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Five Style Lessons for Today's Young Woman

12/23/2014 12:18 EST | Updated 02/22/2015 05:59 EST
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I was sitting on a patio in Melbourne and two teenage girls walked by in the same outfit: jean shorts and a tank top. One pair of shorts was particularly short and on the verge of showing the girl's bum cheeks. I turned to my boyfriend and said,

"I don't get it. What is the obsession with jean shorts and wearing them so short?"

"It's the uniform of every teenage girl," he said.

I've never understood the desire to dress like everyone else. Our teenage years are an opportunity to start building individualism and independence, and fashion is a passageway.

I've never worn jean shorts and I'm a 27-year-old woman. It's an unusual circumstance, since denim is such an iconic wardrobe staple in North America. As a teen I didn't shop at the same retailers as my friends, namely American Eagle and Abercrombie and Fitch. I longed to discover unknown labels from faraway places in different fabrics, cuts, and styles. Fashion was a way for me to be different.

Teens can be more individual than ever today with greater access to fashion and sources of inspiration. If our teen years are an important time of discovery, why are teenage girls wearing the same jean shorts that models started wearing in itsy-bitsy style almost 60 years ago?

I wanted to learn more about this staple wardrobe item that has been heralded by fast-fashion retailers, high-end designers, and celebrities, and in the process encourage teenage girls to embrace style and individuality.

I spoke with Tiyana Grulovic, Fashion Director for Aritzia, Marie Lodi, Beauty Editor for Rookie Magazine, and Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner, author of You Are What You Wear, to gain insight.

These are learnings for parents who are navigating difficult years with their teenage daughters -- I was a brat at 14 -- and for teenagers who might be reading Huffington Post.

I've assembled what I've learned into five style lessons for teenage girls to consider today:

1. Dress differently to express how you feel.

I was a loyal and enthusiastic shopper at Winners, a discount Canadian department store. That was pretty weird for a kid in a small town, where the popular choice for shopping was the local mall. I'd visit Winners almost every weekend to skim the racks, find one-of-a-kind items, feel the dreamy, buttery leather jackets from Italy, and ultimately go home with something that no one else would have.

Dressing differently made me feel happy and empowered. I played with different cuts, styles, and fabrics to discover what fit best for my body shape and which colours complemented my olive skin tone. I still use this knowledge today when shopping.

Some of my best sources as a kid were the discount sections at department stores and discovering new cultures and ways of dressing while traveling with my family. Warehouses and department stores expose people to labels from all over the world -- some from big fashion houses that are trying to get rid of an overstock of product.

I encourage teens to go beyond the typical retailers at their local malls, and rather look to these stores as once-in-a-while shopping. Seek out thrift stores, where you can find practically new items and fun vintage shoes. Visit department stores and see what styles you gravitate toward, and how you feel wearing different clothing and accessories.

2. Style is not what you wear, but how you wear it.

It's easy to fall into the trap of buying what's consistently on the self when teens have several fast-fashion giants vying for their attention.

In addition to celebrity influence, retailers like Forever 21, Guess, and Top Shop sell teeny, weeny shorts with frays, rhinestones and cheese grated pockets online for as cheap as $20 USD, making jean shorts even more accessible.

"If we consistently see an item, we are more likely to be open to wearing it," says Dr. Jennifer Baumgartner. "How we wear those options allow us to express who we are as individuals among those who wear the same items in a different way. As we grow into who we are, we are able to use clothes that express externally how we feel internally."

I'd often go through several wardrobe changes when I was a teen, unsure how comfortable or confident I felt in one look. For high school dress-down days, I'd go shopping to find a new outfit. Looking back it was completely unnecessary, but no one was encouraging me to focus more on how I feel inside and to use my clothes to express those feelings. This could have meant changing up an existing outfit by adding different accessories like jewelry or a scarf.

"Clothes are more than just items we wear. Young women can use them to flex their creative muscle, improve their mood, send a message to an observer, alter the reaction an observer may have to them, and take a risk."

