except for Dorsey baseball caps. Similar anti-gang dress codes are in place at many other Central Los Angeles schools.
"Style and fashion are very important to kids," Lappin said. "But I'm concerned about the safety issue. I don't want to see kids hurt because of the clothes they wear."
Students who wear designer clothing, colors and accessories that are popular among gangs are sometimes innocent victims of retaliatory gunfire because gang members distinguish their rivals by the colors and styles they wear, said James Diego Vigil, an anthropology professor at USC and author of the book, "Street Life and Identity in Southern California."
"In a sense, they are agreeing to play Russian street roulette," he said.