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I Tried to Understand Fashion By Shopping with Teen Girls

How else is a 20-something going to stay ahead in the game?
Photo via Marie-eve Venne

This story first appeared in VICE Quebec.

In my gang of friends, I'm the girl who mostly dresses all in black, or I wear vaguely bohemian outfits that make me look like a variation on the Jessa from Girls. I have absolutely no clue how to mix different prints and colours. Deep inside, I'm just relieved to no longer have to get my wardrobe at Forever 21. I gave up on the idea of buying anything there the day I had a semi-existential crisis in one of their change rooms trying to comprehend how I should wear one of their pairs of ripped-up jeans. Curious to know who these people are who buy these clothes (and who know how to wear them), I decided to spend the afternoon shopping with a group of teenage girls.


All three of them 14 years old, Léanne, Alison and Erika graciously accepted to let me follow them around for an afternoon to observe them in a not too creepy way. (This is key.) The first thing I noticed upon joining my gang of experts for the day was just how different their style is from mine at their age. Though much of my most memorable outfits rightly deserved to be deleted from my MySpace and MSN profiles never to be seen again (I faithfully ensure on a monthly basis that none has resurfaced online), what they wear looks like a perfect ad for Garage stores.

As we enter the first store, their initial excitement fades quickly as they take in most of the fluorescent, multi-coloured clothing that looks like it came from the wardrobe department of the complete cast of Degrassi High. "OK, that's just plain ugly," says Alison holding a sweater that vaguely recalls Neapolitan ice cream. The others break out laughing and shake their heads in approval. "It's so much easier to say that things are ugly than that they're pretty," says Erika. "Seriously, girls, let's go somewhere else, there's just nothing here," says Léanne impatiently.

Heading for the exit, I spy a grey cotton tank with the inscription Sun, Sand and Summer Feelings That Last Forever and I can't help asking their opinion on the type of clothing that sports sayings utterly devoid of meaning. "It aggravates me. You see a super-pretty top, you turn it around and it says something like I love tacos," says Alison, looking discouraged. I still push it a little, asking them if they would wear a T-shirt that says Unicorns Are Real, but I quickly get a negative response and three heads look at me semi-disgustedly.


The girls explain that the big trend right now is anything in jeans and anything ripped. (OK, that might always be the big trend.) The more torn up, the better. And even better if it's a brand. "If I wear something like Michael Kors, for sure everybody's going to like what you're wearing," says Léanne, pointing out her and Alison's sandals as an example. "But at the same time, if it's not gorgeous, I'm not going to wear it just because it's a brand," she clarifies.

I ask them if the photos celebrities post on their Instagram accounts inspire how they dress. "No, not really. You know for sure that for her top, she paid like $750 and that I could never afford it," says Erika. "Me, when I see a look I like on one of the popular Instagram girls, I tell myself there's no point even trying it on," adds Léanne. Hearing them speak, I tell myself the people who recruit influencers thinking they can sell anything to teens should seriously spend a day shopping with them.

We hit another store, where the first shelves of clothing seem to be full of lacy, semi-transparent items. Léanne grabs a flesh-coloured bodysuit looking confused. "OK, that's clearly not for my age, and my sister would kill me if I wore that anyhow." She joins her friends in the swimwear section and their faces light up for the first time of the day. Between two floral bikinis, Léanne explains to me what makes buying swimsuits so awesome: "I love it, buying swimsuits, but it's really just something for me, and I don't strut around in front of others. Well, in front of my friends it's OK, but in front of guys, no way. They judge everything. They don't say it in front of you, but you still hear about it."


Erika grabs some slightly more eccentric items, but quickly puts them back, hardly looking at them. "People judge what you wear so easily, especially between 12 and 16 years old. I have my style and I like being daring sometimes, but I always make sure not to attract negative comments. I know that when I'm older, people won't care then what I wear," she explains to me. I don't have the heart to admit that there's not much that changes getting older.

The time to go our separate ways approaches, and I'm suddenly overtaken by the masochistic impulse to ask them what they think of my clothing style. This day, I'm wearing a metallic skirt, a floral crop top, my faithful leather jacket, a pair of Converse, and my blue hair is braided—an outfit that lets me pass as basic on any Mile End street. "Well, of course, people our age will look at you and say, wow, she's different. But that shouldn't keep you from being who you are," answers Erika, who I mentally note is the gang's philosopher.

"People always judge first, and after they'll see that it's not so bad. Y'know, we're not saying you're ugly," Alison reassures me. I suddenly have a flashback of my high school years, and approaching my thirties no longer seems so terrifying.

When I get back to my place, I receive a message from Léanne who sends me two photos of T-shirts they found after I left, one that reads Unicorns are Real. I can't keep from smiling, knowing perfectly well there's no risk they're buying it.

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