Not just a formality

Dressing kids in spring style with timeless accessories (such as manners)


Jill S. Browning

Roca. Alex Roca.

Usually a rambunctious 5-year-old, Alex was a cool, James Bond-like ring bearer when he donned a tuxedo at his aunt’s wedding last November.

"I got smooches from girls and I looked spiffy," Alex boasts about the benefits of his look for the big event. Alex was so smitten with his rented tux that he wanted to sleep in it that night.

Alex is one of those kids who enjoys dressing up, but for his 9-year-old brother Riley, wearing a coat and tie is sheer torture. "I feel restrained and I don’t like it," he complains.

A wedding is just one occasion that gives the kids the opportunity (or misfortune) to sport formal attire. With spring events such as Easter and first Communions coming up, is formal attire required—or can kids like Riley look forward to a more relaxed look?

Is formal out of fashion?

Events where formalwear is expected still exist, but there are far fewer of them.

"It’s not the same as when I was a kid," says Cathy Eisler, adjunct faculty member in the fashion design department at the Illinois Institute of Art, Chicago. "My mom dressed me in really ruffly dresses all the time. I have the movies to prove it."

Betsy Roca from Clarendon Hills and mom of Alex, Riley and 7-year-old Kate agrees that the standards have loosened. "I recall getting dressed up to go on an airplane ride," she laughs. Sweats and jeans are typical gear during the week, but she still requires the kids to dress up for church and special holidays.

Edith Vosefski, director of the Etiquette School of Northern Illinois, speaks about the traditions from yet another generation. Her parents, both born in the 1890s, required her to wear a dress for family dinners every night. "I never saw my father come to the table without his jacket on, except once, and that day it was 100 degrees and we had no air conditioner," she remembers.

Even though occasions such as family gatherings are more relaxed today than in the past, formalwear for kids is still sacred for some at church and temple—and the norm for special occasions such as weddings, family pictures, Easter, bat and bar mitzvahs, and first Communions.

Lisa Nelson, divisional merchandise manager of boys and infants for department store Von Maur, doesn’t see formal as ever going out of style. On the contrary, she says, apparel is becoming even dressier and her customers clamor for dress shirts and fancy dresses.

Today’s ‘normal’ formal

Of course, what counts as "formal" depends on the lifestyle of the family—and where they’re headed. The cruise and country club set might be enticed by a three-piece suit for their 12-month-old, whereas camping and cookout folk might lean toward a polo shirt and twill pants. In either case, a conservative look is always appropriate and never goes out of style—especially at Easter time.

Quintessential Easter looks include navy blazers or Eton suits (jackets with shorts worn with knee socks) for boys and smocked dresses for girls, with a hat, little purse and white gloves. "Easter was always an excuse for everybody to get new clothes," recalls Vosefski.

Those parents wanting to break free from inherited ideas of holiday wear are in luck this spring. "The trend in general for dressy is ‘modern dressy,’ which has a much more fun outlook," says fashion business writer Julia Fein Azoulay, based in Italy. "For formal occasions, the only necessary ingredients are fine, elegant fabrics and quality workmanship. Styling, however, can be perfectly playful, free and creative today—be it bohemian or vintage or avant garde."

For the more fashion-forward boys this spring, Nelson recommends trying a new "fun fashion" color. White and blue shirts used to rule, but now pink, green, yellow and lavender dress shirts paired with equally colorful ties have hit the scene.

Trendy girls share the same colorful palette as boys. Striped, polka dot and paisley patterns are dominant on dresses. Girls also have more options to achieve a dressy look without wearing a traditional Easter dress. Dress gauchos, shrugs, sweater cover-ups, peasant and circle skirts embellished with sequins are all prominent pieces and provide girls with an alternative look in formalwear. Distinctive detailing with organza, lace, ribbons and floral embroidery (imparting an ethnic, Indian feel) are also popular for garments and accessories this spring.

Why all the options? "People are bored with wearing the same old boring stuff," says Eisler. "The clothing in the store is much more colorful and more detailed, and more accessorized than it was before."

Frankfort mom Kristine Spada embraces the trends. "I’m not very traditional as far as formalwear goes," she says. "I want something that’s a little bit different that you’re not going to see on everyone." Spada shops at boutique stores and has even had some of her daughter’s dresses custom made.

