Kindergarten where less means more

City Life: Rome
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The enthusiastic young student hired to make the birthday party swing was doing a great job. In a parish hall in a lower middle-class suburb of Rome, 10 pre-schoolers were happily waving a blue sheet, pretending it was the sea in tempest. But when Flaminia arrived the show stopped.

My daughter Livia, nearly four, gawped with a mixture of surprise, confusion and envy. Even the little boys stared. Flaminia, long dark hair held back in a pearly pink headband and curled under at the ends, pink bracelets on her wrists, wearing frilly socks and even frillier sandals, looked like a chubby Mediterranean version of Barbie.

What clearly blew my daughter's mind was The Dress. Chiffon, with big bouffant sleeves, large pink and green flowers, a satin petticoat and a wide sugar pink sash. With the school year almost due to start I wondered what Flaminia would be wearing to kindergarten. The terrorist attacks have spared us countless newspaper articles on what's in and out for kiddies, although a psychotherapist explained, in a leading daily, why one's offspring should turn up on day one wearing "the right thing". Even a war-driven recession is unlikely to deter many Italian parents from paying a fortune to kit out their children in the very best.

In my daughter's class, at a council-run kindergarten where parents are means-tested, two little girls appear in the new season's designers gear, not once in a while but often and in an amazing variety of outfits. From what I can glean both families have modest incomes. There seems to be a perverse rule: the less you have, the more your children need to look good. And in Italy that means labels.

Driving home from the birthday party, I noticed a huge advertisement on a hoarding for the upmarket kiddies wear store La Cicogna. I could send my child back to school in style "with six months' interest free payments". The shop assistant explained the procedure – I needed to show my latest pay-packet – and the benefits of the Cicogna debit card. To qualify you had to spend at least £350 a year.

It wouldn't be hard. There were no jeans for Livia's age group at less than £50; even if they still fitted her next year they were so clearly a 2001 item that they would be unacceptably passé. Pink long- sleeved knit tops at £30, with matching £30 jacket, were teamed with a beige skirt with a draw string hem (£35). A little Burberry number, a complicated smocked dress made of what looked like raincoat lining, sells at £86.

Did many people buy their children's clothing by instalments, I asked. "There's a finance company that deals with that side," the shop assistant told me.

Leaving La Cicogna, I was surprised to see a collection of grembiuli, school smocks. These are uniformly horrid, made of stiff cotton, sex coded blue or pink, with bunnies and hearts on the collars and long sleeves. They are still widely popular. But why buy Armani only to cover it up? "They are such an integral part of starting school, just like your satchel," explained my friend Maria. Maybe it's because the smart clothes are meant to impress not classmates but their parents.