The cool child

Fashion awareness - what's in, what's nerdy - now starts at five. But who's creating it? asks Deborah Holder

ASK ANY 13-year-old boy what cool means to them and you'll get a withering glance. To try to define cool is as bad as being caught trying to be cool - it's deeply uncool. Caley, aged 13, claims he doesn't care what he wears but in the same breath will admit to flouting school dress codes occasionally and wearing boots. He choses his footwear for comfort he says but when pressed, he admits they are imitation Caterpillars, an expensive designer brand.

"If you are cool, you don't own up to being cool," says Harvey Marcus, who, as assistant editor of kiddie style-bible, Just 17, is entrusted with pinpointing and merchandising cool for readers starting as young as eight or nine.

Once upon a time the notion of cool didn't take hold till twentysomething. Children still wore ankle socks and teenagers were shy and spotty; it was only once you had a pay cheque, a driving licence and some shades that you could start to gravitate towards cool-dom. The Fifties may not have been when cool was born but it was when media and marketing men discovered it. Almost half a century later we have all become past masters at identifying new markets, segmenting and targeting new consumers with the precision of a laser beam. At the same time media and communications has become an overwhelmingly fast-growing industry, accessible to all ages and incomes in the form of television. Add to this the fact that children now mature at a terrifying rate and it's hardly surprising that today's children can differentiate between Nikes, Reebok and Clarkes at a hundred paces long before they conquer the three Rs.

Primary school is where it starts in earnest, although intensive Saturday morning TV advertising and shopping trips to Gap Kids will have prepared even the under-fives for the playground competition to come.

For Nerida, 10, cool means "wearing certain clothes and showing off". She is now a pupil at a North London Rudolph Steiner school where she says "people aren't that interested in clothes". Between five and nine however, Nerida attended the local state school where her father believes there was a greater pressure to conform to a notion of cool. "It was quite heavy there. More silly rules applied about what you should and shouldn't wear. It wasn't when she was in state school either but there she was confronted with it more and kids were more likely to take the piss whereas now it's not an issue."

Shey is the same age although you'd never know it. She's 10 going on 16 and an aficionado of cool. "Cool is when you really, really like something, when you think it's tasty, wicked - it's like the best thing at the time then you move on to something else."

She and her friend Ellen get their ideas from magazines Such as Sugar, Shout, Just 17 and Mizz. They also look to older kids at school for a lead. "We don't have uniform but there are things we're not allowed to wear like big dangly earrings or baseball caps and bandanas. And we're not allowed to have our laces undone, dangling on the floor which we don't like because that's cool."

Shey says that she frequently has rows with her mum about clothes - "I'd like to wear short woolly jumpers and silvery rave clothes. Baggy clothes and rave clothes are cool at the moment."

Shey and Ellen are much less reticent than boys their age about listing the ins and outs of cool. But far from emerging as fashion victims they are surprisingly discriminating. "Snoop Doggy Dog is cool," she says, "but I don't like it that he swears all the time and calls women bitches. I just like his voice." Bogling and the Butterfly are the dances of the moment, confides Shey, although she and Ellen also like the rather tamer Whigfield "because she does dances that you can learn at home". Mention of Take That elicits mock retching noises while Ultimate Kaos are honoured as "wicked". Mega-drive games are also cool, says Shey, "but it's really sexist that they call it Gameboy because girls play on them even more than boys". Ian Wright emerges as the coolest footballer, although Ellen risks naffness by admitting she doesn't like football.

"People say 'cool' or 'wick' if things are really bad - bad as in extremely good that is," explains Shey patiently, "or if they don't like something they say 'dry'. If you're in a group and someone says that something is really uncool and weedy you have to go along with that or they'll think you're weedy," says Shey, without seeming to mind much. Lesley, Shey's mum, admits that she didn't expect the invasion of cool so early but remains philosophical. "She looks at least a few years older than she is and identifies with older children, plus she likes to be different, she's not a follower."

Lesley sees Shey as a strong individual who is experimenting, and believes this is preferable to being a slave to fashion. Nevertheless confronting cool at such a tender age can be tricky. "We're currently negotiating on a nose stud. I've said she has to wait until she's 13. Her ears are already done. They were done in Camden with a friend. There would have been no point in saying no. She later did another one herself with a pin."

While the age of awareness may have dropped significantly, the notion of cool is far from new. It is relatively consistent across the country, due primarily to national television and magazines, although it may take a little longer for the latest trappings of cool to travel from the cities to rural areas. It also takes a bolder child to put media suggestions into practice.

"When we first arrived in Ross from north London 18 months ago, the kids definitely stood out," says primary school teacher Lynn Mather, whose children are 10 and 13. "They've since toned down their act." Lynn believes that cool applies in the country as it did in the city, but, she says, "the pond is smaller, the competition less fierce, and the benchmark for cool or outrageous far lower."