The cost of class

The cost to cover a kid head to toe in formalwear—whether in the latest styles or those of yore—can be downright daunting. This is particularly true given all of the accessories a kid needs, including dress coats, belts, tights, shoes, hats and purses. The practicality of such attire is questionable since the kids most likely will outgrow it all before they wear it more than a few times.

For her two girls, Zoe, 8, and Clio, 6, Spada says she typically spends $75 for a special occasion dress and would spend up to $200 for a family member’s wedding. Outfitting a boy at Von Maur costs a minimum of $65 for tuxes, $60 for blazers and $150 for suits. A less formal shirt, sweater vest and khaki pants set starts at $45.

These prices are a pittance compared to what Carol Beitler, Glencoe mom of 13-year-old Rachel and 10-year-old Max, spends. She raves about the one-stop shopping at BCBG Max Azria in Chicago for Rachel, where it’s not uncommon to spend $250 on one dress. Even though her budget’s more bloated than most, she seizes the opportunity to "pass it on," as she calls it, and rotates items between friends and family.

Some parents rely on grandparents to foot the bill for their kids’ formalwear, and Nelson confirms that about half of Von Maur’s kid clothing is purchased by grandparents.

"Grandparents like to buy the fun stuff, and I have no idea what they spend," says Roca, who says her daughter Kate has some lovely (and expensive) dresses hanging in her closet.

For those without a sugar grandma, consignment shops and eBay offer significant value. Considering that most formal garments are worn only a few times, the condition can often be "like new."

"You don’t need to spend a whole lot of money to get your kid dressed up," says Vosefski, who adds that a collared shirt tucked into twill pants for boys and a nice party dress for girls, often will suffice. (Combed hair is a nice touch, too.)

Manners matter

Transcending both trends and costs, it’s important kids understand what dressing up is all about: respect. Vosefski believes it’s the parents’ responsibility to teach kids about dress codes, just as they teach them to say "please" and "thank you."

"Children should be taught that there are certain places where it’s only respectful to come dressed in a traditional way," Vosefski contends. She’s a big believer that many a job interview is lost because someone dressed inappropriately. So, it’s important to start the lessons in dressing properly early.

At most venues, however, kids can carry off a more casual look than adults. For example, not many places require boys to wear a tie and jacket. What might cause a raised eyebrow or two, is when they are dressed older than their age. Spada’s a trendsetter, but she says she’s shocked when people put their 8-year-old in tube tops or four-inch heels.

The "tween" years are particularly tricky. "So many girls are starting to experiment," says Beitler, who has strict rules for what Rachel can wear. "The skirts are really, really short, and I just find that they’re not dressed age appropriately."

Media might be contributing to these "age-upping" tendencies. "Children are very sophisticated," Fein Azoulay comments. "MTV, the Internet and text messaging mean they can find out about all the newest looks even before they hit the stores."

Eisler, who also has a 13-year-old daughter, wishes that parents wouldn’t let their kids talk them into buying risqué looking attire. "They need to stay kids as long as they can be kids," she says.

Pretty, please?

Some kids don’t need to be coaxed into dressing up.

But others aren’t as compliant when it comes to sacrificing comfort. Spada says that for her older daughter, if a dress itches or feels weird in any way, she refuses to wear it. Her younger one loves to wear exquisite dresses though, and "can suffer through the pain," says Spada.

It may be true that clothing makes the man—or boy. Donning nice clothes sometimes seems to require better manners, too.

"Alex knows that the attire calls for better behavior, but I almost think it works in reverse for Riley," says Roca of her two boys.

"He feels so constricted and so confined and hot ... he’s not lighting napkins on fire, but you can just tell he can’t wait to get into something more comfortable."

Do formalwear designers ever consider a kid’s comfort? "We look at it more as a safety issue as opposed to a comfort level issue," says Nelson.

For example, she says that manufacturers have high standards when it comes to ensuring that buttons can’t pop off and pose a hazard to young ones. Safety trumps comfort.

Sorry, Riley. Looks like you’re not safe from having to wear a tie this spring—or probably ever.

Traditional holiday garb such as smocked dresses and suits or sweater vest sets are always proper for formal spring events.

For other dapper duds this spring, experts say to consider:

• Embellishments such as sequins and floral Indian patterns.

• Light and airy ballerina-like dresses in pastel shades of pink, green, lavender and yellow.

• Peasant and circle skirts (for a retro ’50s style).

• Shrugs and sweater cover-ups.

• Dress gauchos.

• Dangly, delicate earrings and necklaces.

• Bright pastel dress shirts and ties for boys.


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