Life’s a Fashion Show (If You’re a Teenage Girl)

Photo of Madeline Murphy

by Madeline Murphy

Madeline Murphy is a double major in physics and art from Dorchester, MA. Fashion is a hobby of Madeline’s, she felt it was important to look back and “explore the role of fashion in the world of middle and high school, to help myself and others better understand our outfit choices: a task we complete every day, yet maybe don’t analyze enough.” Madeline considers fashion to be an art form and often compares fashion trends to art movements. She enjoys sewing and has been working on enhancing her garment-making skills. Madeline enjoys painting portraits and reading books, particularly those related to physics theories. Despite the apparent differences between art and science, to Madeline, they “both operate as explanations of the world, and they make a lot of sense as a pair to me.”

Everything began at the mall. In the universe of adolescent female friendship, the mall is the Big Bang. It’s the beginning of everything for us. It’s at the mall where our first friendships are born, it’s at the mall where our consumerist habits are nurtured, it’s at the mall where we begin to understand ourselves.

I’ve loved clothes ever since I was little. I love concocting new pairings of pants and shirts. I love layering my necklaces and having a ring on each finger. I love seeing where the clothes take me, I love treating my outfits as an art form. I’ve lived most of my autonomous life as a teenage girl: an identity that has no doubt shaped the way I dress. From dress codes to fashion blogs, the way teenage girls dress has always been under a cultural microscope. We’re scrutinized and judged and condemned for the clothes we wear; therefore, our wardrobe choices often mean more than a simple “I like the color of this top.” We use fashion to talk to each other and to speak to the world around us, but how? How does fashion function as a form of communication for teenage girls?

The mall is not a respected place. Shopping is not a respected hobby. Treating life like a fashion show is a frivolous phase, a trivial usage of time. These cultural conceptions about the mall always ignore the crucial role that these massive shopping centers play in the development of teenage girls. In the article “Talking Fashion in Female Friendship Groups: Negotiating the Necessary Marketplace Skills and Knowledge,” Sheehy notes that often young girls “engage in long, intense talks” to build and sustain friendships but “girls often need the pretext of an activity” in order for these talks to occur (qtd. in Yalkin and Rosenbaum-Elliott 304). According to Haytoko and Baker, shopping therefore becomes the origin story of female friendship, “as demonstrated by the importance of the mall for female adolescents’ friendship groups” (qtd. in Yalkin and Rosenbaum-Elliott 304 ). As a young girl, the mall was the most magical place I could imagine. It represented infinite possibilities: every teenage girl in every PG-13 movie practically lived at the mall; shopping bags always dangled from their arms and their credit cards (mysteriously) never maxed out. To my understanding, the mall embodied the essence of teenage girlhood: a fact that has not changed since my middle school days. The mall is the creation story of adolescent female friendship, it is our collective Garden of Eden. Fashion is in our bones. Because the patriarchy demands that our bodies be left on eternal display (for a never-blinking, never-ending audience of men), our clothes take center stage in the performance of teenage girlhood.

The way teenage girls dress is under such a bright societal spotlight that deviating from the de facto dress code is an act of rebellion, therefore positing conformity as the most natural state to exist in. Teenage girls are an eclectic, kaleidoscopic group. There seems to be an endless gamut of “teenage girl”: cool girl, clean girl, it girl, fashion girl, artsy girl, sporty girl, smart girl, musical girl, and so on. In this way, girls are separated and defined by their hobbies. We cannot exist without the hard edges of our interests to give us form and space and weight – without these defining hobbies, we are lost in a sea of flickering, ill-defined girls, blinking in and out of existence. We blur into the monolith. Ultimately, it is our choice whether we want to blend into this collective or differentiate ourselves. Through clothes, teenage girls decide where they want to fall on the spectrum of visibility. In order to better understand the teenage girls that I’m writing about, I conducted a survey for anyone between 13 to 19 years old who identifies as a female, and I distributed it to both high school and college students. In my survey, 76.2% of my 42 participants described their style as “basic.” This is a style that’s characterized by leggings and jeans, Brandy Melville tops, simple jewelry, and casual shoes. “Basic” is the status quo and conforming to the status quo is a tool of survival. Teenage girls who dress “basic” are choosing to remain stylistically indistinguishable from their peers, because their hobbies and interests are not immediately evident from their fashion. By forfeiting their individuality, they are gaining a protective veil of anonymity. Furthermore, 34 participants (or 81%) agreed with the statement “I care about the way my outfits look,” revealing that most teenage girls are not only aware of the special attention placed on them, but aim to appease these powers that govern them. Whether for concern about male validation or female acceptance, on the whole, teenage girls aim to fit in. This desire to conform translates to a total absence of risk when it comes to presenting themselves. Beyond an instinctually human anxiety concerning other people’s perceptions of you, teenage girls deal with heightened stakes regarding their wardrobe.

