Cool clothes maketh the teen
For one glorious and confusing month in the autumn of 1986, I was cool. Kinda sorta.
It was all down to a pair of trim ice-blue Guess jeans with zips at the ankles. The Guess logo, an embroidered inverted triangle that adorned the peach-perfect butt of every verifiably cool boy and girl at my California school, was the stamp of acceptability the year I turned 12. And now it was sitting on my butt.
I paired the jeans, acquired after a pitiful begging campaign, with a blue and white striped button-down shirt and a pair of plain white sneakers. I bounced into the classroom in this crowd-endorsed outfit and I was a new girl. Still stringy, toothy and tender — but also better than I had been the previous week. Let me tell you: heads turned.
Curly-haired Nat (good at basketball, effortlessly likable) told me I looked "cute". It-girl Erica, a goddess of few words, flashed an encouraging smile.
An older boy named Adam, who wore broken-in Chuck Taylor high tops and rode a skateboard to school, started talking to me after class. He flipped his hair back, asked if I "liked" him. I didn't really know what he meant.
A few days later Nat invited me to a party. Adam would be there, and Erica, and former friends who had dropped me over the summer break, possibly because I dressed like one of the sisters in Little House on the Prairie. The party was to be at Nat's house and it was unsaid, but I somehow knew there would be alcohol.
I was now cool at a level I could not handle. Besides, what would I wear? I only had the one pair of Guess jeans, and I wore them to school three days out of five.
I declined the invitation. I told Adam I didn't "like" him. I slipped back to my rightful place in the pecking order, albeit with better clothes. That year I added some loud t-shirts to my wardrobe, a pair of pointy turquoise boots and loads of jelly bracelets. When I moved school the following year, I experimented with boat shoes, banana clips, Levi red-tabs, Doc Martens. I had learned the importance of dressing to fit in, and to get by.
Marketers have been trying to unlock the secret to coolness for years. While everyone can agree it is a social construct and that objects do not in themselves hold status, the process by which a group confers coolness on a pair of shoes or a bag or a big plastic hairclip remains a mystery.
Researchers Margaret Campbell, from the University of Colorado, and Caleb Warren, from the University of Arizona, who have probably come closest to a useful definition of coolness, say it has to do with departing from accepted norms which are seen as a bit unreasonable or unnecessary. The rebellion has to be appropriate, though, so it is cool to flout your school's dress code by wearing earrings, for example, but not by going naked.
Celebrity endorsement, slick marketing campaigns, product placement: these all help, but ultimately coolness spreads amongst peers, from one alpha to another, filtering down to the followers.
"It's not so much the item, it's who's wearing it," says Dr Natalie Smith, who has studied the fusion of Kiwi fashion and culture at the Benson and Hedges Fashion Design Awards, which ran for 30 years from 1964. "If you think that person's got a particularly cool vibe, you might want to wear what they're wearing. Dress for success."
As a teenager in the Waikato, Dr Smith, who lectures in sociology at Otago University, remembers how styles would flow from school to school via sports exchanges and during school holidays when extended family got together.
She also reckons the cool items had a much longer shelf-life before the New Zealand economy opened up and social media emerged. "Back in the 80s and before Rogernomics, before there was The Warehouse and Glassons, you often had to make your own [trendy items] and you had a bit more of an emotional investment in them," says Dr Smith.
She remembers rifling through her grandmother's button collection for big buttons she could sew on a top to replicate a trend she liked.
Marketing manager Maree Buscke of Napier recalls buying the white-hot sneaker of the moment when she visited the US in 1989. "My brother wanted me to bring back Reeboks like MacGyver used to wear, which were fiendishly expensive in New Zealand at the time."
Sometimes, in those pre-social media days, you could be too far ahead of the local trends. Auckland writer David Herkt learned this when he was about 14, and asked his mother to replicate a thigh-length denim jacket with red stitching he spotted in Esquire.
"I wore it precisely once because a boy at this school theatre trip I wore it to laughed at me in front of my friends. Truth is, there weren't many places I could wear a mid-1970s imitation designer denim coat in my social world."
