When I was a tween, growing up in New York City in the1970s, there was a novelty store in my neighborhood where they made custom tee shirts. It was an old-fashioned and 100% analog process. You basically chose the color you wanted and the iron-on transfer you wanted and any additional letters you wanted. There was a big, heavy press behind the cash register and the salesperson slipped your tee shirt over a flat form, positioned the artwork you'd selected and brought the hot cover down onto it all like a gigantic waffle iron.
Using babysitting money, I made three tee shirts there while I was in eighth grade. One was actually kind of cool: black shirt with cap sleeves and my name in glittery art deco letters. (I am sorry to report that the other two included a photo of the sweathogs from Welcome Back Kotter and a picture of Fonzie. For the record, my taste in tee shirts has improved with time.)
We talk a lot about tween and teen communication in the digital age. But online living and the infinite individualization that it offers have changed how kids today shop too. In 1976, making a custom tee shirt was really cool (even if your artistic choices were not so much). Today, with websites like zazzle and inktastic it's commonplace. And, tee shirts are only the tip of the design-it-yourself iceberg.
Kids can self-publish books, uploading their own photos and text and receiving a bound hardcover volume by mail a few days later. Why waste time printing and sorting through pictures, then pasting them into an album? That's so 20th century.
They can build a music playlist with the songs they like (and only the songs they like). I remember buying records because of one top-of-the-charts hit and realizing ($3.69 later — Cheap Records, Lexington and 58th street) that I should have bought the 45. (Am I dating myself now or what?!?)
Tweens can create avatars, digital personas that look like enhanced anime versions of themselves. They can design their own backpack at L.L. Bean's website. And, younger girls can build their own Muppet online at FAO Schwartz or a customized doll at americangirl.com.
Automated custom manufacturing. It's an interesting phenomenon, especially with regard to tweens and teens. Here we have a demographic group that is absolutely determined to look and act and consume exactly like each other. Yet, they have embraced technology built on the idea that everything you wear should and can be a one-of-a-kind original. Computer-aided couture.
And, like pretty much everything else in their lives, it all happens on a laptop, a tablet or — more and more often — on their mobile phone. Wow.
Lately, my daughter and some of her friends have been designing their own footwear at converse.com. For a small fee (okay, for a pretty big fee — $67 for basic Chuck Taylor All Stars, yikes), you can create a pair of completely customized sneakers. Everything from laces to lining, exterior panels of fabric, sole and even eyelets is up to you. Your unique Converse footwear can be as crazy and colorful as you want it to be. In theory, no one else at your middle school (or maybe anywhere in the world!) will have the same exact shoes. I repeat ... Wow.
The online experience is fun and engaging, and as a mother I'm glad that my daughter is flexing her artistic muscles. It takes a little of the sting out of the ongoing struggle we have about wearing what everybody else is wearing.
But, it's still too much to pay for canvas shoes, don't you think?
Even more than the vintage Fonzie tee shirt I just found on eBay.