Moving through the world as a teenage girl means being judged for any and all decisions you make. The list of possible judges is endless; however, most often, judgements are handed down by our own. Teenage girls judge other teenage girls. In their paper, “Reading Fashion as Age: Teenage Girls’ and Grown Women’s Accounts of Clothing as Body and Social Status,” Ingun Grimstad Klepp and Ardis Storm-Mathisen, researchers of consumerism at Oslo Metropolitan University, conducted interviews to study the social politics of teen girl fashion. Since the bodies of teenage girls are imprisoned under a societal spotlight – they are analyzed, sexualized, and ostracized without abandon nor care for the hearts and minds encased inside – a surplus of opinions exists surrounding a girl’s decision to either reveal or cover her body. Klepp and Storm-Mathisen explain that: “Baggy clothes have little value for teenage girls precisely because such clothes hide the body’s feminine shapes. Girls who opt to wear baggier pants, such as sweatpants, are described as unpopular by other teenage girls” (Klepp 328). Thus, the bodies of teenage girls are deemed to be the most essential part of them, so popularity is preserved by wearing tight clothes. As a teenage girl, you are condemned to exist on a spectrum ranging from slut to prude. There is no escape from this fate. Therefore, the way you dress – and the degree to which your body is revealed – communicates where you fall on this spectrum. Tight clothes make you a slut, and baggy clothes make you a prude. In my survey, 81% of the participants revealed that they shop where they do because the clothes fit their personal style, while 76.2% of the participants answered that they shop where they do because the clothes are comfortable. These percentages suggest a correlation between personal style and comfortability for teenage girls. “Comfortable clothes” is a genre of fashion that centers the experience of wearing clothes, rather than aesthetics: it includes anything from leggings to sweatpants, and form-fitting Lululemon zip-ups to baggy sweatshirts. However, is comfortability an elusive desire for teenage girls, since our every wardrobe decision is judged so brutally? Is it not impossible to be comfortable with the eyes of our peers studying our every outfit, understanding that our popularity is at risk with our every choice? Sexuality shouldn’t be something that is irreversibly tethered to your fashion choices; however, knowing that the world perceives your outfit in black and white – as either a solicitation or a refusal – means that your clothing choices escalate into an unspoken communication with the world.

This silent communication reinforces the social hierarchy of teenage girls, which is built upon the divisions between them. Acquiescing to the status quo or resisting the predetermined mold either lifts you up or drags you down on the pyramid of teenage girl popularity. This hierarchy is often explored in popular media. For instance, Euphoria is an Emmy award-winning HBO show that attracts a substantial audience of American teenage girls. During a therapy session, Jules Vaungh, a main character on the show, explains the social hierarchies she observes other girls participating in:

“JULES: Well…Like… Most girls, when you first talk to them, they, like, automatically analyze and compare themselves to you. And then, you know, they, they, search for where you fit in their hierarchy, and then they treat you accordingly.

THERAPIST: What hierarchy?

JULES: Like, how close you are to what they all collectively want to be. Like, in their heads.


JULES: And, you know , even if they’ve, like, mastered the art of hiding it with, like, smiles and nods, and small talk, it’s, like, you’d still catch them doing it. Like, like their eyes wandering over your face, or… or, you know, the quick takes up and down your body. Or like, they watch how your clothes hang off your torso, or, like, they look for what tags are on your clothes to see where you shop, or they’ll watch your hands to find, like, fucked up cuticles or chipped nail polish. Honestly, it would, it would be a kind of sensual experience if it wasn’t so fucking terrifying” (Euphoria).

We can’t take Jules’s monologue as fact – since it’s from a fictional TV show. However, we can analyze it as a piece of media that’s popular with teenage girls for a reason. Her words can serve as a magnification of the feelings shared by all teenage girls, whether they participate in the organization of their peers on an invisible pyramid or not. This same hierarchy is examined by Klepp and Storm-Mathisen in their study, from which a participant reveals her opinions about a classmate who fails to conform. In one girl’s account she shares: “We had a girl in our class who was very boyish. And sometimes we wondered why she never wears fashion clothes. If you really think about it, they wouldn’t have suited her much better. She doesn’t have the right shape for them. So it doesn’t matter for her” (Klepp 328). This 13-year-old girl’s testimonial and Jules’s monologue reveal how the body and clothes of a teenage girl fuse together to create the power which she wields over her peers. Popularity is achieved by harvesting that power. Shirts and pants and shoes make the unspoken, unseen world of teen girl pecking orders observable to all. Adapting to the desired mold – wearing tight, basic clothes – increases your value to the system, because you’re harmonizing your identity to the collective’s idea of what a teenage girl should be. Considering that, dressing alternatively either demotes (if you’re unsuccessful in your attempt to diverge) or upgrades (if you’re successful in your attempt to diverge) your spot on the pyramid. However, the quantity of alternative teenage girls differs vastly between online and reality.

