What hath Lolita wrought?

Somewhere between Nabokov and Swimfan, a great idea got lost--the idea that girls start out as kids. Sure, we all knew that children could be sexualized (Shirley Temple--what a minx!), but sexing up the schoolyard set has never been more profitable. According to Marketresearch.com, American tweens (a marketer-defined age group that starts as young as 7 and tapers off around 14) spend more than $30 billion a year. And now everyone wants a piece.

Youth retailers like The Limited (with its "Too" stores) and Wet Seal (with its "Zutopia") have hatched a fleet of boutiques to woo preteens as independent shoppers. These stores repackage the same cheap, disposable slut gear their parent companies market to teen girls--sheer blouses, hip-skimming pants--at pared-down prices and sizes.

Other innovators, like Web-savvy merchant Delias.com, are carving out "360 brands," comprehensive lifestyle lines that extend to bedding, housewares and online communities. Those industrious kajillionaires Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen have put their name to a full wardrobe of denim flares, cropped button-downs and miniskirts, as well as studded handbags, glittery cosmetics, and a new toddler line complete with denim split skirt and fitted black hip-huggers. Never mind the anatomical bafflement of hips on a 3-year-old--you have to wonder what occasions these get-ups are really for.

Local writer and mom Brenda Shaw most often clashes with her Robert Gray Middle School sixth-grader, Molly, over practicalities.

"She's asked for platform heels, but she can't safely walk, much less run, in platforms," said Shaw. "At 11, she should still feel free to sprint across the playground at lunch."

Issues of safety extend to the clothes: "I draw the line at clothing that's unsafe, clothing that either inhibits Molly physically or that's sexually provocative, "says Shaw. "Fashion that's overly provocative suggests a sexual availability that can only jeopardize an 11-year-old."

I could make a facile, grad-student statement about how trendy tween clothing forces style to associate with sexuality, but sexual suggestion is part of what fashion does. The minute you put kids in a "fashion" context, that door swings wide. And if tweens are savvy, "fashion-aware" consumers, a certain quota of trampy swag is inevitable.

But mainstream merchants are missing fashion's Good Ship Lollipop. Aesthetically, the options appear so obvious, so MTV Party to Go--the belly-baring tops, the stretch lace, the drop-trou slacks. Hoochstyle seems no longer a provocative look but a dumb, de facto uniform. If these togs were well-designed, in slick fabrics and colors, I wouldn't bat a lash. But big sister says...snore.

To Molly Shaw, it's obvious why girls her age wear low-riding Lolita-wear: "to show off their bodies." What bodies? Not to be prim, but let's break it down: Those plunging peasant tops and short-shorts aren't made for flat pre-pubescent chests and bony child booties.

Does America even get childhood--its spontaneity, its flamboyance, its fun? Check out Portland's own Hanna Andersson's all-cotton line (inspired by founder Gun Denhart's childhood in Sweden). These are clothes with smart details and strong style, designed for a kid's native ranginess and athleticism--not to mention rapid growth. It's not like girls can never choose snug, skimpy clothes if they want, but now, why at age 8? Let the wee hoydens live a little.

If tweens really are the consumer powerhouses marketers claim, giving kids ampler and more intelligent choices could only improve the bottom line--and the bottom line.

www.delias.com .

www.marykateandashley.com .

Hanna Andersson

327 NW 10th Ave., 241-1535