When Exceedingly Young Women Wear Designer Clothes

by Liz Colville

Elle Fanning, star of Sofia Coppola’s new movie Somewhere and the younger sister of Dakota, is only 12, lest you forgot or never knew. But she walks down the red carpet and lies across magazine pages in designer fashions like Chanel. She, among other tweens and teens, is already a “style icon,” or, in the words of the Daily Beast, “fashion’s favorite star.” Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams says it’s Too Soon, suggesting that these young ones are being dressed as if they’ve already reached sexual maturity, and that the pressure and exposure is unhealthy.

The problem is that the fashion industry is embracing these tiny ones, perhaps more than they used to, because they look at their circulation rates and think, “Why not? Let’s go younger.” The actresses and performers are already in the spotlight; it’s a matter of their team pitching ideas to the media and the media saying yes. (Wouldn’t it be great if tween actresses’ teams just didn’t pitch anyone? Not going to happen.) The women modeling the clothes in Vogue are sometimes as young as 14 anyway — “breathlessly fawning over preteen girls and their preteen girl bodies,” as Williams describes it, is something the fashion industry is used to; it’s comfortable for them, and therein lies the real problem.

But the reality is, a lot of the people profiled in fashion magazines are mothers, because a lot of the readers are mothers. Featuring people like Elle Fanning is just a fairly business-driven attempt to attract the Shoppers of Tomorrow. Also possibly: “Moms, look at the expensive clothes you could buy your tween daughters, if you felt like it.” But if this is done tastefully, is it still harmful?

Williams is right that the superlatives are too much. But magazines and blogs have to use terms like “icon,” “ingénue” and “rising star,” because they don’t think you’d pay attention otherwise. And one of the offending Fanning events Williams mentions, an editorial spread in Interview in which she wears “some serious Chanel,” is actually an example of how to treat a tween star right, I would say: the spread is cool and not terribly sexy, Fanning still gets to dress up, and her personality comes through in the photographs. Sometimes actresses make good models.

What happens off the set is up to the star and the people around her, and wearing Chanel certainly isn’t the worst thing that could happen; bad parenting is.