3. Discover what YOU like. Look for inspiration from new sources.

As a teenager, I loved gossip and fashion magazines as much as the next teenage girl. My mom got me a subscription to Seventeen when I was 13-years-old. That was almost 15 years ago. But today, teens have more freedom to choose how they want to receive information, and social media can be a positive guide of this inspiration process.

Dr. Baumgartner says teenage women today have an endless array of options and immediacy that fast fashion creates.

Women who wore jean shorts in the '60s didn't have the same breadth of choice or the positive influence of social media.

Channels like Instagram and YouTube provide access to thousands of independent artists - jewelry makers and fashion designers -- who use social media to showcase their products, and share different styles. These artists can be a huge driver in creating individual style.

"...with social media, teenage women are able to interact with others having their current and future fashion choices deterred or reinforced," adds Dr. Baumgartner.

I think social media can be a positive way to interact with others. It's an opportunity to share and learn from teenage women of different cultures and geographies, where style will criss cross in several different ways based on social, economic, cultural, and political perspectives.

4. Be the right kind of comfortable.

Despite my long-embraced shopping routine, I've tried to like jean shorts.

I've looked at jean shorts on the rack. I've tried them on, and I've never found a good fit or a look I like. They've never been comfortable. I've never been the type of person who can wear something that physically feels uncomfortable -- tight or short -- but might look cool or conform to what everyone else is wearing.

"...we usually end up wearing something because someone we look up to has done the fashion legwork for us and because of their trying out a trend we feel comfortable wearing it too," says Dr. Baumgartner.

Almost a year ago I went into a consignment shop in Toronto to find tops and shorts to bring on my trip to Asia. There stood the denim rack. Mish-mashed hangers hung shorts of all styles and sizes like a carousel laundry line. I approached the rack with positive thinking. I stared at the selection of jean shorts and thought, denim could be a sturdy fashion choice for long days of travel; and I wouldn't have to wash it often.

I picked up a few pairs and headed to the change room. As I slid the shorts up my legs, the fit got tighter. As usual my bum didn't fit, but the waist did. This has been my case anytime I've tried a pair of jean shorts. I blame it on my athletic legs, but maybe shopping for denim is like shopping for a bra, and I hate shopping for bras.

"If you find the right cut for your body, you can wear them with practically anything whether it's for hanging out or going out," says Grulovic.

While I don't prefer jean shorts, Rookie Magazine Beauty Editor Marie Lodi -- who writes for a teenage audience -- believes, "What's great about denim shorts is that they are so versatile, so you can wear them with a vintage tee, a boho blouse, a plaid button-down, crop tops, or a halter. You can also enjoy them after summer by accessorizing them with black tights."

Admittedly I've never really loved my legs, but that never stopped me from trying. More than the shape of my legs, I want comfort. If they don't stretch, I won't go near them. I'd rather be comfortable in my leggings, skirts, and dresses.

If you like jean shorts, wear them, but at least find a way to be comfortable whether through the length, fit or style you choose.

5. Take advantage of today's accessibility to fashion

When I was a teenager online shopping wasn't available and Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook didn't exist. I didn't have access to e-commerce websites; I referenced catalogues and fliers or went direct to the store. Shops like Aritzia or Spoof on Queen Street in Toronto were popular Saturday shopping destinations, but I didn't have the opportunity to go online beforehand to see what was available.

With so many sources available today, fashion is constantly changing the way we shop, where we shop and how we shop. Today's vast accessibility provides a huge advantage to build individual style.

"Fashion today moves at a much faster pace than ever before," says Grulovic. "We're always on the hunt for the next, the new, the most of-the-moment trend."

Take advantage of the multiple avenues of fashion to design your wardrobe, the way you want it. Go in-store, go online, go to a thrift shop, order from a local artist, and visit a pop-up shop. The more avenues you take, the more style and individuality you can build. The more style you build, the more you can express how you feel.

Today, fashion is always changing and we have accessibility to different styles more then ever. Rather than wear the same jean short styles from almost 60 years ago, embrace your individualism and be different.

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