Idolising children as fashion icons goes way too far

US President Barack Obama's daughters have been elevated to trendsetters and style icons; doing this to any teenager benefits no one, and least of all the child

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 July, 2015, 6:20am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 July, 2015, 11:49am

In the aftermath of US first lady Michelle Obama's trip to London and Italy, the already voluminous oeuvre dedicated to the style of her daughters - Sasha, 14, and Malia, soon to be 17 - increased exponentially.

As they accompanied their mother to various public events, they wore an array of lovely, age-appropriate, creative frocks. Nothing was especially edgy, tight or revealing. And in these official moments, when they stood beside their mother and were, by default, informal representatives of the country, they were not a distraction.

But with the US obsession with transforming the barely worth mentioning into a scandal, a minor figure into a celebrity and so on, the Obama daughters have been elevated to trendsetters and style icons when all they have done is to be seemingly well-adjusted, intelligent, pleasant teenagers.

Some of the admiring language has come from other teenagers, and it's always nice when kind words come from contemporaries. But this unseemly exuberance seems to be coming from adults.

It does no one any good to declare a teenage girl a style icon. Fashion can serve a lot of roles. It can be a tool for communication, an emblem of power or a statement about sexuality. But before it is any of those things, it is a pleasure.

Girls - and boys - should be able to use it as an expression of creativity, a way of figuring out how they see themselves without having to carry a burden of representing something bigger and more universal than themselves. To be viewed as a style icon or influencer or trendsetter suggests that you have worked your way through fashion's many options and found the one aesthetic philosophy that perfectly communicates who you are - or at least who you want to be.

To give a teenager any of those labels is akin to thrusting them into adulthood too soon. Every teenager should be able to have their dalliance with a mullet, acid-washed jeans, Laura Ashley prairie dresses, Goth make-up or whatever fashion disaster of their era to teach them a lesson about finding out who they are.

The mouth-agape admiration for the Obama daughters stands out because it is typically reserved for celebrity infants. Prince George has already been proclaimed a trendsetter because adults - having seen him wearing baby Crocs - went racing out to buy them when Walmart has had them on display for weeks and nobody cared.

But America doesn't have royal children, so they go nuts over celebrity kids such as North West. Her parents, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West, have thrust her into the glare of camera flashes: in the front rows of fashion shows and in her own fashion shoot for CR Fashion Book, wearing a Chanel sweater and holding a little quilted Chanel handbag.

The black and white CR portrait is adorable. And certainly her being given the fashion icon treatment is in no small measure due to her parents' manipulations. But Cosmopolitan goes off the deep end when it publishes a "how to dress like North" style guide - for women, not their daughters.

Our interest in celebrity offspring tends to wane in their prepubscent years. They're not so cute then, and our attention wanders. We are drawn back only if there is some incident of bad public behaviour, or if, like the Pinkett-Smith children, they start to build professional résumés.

The Obama daughters captivate because they are, for the most part, seen but not heard. Some curiosity is natural. Yet, one of them wears a simple dress from Urban Outfitters or Anthropologie as they descend the steps of Air Force One with their parents, and adults react with such admiration that one wonders what these observers were expecting the girls to wear. Cropped halter tops? See-through dresses? Bandage skirts? Is every gush of praise, in fact, a sigh of relief that they avoided a teen sinkhole, a reality show trope or a racial stereotype?

Adults should not be disengaged from teen style. They should guide, counsel, encourage and, sometimes, simply say, "No, dear, that's inappropriate". But dubbing a teenager or child a style icon is our youth obsession writ large. It is the work of a culture with an insatiable need to "celebrit-ise". That's when we selfishly declare the young fully formed when they are only at the beginning of discovery.

The Washington Post