Social media causes people to adapt themselves to whatever app they tap open. If we conceptualize social media apps as different rooms in a house, then we’re modifying our personas to match whatever digital room we walk into. This transformation is something we instinctively know to do. Michelle Ruiz, a contributing editor for Vogue and a freelance journalist who specializes in writing about social trends, writes that we all want to look “professional on work Zooms, polished on Instagram, flirty on dating profiles and fuzzily relatable on TikTok, while occasionally appeasing your mom on Facebook” (Ruiz). This shapeshifting is most extreme on TikTok, which 43.9% of my survey participants reported as the social media app that provides them with the most inspiration for outfits. The digital landscape is a flat expanse, and the only way to separate ourselves from our cyber contemporaries is to build ourselves up. Using our identity as the bricks and mortar, we construct our digital presence. Niche and more niche interests are piled on top of each other until our online persona – a mountain of arcane hobbies and obscure books and underground movies – reaches towards the infinite cosmos of originality. This is an endeavor that proves particularly challenging for teenage girls. Abiding by the simple laws of the patriarchy, our identities are devalued from the get-go. So, in order to prove to the world that we are interesting and deep and worth listening to, we have to struggle to erect an online persona that is distinctly different from all other teenage girls. Hence, “not like other girls” syndrome.

“Not like other girls”-syndrome (an informal name) is a social phenomenon: in an attempt to avoid the suffocation of the patriarchy, teenage girls separate themselves from the “other girls” (the monolith: the girls who dress basically). Girls who believe that they’re “not like other girls” are reacting to misogyny by distancing themselves from anything traditionally feminine. In its most simplistic form, this syndrome manifests itself as hatred for the color pink, contempt for skirts, and hostility towards feminine girls. On TikTok, “not like other girls”-syndrome is pushed to its extreme, mutating into something new: “not like anyone who has ever lived before because I am completely original”-syndrome, a name I’ve given to this advanced form of “not like other girls”-syndrome. The excessively fast-paced trend cycle of TikTok means that teenage girls are snatching at anything that’ll give them the upper hand in the battle for originality. The rarer your clothes, the cooler you are. And coolness is everything. When it comes to fashion, TikTok is a breeding ground for competition. Likes, comments, and followers are overt proof that your digital persona is a success – you’ve attained power within the digital hierarchy of teenage girls.

Beyond external hierarchies, we can examine internal hierarchies that impact the way teenage girls use clothes to communicate. In the field of psychology, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a theory that is often illustrated as a pyramid with 5 levels (listed from bottom to top): physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Needs that are low on the hierarchy must be met before one can advance to the higher levels (Mcleod). Therefore, teenage girls who cannot afford to participate in mall culture are abandoned at the bottom of this psychological pyramid, fighting to attain the bare minimum to survive. For girls living in poverty, there’s an overt absence of literature that explains how their socioeconomic standing impacts their relationship to fashion. Their experience of girlhood is wholly unrepresented in both the spaces that teenage girls occupy, and in the academic publications that analyze these spaces. These girls are rendered invisible because they don’t even have the opportunity to conform, much less to reject the status quo. Furthermore, the highest level of Maslow’s pyramid – self-actualization – is one that most people never reach, regardless of wealth. Joe Yaeger, a marketing professional who teaches at Thomas Jefferson University, writes on his blog that “[self-actualization] comes only when a person realizes their own personal abilities and traits, both good and bad […] They no longer need a high number of friends and followers to feel satisfied with themselves” (Yaeger). For teenage girls, attaining self-actualization can feel the same as shirking self-actualization. Teenage girls are defined wholly by their outfits and hobbies – an unstable foundation for any identity – and they conceptualize themselves in terms of these two elements. Therefore, it’s easy to conflate validation from their peers with genuine self-security: both are products of teenage girls’ attempt to outline their own existence. Dressing to be as unique as possible is therefore either the ultimate form of rebellion against the patriarchy, or the absolute abandonment of power.

From the very beginning, fashion has been an essential tool of communication for teenage girls. The mall is our collective Big Bang; it’s where we first began to understand our girlhood and curate our identities. From the mall, we’ve spread out to the far-reaching corners of the teenage girl universe. The hierarchies we build determine the laws of this universe, and clothes function as the superluminal signals communicating our home amongst the stars. So, the next time you’re getting dressed, think about why you’re dressed the way you are. What is your outfit communicating to the world?

Works Cited
Euphoria. Created by Sam Levinson, HBO Entertainment, 2021.

Klepp, Ingun Grimstad, and Ardis Storm-Mathisen. “Reading Fashion as Age: Teenage Girls’ and Grown Women’s Accounts of Clothing as Body and Social Status.” Fashion Theory, vol. 9, no. 3, 2005, pp. 323–42.

Kim, Eun Young, and Youn-Kyung Kim. “The Effects of Ethnicity and Gender on Teens’ Mall Shopping Motivations.” Clothing and Textiles Research Journal, vol. 23, no.2, pp. 65–77.

Mcleod, Sean. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” Simply Psychology, 2007.McLeod, S. A. (2007). 

Murphy, Madeline. “Research Project.” Survey, 2022.

Ruiz, Michelle. “Style & Fashion: The Digital Dress Code.” The Wall Street Journal Eastern Edition, 2022.

Yalkin, Cagri, and Richard Rosenbaum-Elliott. “Talking Fashion in Female Friendship Groups: Negotiating the Necessary Marketplace Skills and Knowledge.” Journal of Consumer Policy, vol. 37, no. 2, 2014, pp. 301–31. 

Yeager, Joe. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Explains Teens’ Obsession with Social Media.Josephmyeager, 2016.