NEW YORK - In many households, the tween years are the quiet years. Kids whisper with friends behind closed doors and clam up even more around adults.
Their clothes, however, speak volumes.
When 10- to 14-year-olds think about back-to-school clothes, they might pay attention to what idols like Hilary Duff or Ashlee Simpson are wearing, but they're really more interested in the statement they themselves are going to make.
"Tweens are at the place in life where they are beginning to assert their independence from mom and dad. Tweens choose their clothing based on personality types - skater, sporty, preppy, surfer. It's who they want the world to see them as," Seventeen magazine editor-in-chief Atoosa Rubenstein says.
"There's a lot of talk if a seventh-grade girl returns in September all 'gothed out' or 'skatered out.'"
Boys and girls who are into skateboarding - or who wish they knew how - adopt a lot of punk-rock touches, such as black leather and metal studs. Wannabe surfers have a beachy look, including board shorts and Vans sneakers. The urban look includes the bling and basketball jerseys favored by hip-hop stars; the gothic look is almost all black, heavy and long; and the preppies look the sportiest, with hints of tweed, argyle and grosgrain ribbons.
T-shirts decorated with bold graphics cut across most fashion cliques and are a top pick in the fall fashion forecast. The graphics, which range from Hello Kitty to skulls and crossbones, can convey an entire lifestyle, social standing and outlook on life in the mind of a tween, says Rubenstein.
Besides being expressive, the shirts are great for this age group because they are easy to care for and to pair with bottoms, says Lisa Strubel, director of color and concept for The Children's Place.
Girls especially like the T's when they are tie-dyed or sparkly, she says.
Also expected to be popular this back-to-school season are bohemian and outdoorsy looks in textured fabrics, such as corduroy and thermal-weave cotton, in a palette of green, orange and brown. Look for patchwork patterns, too.
It's Strubel's job to adapt what's going on in the fashion world to please both fashion-fickle children and their usually more modest parents.
While teenagers, who are already usually shopping in adult stores, often have their own money to spend on clothes, middle schoolers still rely on mom and dad to foot their back-to-school bill, and that gives parents more influence over their purchases.
"We look at what's happening in fashion, movies, music, entertainment... we know the kids are looking at the stars. We take all those influences into each season and then make them age appropriate," Strubel explains.
"This way, the kid will feel really cool when she walks into school but mom will feel good about what she's wearing. Back-to-school shopping is when the mom and kid come together."
Boys care about their clothes, too, says Strubel, who has a 9-year-old. "My son has opinions. If I buy something he doesn't like, he'll never put it on, so what's the point?"
Boys put effort into looking like they don't care.
"They might look disheveled but it's an intended disheveled," says Mossimo Giannulli, creator of the Mossimo line at Target, and father of a 13-year-old son.
Denim is the key item in Mossimo's collection and most other tween-targeted lines. "Denim is huge for fall, but it's always huge and it always will be. It's universally accepted by kids, teenagers, adults," says Mossimo.
Other back-to-school basics are hooded sweatshirts, track jackets and cargo pants, which have plenty of pockets for cell phones and iPods.
Just like the adults who have embraced the casual California style, wearing jazzed-up Juicy Couture warm-up suits and pricey designer jeans with flip-flops, students prefer a relaxed look, Mossimo says. Their sweaters are no longer tight cable knits; instead, they wear looser weaves that have a silhouette more similar to a sweatshirt.
"Kids have the same taste all over. MTV changed the world. Now kids all over have the same tastemakers," Mossimo says.
Anything Beyonce wears will be an instant hit with the tween crowd, according to Seventeen's Rubenstein, who expects to see gold chains laced around the waists of many girls this fall.
Many celebrities are trading their super-low rise jeans for trouser jeans, which parents will find more appropriate for middle schoolers. "The trouser is looser but it's tailored and has a flat front so it doesn't look frumpy, so kids will like it," Rubenstein says. Tweens likely also will be wearing jeans with an exaggerated cuff.
"At this age, some are following trends - there will be those who want to wear the latest thing from Juicy. But they also create their own trends. Style is more important to them than the brand. That changes as you get older, unfortunately," Rubenstein says.