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Eye on Teen Fashion

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The Smithsonian Institution--perhaps best known for its natural-history exhibits and the National Air and Space Museum--is turning its attention to teen fashion.

The costume division of the National Museum of American History in Washington has undertaken a survey of teenage fashion trends. Teachers across the nation have already been sent an educational booklet entitled "Image and Identity." One exercise asks students to describe, critique, and photograph the clothing styles worn by their peers. The responses are then sent to the museum for further study.

Claudia Kidwell, the museum's costumes curator, says the study is a unique opportunity "to collect information directly from teenagers." Most such studies rely on adult observations about youngsters, she notes.

But why fashion?

Ms. Kidwell points out that clothes have become increasingly important to American youths. Youngsters perceive clothing as one of the few aspects of their lives over which they have control, she says.

Not surprisingly, she says, the mass media--chiefly music videos and advertising--appear to be the primary influence on teenage tastes.

While the survey results are just starting to trickle in, some definite styles have already been identified.

First is the "typical" or "normal" style of dress--jeans and T-shirts, for example. Fans of the sporting look typified by the designer Ralph Lauren are often labeled "preppie." And lovers of recycled chic and the retro-60's look are known as "avant-garde."

"Hype," a look seemingly inspired by the rap-music phenomenon M.C. Hammer, appears to be the final word in teen vogue. A hypster is likely to sport a flattop hair style, baggy, knee-crotched pants, oversized shirts, and gold jewelry. One young South Carolinian writes that hype is "comfortable and easy to relax and 'chill' in."

"Chill" might indeed be the reaction of many school principals.--ewl

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