Sociologist Chris Brickell, author of the book Teenagers: The Rise of Youth Culture in New Zealand, says that when we reach secondary school there is an initiation, both explicit and implicit, in how one dresses. You learn by watching others and by making mistakes.
"Up until the 1950s, teenagers basically wore clothes that were very similar to what their parents wore," says Brickell. "As the secondary school population ballooned after World War II, with more working class kids attending high school, a new kind of fashion for youths emerged." It was propelled by popular films like Rebel Without a Cause starring the beautiful and doomed James Dean and Natalie Wood.
Jeans, initially associated with disreputables like Dean's misunderstood character Jim Stark, were soon worn by all teen social groups. "You look at Bible class photos from the 50s and 60s, and a lot of the kids are wearing jeans."
"My social group had an anti-style," recalls Brickell, who was at high school in the 1980s. "It was a non-style of bits and pieces you got from Hallensteins or wherever."
Like many young New Zealanders, he wore a uniform to school, but there were particular quirks to the way the cool kids wore theirs, which were adopted by other students.
"Our school had a uniform with long socks but the boys would never, ever — ever — under any circumstances pull them up."
Similarly, there were unwritten rules around what constituted acceptable mufti-day fashion.
"I have this rather embarrassing memory of wearing this two-tone green blousy top thing to a mufti day in the Hutt Valley in the 80s and being laughed at. [Another time] I got shit for wearing [a puffer jacket] zipped all the way to the top."
For the four Watkin sisters growing up in Palmerston North in the 60s and 70s, the fashion focus was on acquiring store-bought clothing — anything made by their mother, a professional milliner, was considered naff.
"It was as much what you didn't wear as what you did, which made for exhausting times socially," remembers eldest sister Debbie, a psychologist. Her must-have list changed over the years, from bell bottom pants and 'preggy' floral tops with long, droopy collars to scrunchie hair ties, bush shirts and the classic oilskin parka, well worn-in.
Her cousin Cheryl Comfort, a Christchurch web designer, also coveted an oilskin parka, and waited for one to cycle through two sisters. "It was ripped and cool by the time I got it."
Comfort recalls a golden fashion moment from 1976 — a snapshot of triumph — when she rocked up to a primary school disco in a zip-up denim pantsuit. "I must have felt good," she says, "because I still remember it."
Watkin says, "I seemed to acquire quite a few of these cool items of clothing. I can't recall if this was because I was definitely on the outer and a social climber, or if these things got me into the inner circle and so I needed to keep getting them just to remain there. But I do remember how vigilant I was."
Pharmacist Sarah Syme, who grew up in Northland, remembers her impatience to get her hands on a flouncy multi-layered skirt (sister to the beloved bubble skirt) that was popular in the late 80s.
"Mum made me one in pink. I can remember hounding her to finish it, standing over her while she put the last stitches in before whipping it away from her, slipping it on and skipping out the door to the movies."
While the feeling of having the right item at the right time was priceless as the ads say, getting it wrong was excruciating and this pressure for authenticity seemed to grow with each passing year.
While eight-year-old me was quite happy with homemade knickerbockers (burgundy, often paired with a fluffy pink top that looked like the Pink Panther's pelt), 14-year-old me was disappointed by my mother's knitted colour-block jersey and wore it under duress.
"The worst thing was getting called out for having a knock off," says dancer Rhiannon Fairless, who was teenager in the late 2000s. "Note to tween self: don't think you can get away with buying pseudo Louis Vuitton from Thailand."
Tour guide Natalie Watkin-Ward says, "I definitely made the mistake of trying to get away with knock-offs, particularly in high school. I remember a rather tragic pink and black 'Von Dutch' backpack bought off Trademe that did not see me become effortlessly cool."
The same is true for adults — the markers of cool still are there (Deadly Pony handbags are where it's at in my world) and depending on your social circle, adhering to the rules can be as important as it was when you were 12.
Which is comforting, disappointing and exhausting all at once.
COOL THROUGH THE DECADES:
Fido Dido t-shirts
Levi red-tab jeans
Baby G watches
Converse Chuck Taylors