Notions of cool are also similar across the age range; many of the coolest celebs and bands appear in both Sugar, and The Face and Loaded. Many aspects of cool are also consistent over time, albeit in different guises. Working- classness is now cool again, just as it was 20 years ago when a middle- class accent and posh address were considered embarrassing. Back then it was Marc Bolan, David Bowie and Punk, now it's Blur, Oasis, Paul Merton and Ryan Giggs. Blackness too is seriously cool; the slang, the walk, the music, the TV shows. Maybe both hold a similar appeal for children; the fight against oppressors, anti-authoritarian solidarity, the in-your- face confidence that goes with both working-class and black pride.

But despite common themes, cool is also cruelly arbitrary. Defining certain things as cool is simply a means of carving out a group identity and a sense of belonging. "People talk about adult identity crises," says psychologist Peter Marsh, "but adolescence in Western culture is so ill-defined that kids have to find some alternative way of deciding who they are, what are appropriate ways of behaving and so on. It's difficult."

But while it's understandable that many kids deny aspirations to cool, it's harder to swallow the claims of the consumer industry that it does not set the agenda. At best it cashes in on it, accentuates it and uses it to raise the value of its products. At worst it combines the notions of cool and peer pressure to bully young consumers into believing they need the unnecessary. This makes sound economic sense. Designer training shoes, for instance, are one of the consumer industry's most successful inventions.

Advertisers, however, must be cautious where children are concerned. The British Advertising Standards Authority recently upheld a complaint against an advertisement for Fox Video's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, which described a boy holding the video as "cool kid", and another holding a chess set as "boring boy".

Sadly, the BASA is wasting its time. This ad may have been particularly blatant, but in essence it is no different to any other ad for the entertainment end of the computer game market. How else are you going to sell them? Computer games are expensive, they aren't good for your health and offer no apparent benefits socially or educationally. In addition, the advertiser has to overcome the old image of computer users as nerdy boffins. The only way to push computer games is on the basis of in versus out, cool versus uncool.

Psychologists point to a distinction between genuine cool (somebody very laid back and so self-confident that they're not too concerned what other people think of them), and wannabe cool - those who pretend to be cool as a cover up for the fact that they absolutely aren't. The genuinely cool don't need the trappings, and if they do they make their own style. They are few and far between. The rest of us mere mortals are more likely to be riddled with insecurity and battling to establish an identity from the age of 10. It is this majority, who aspire to cool and desperately need the trappings, which is targeted by the canny merchandisers.

While the need to be cool may start earlier, the good news is that there is more plurality. "There's all different groups at school that are into different things," says James, 14. "Sport is important at our school - if you're good at football you're all right. Some people really like computers. There's people who like wearing smart clothes - smart jeans and expensive tops.

"If you like certain music you wear certain clothes. Like if you like Snoop Doggy Dog you wear rude boy clothes and if you're into Blur you wear grunge. There's not one particular thing that's cool. There can be lots of different groups." As well as allowing for diversity, cool can have a unifying effect.

"All our class like Bottom," says James. "The rude boys like Desmonds, The Real McCoy and the Fresh Prince. We take the mickey out of the Take That bunch. Most male groups like Boyzone and East 17 are considered naff. Everyone thinks Eric Cantona is pretty cool because people like someone out of the ordinary."

SHEY, left, aged 10, in her patent-leather loafers, over the knee socks, Naf-Naf jacket, A-line skirt. 'Cool is when you really, really like something and you think it's tasty, wicked and the best thing at the time.'

CALEY, above, aged 13, in Nike trainers, loose-fit jeans and baggy Puma shirt, with baseball cap. 'Cool is New Order, Guns and Roses, Beavis and Butthead. We're not allowed to wear trainers and sweatshirts at school, but Nike Converse and Reekbok trainers are cool.' Photographs by HERBIE KNOTT

A definition of Cool

Cool:

Keanu Reeves (film star of coolest video, Speed)

Eric Cantona (footballer notorious for attack on rude fan)

Ryan Giggs (clean cut version of above)

Snoop Doggy Dogg (rapper currently awaiting trial in US)

Mark, Robbie and Jason (three cool members of Take That, not to be confused with Howard and Gary, see below)

Anna Friel (lesbian character, Beth, in Brookside)

Damon Albarn (lead singer, Blur)

Liam Gallagher (lead singer, Oasis)

Justine Frischmann (lead singer, Elastica - also girlfriend of Damon Albarn)

Jim Carrey (comedy actor, star of cool films Mask and Dumb and Dumber)

Beavis and Butthead (sniggering teen cartoon heroes)

Baywatch (California beach soap)

Uncool:

Howard and Gary (members of Take That, not to be confused with Mark, Robbie and Jason, see above)

Brett Anderson (effete lead singer with Suede, last year's coolest mover, dethroned by lad-bands like Blur and Oasis)

Supermodels (cool last year but too many around now)

Madonna

Andy Peters (fresh-faced kids TV presenter)

Kylie Minogue (ex-Neighbours star, ex-pop star)

Emmerdale (the soap that no one admits to watching)

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