Why Teens Care So Much About Clothes

"We place kids in schools together with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of other kids typically from similar economic and cultural backgrounds. We group them all within a year or so of one another in age. We equip them with similar gadgets, expose them to the same TV shows, lessons, and sports. We ask them all to take almost the exact same courses and do the exact same work and be graded relative to one another. We give them only a handful of ways in which they can meaningfully demonstrate their competencies. And then we're surprised they have some difficulty establishing a sense of their own individuality."

The above quote comes from Joe Allen's compelling new book, Escaping the Endless Adolescence, and regular readers of our blog will recognize that the passage was also the basis for one of our most popular recent columns, on why teens are growing up so slowly today.

Teens' lives are so fundamentally similar─both similar to each others', even very similar to much younger children, too. Teens might try for a different part-time job, or apply to different colleges (but those jobs and colleges are not really all that different from each other, either).

However, amid all this sameness, culture extols the adolescent who is an individual─better yet, a leader of his peers. Yet we give adolescents so few outlets to actually express themselves and allow them to find a place in the social hierarchy. The result being that the slightest differences─like a brand of jeans─become invested with an incredible amount of significance.

As Northwestern University's Adam Galinsky explained: "Maybe clothes matter because, at that age, you're unsure of status. And there may not be much else for them to base status on." Having the Right Clothes is a way of visually placing themselves within the social hierarchy. In choosing to wear a popular brand, kids brand themselves. Designer sandwich boards that read: "I'm fabulous" (or, quite literally, JUICY).

Don't make the mistake of assuming this phenomenon is a product of an American consumerist culture. The connection between dressing cool and popularity has remarkably well-established. In study after study, scholars have asked kids to describe the popular crowd, and "dresses well" is always near the top of the list of attributes. A study by Antonius Cillessen and Eddy de Bruyn asked kids in the Netherlands to describe the popular kids, and the Dutch teens also said that fashionable clothing was key to social status. Kids in Canada and New Zealand have also said the same thing. So have kids in Germany. And Pakistan.

(Oh, and just to be clear─we're actually talking about clothing, not physical attractiveness. Attractiveness is a plus factor for popularity, but it's actually less important than stylish clothes.)

Can you really buy popularity with a pair of $200 jeans?

Well, Galinksy's work suggests that really might be the case. Galinsky, with his colleague Derek Rucke, has been doing experiments on Northwestern college students. Their work is all about the relationship between social power and spending power. Previously, other scholars had theorized that high-powered individuals spend money to show off their status, while those with low power spend less. But Galinsky's evidence argues just the opposite is true. People in high power don't need status objects to shore up their social status. It's low-power individuals who have to spend money to climb up in status.

In fact, Galinsky can prime college students to momentarily feel powerful or weak (by asking them to recall a personal moment where they felt in control of others, or the opposite), and when he then puts them in spending games, it's the weak who pay too much for items that infer wealth, like fur coats, cuff links, and executive pens.

The best antidote for all this isn't to send a teen to the mall after a bad day at school. (And Galinsky's work suggests that'd be a danger to your credit limit.)

Instead, it is probably to give kids other opportunities to define themselves–activities or interests that they can call their own. But that takes time.

So in the interim, the best option may just being a little more patient the next time a teen daughter goes hysterical over the fact that she doesn't have the latest jeans.