What Not to Wear: Kids and Teens Talk Fashion & Style

Here is a study we conducted with Nickelodeon that was featured in Nickeldeon’s Kaleidoscope in Kidscreen™ magazine. The topic of this study was “What not to Wear: Kids and teens talk Fashion & Style”.

Author: Nickelodeon (1/6/2009)

Here at the Brand and Consumer Insights Department at Nickelodeon Kids & Family, we live and breathe kid culture, continually tracking and identifying trends and exploring what it means to be a kid today. This issue of KidScreen marks the debut of our new monthly report Nickelodeon Kaleidoscope, where we’ll share findings on emerging trends, provide insight into attitudes and behaviors, and spotlight interesting developments in the kid and family cultural landscape. Utilizing our existing depth of knowledge about this demographic, each report will be supported by qualitative and quantitative research conducted and analyzed by the Nickelodeon Research team.

For January 2009, Kaleidoscope is focused on fashion and style. We know kids’ sense of personal style is very important to who they are. In fact, it is one of the most obvious, overt ways for them to connect to peers and define their individuality. Oftentimes, how a kid behaves doesn’t correspond with what he or she tells us; and that couldn’t be more true than in this category. In the first of a two-part report, we explore what fashion and style mean to kids and teens and look at the behaviors and attitudes that go into defining personal style.

Fashion vs. style

The words “fashion” and “style” have two very distinct definitions, according to kids and teens. Consistently, fashion evokes images of supermodels, runways, trends and brand-name clothes. Style, however, leads to a more emotional connection. Almost all of our kid respondents agree that style is a representation of themselves – a way to communicate who they are to peers and adults. On the other hand, fashion is more about brands and is viewed merely as a vehicle to create and inspire a style.

What defines style?

Style takes on different meanings depending on age and gender. For girls, style begins with clothes and encompasses everything from shoes and hair accessories, to jewelry and purses. Boys, meanwhile, only tend to have two major indicators of personal style – clothes and sneakers. For example, one nine-year-old respondent remarks, “I love to wear all kinds of sneakers that have fun colors to match my clothes.”

Younger boys and girls tend to view their styles in terms of individual articles of clothing they like. Once they reach age 10, kids, and especially girls, begin to conceptually think and shop with an entire look in mind. “Everything has to go well together and has to match from my head to my feet,” says one 10-year-old girl. Interestingly, kids say that hair is a significant part of their overall styles. Though maintenance levels obviously vary when it comes to boys and girls, both say that hair can “make the look.” The way one’s hair looks is also a representation of how much they care about their overall appearance. Some older girls even rank hairstyle as being more important than the clothes they wear.

So who cares?

By age eight, kids start to care about the way they dress and look. Mom’s customary role of helping to choose what they wear on a daily basis becomes less prominent and is nearly non-existent once kids become teenagers. While mom may still be the primary purchaser, kids are very opinionated about what they want and don’t want to wear. These opinions get stronger as kids get older and are expressed more commonly among girls. As might be expected, girls put significant thought and care into their personal styles. When talking to boys (ages eight to 12), personal style is something they claim they don’t care about. “I’ll just wear whatever my mom gets me,” says one of our eight-year-old boy respondents – a sentiment perceived as stereotypical for this demo. But despite what they’re saying, our data reveals that almost half of boys (46%) “really care” about personal style. Some boys as young as eight and nine are displaying signs of taking style into their own hands, being very specific about where they want to shop and what they wear on a daily basis.

The importance of “My Style”

Girls are able to easily label their personal style in one statement, using descriptions such as “girly-girl,” “casual” and “comfortable.” Boys, on the other hand, have difficulty putting a label on their style, oftentimes saying, “I’m just me.”

When exploring the importance of personal styles, almost all kids express a need to be “original” among friends and peers. A kid’s definition of “original” can manifest itself in one of several ways. Being the first to buy a popular brand, rolling shirt sleeves in such a way that’s unique, or buying pink boots when everyone else has them in tan are good examples. Regardless of how original is interpreted, kids and teens need to feel original when the conformity of styles is so pervasive. Overwhelmingly, kids and teens say they don’t like it when others “copy” them and that it detracts from their efforts to be “original.” As one 12-year-old girl puts it, “I like to keep up with popular styles, but I like to make my style my own.”

It’s worth noting that tween girls are the most impressionable when it comes to admiring styles they see on celebrities, in stores and on their friends. In contrast, by the time kids reach their teens, there is a need to break away and explore individuality. Teens will have often gone through one or two style transformations in trying to figure out which works best for them. By this age, there is more permission and acceptance about being bolder with individual style choices. “My style isn’t always everyone else’s, but it’s part of me and what makes me often stand out in a crowd,” proclaims a 14-year-old girl survey participant.

What matters about clothes?

Both boys and girls say the most important factor when choosing clothes is that they’re “comfortable.” But again, although they say this, our quant data actually shows that the most important factor is that “I look good in it.” This behavior is a direct reflection of the narcissistic attitudes that teens and tweens are experiencing.

For boys (ages eight to 12), the quality of clothes far outweighs the brand name when it comes to importance. This is a very different attitude than that exhibited by girls. Girls are driven by brands in both the clothing and accessories categories, using labels as a tool to tie them to friends. Boys, meanwhile, tend to look for interests outside fashion to bond with other kids.

Fashion and style, reflecting back…

Points to ponder: * When is it appropriate to talk to kids in terms of fashion? In terms of style? * How do you speak to boys without speaking to them? * Don’t forget the importance of the little things, such as jewelry, hair, shoes, bags, etc. * What are the different ways kids can be “original?” To find out how these attitudes relate to brands kids like and things they purchase, look for part two of Nickelodeon Kaleidoscope’s fashion and style report in next month’s issue of KidScreen.

Source: Nickelodeon Kids and Family Research (December 2008) and Touchstone Research (November 2008). Quant Sample size: N = 500.


Nickelodeon has utilized our online panel/community management capabilities and technologies for numerous innovative and ground-breaking research projects including Nickelodeon’s acclaimed Kaleidoscope studies published in Kidscreen™ magazine spanning several years.

Source: Nickelodeon. “What not to Wear: Kids and teens talk Fashion & Style.” Kidscreen Magazine 20 Jan. 2009. <http://www.kidscreen.com/articles/magazine/20090106/kaleidoscope.html?>.


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