Surveying the table at a fashiony lunch he kind where the attendees’ combined social-media following had the power to sell out whatever dress or shoe they deemed ‘It’ - I spied a smattering of sparkly hair clips. A handbag shaped like a lemon. One pair of heart sunglasses. And so much hot pink that anyone could have been forgiven for thinking it was part of the dress code.
It felt familiar for reasons I couldn’t pinpoint. Then I took my nine-year-old daughter shopping. Watching her gallop glitterverse of Claire’s, it hit me: fashion is in its Tween Girl Summer.
Mermaids. Taylor Swift Eras tour concert costumes. Novelty handbags. Barbie mania. Unicorn pendants, cutesy sunglasses, word necklaces, mood rings, friendship bracelets, iridescent nail varnish – all are the domain of tween girls, and all have migrated into the mainstream adult(ish) world for summer 2023.
Everywhere I look, I see peers adopting that my daughter and her friends have been into since their first sleepovers. And sure, the heart-shaped sunglasses on the table at that lunch may have been Saint Laurent. But to paraphrase a mermaidcore originator: look at this stuff, isn’t it... tweeny?
‘I’m obsessed with anything pink, sparkly earrings with cherries on them, shell handbags – you name it,’ says Zeena Shah, content creator, presenter, stylist and author. Basically I’m always channelling my inner five-year-old, because she would have loved it.’ The day we speak, she’s the tween fashion dream in a Benjamin Fox pink organza dress with bow-tied shoulder straps, matching hair bow, lilac Prada raffia tote bag and holographic Chanel Dad sandals. It is ‘a very Barbiecore look’ which is only fitting: ‘It’s Wednesday, so it’s got to – be pink,’ referencing that Mean Girls phrase.
Shah rarely leaves home without a conversation-starting handbag (Lulu Guinness’s blackberry punnet and shell clutch are current favourites) and paints her nails to match her outfits. But even she’s noted a change in the pitch of fashion these into the days. ‘I think this Barbie moment is really giving everyone the confidence to get their pink dresses out.’
The pinkwashing of the retailscape is real, by the way: in July, Accessorize saw a 140% uplift in online sales of pink clothing beaded and accessories compared to June. ‘There’s a tangible appetite for nostalgia-evoking, vibrant, and fun product,’ says buying director Sally Taylor. For its part, Barbie-maker Mattel has collaborated with more than 100 brands and retailers on trends products to promote the film.
But it isn’t only the Dreamhouse crew driving the tweenification of style. Fashion designers have also played a role. Absorb enough seasons of flower, heart-shaped and bejewelled designer sunglasses (from Loewe, Saint Laurent and Miu Miu, respectively), and they’ll start to look less silly, more reasonable. Even desirable. So much so that scrolling through products on Super Smalls, the kids’ jewellery and crafting brand, my thumb stopped over a pair of colourblock sunglasses. I thought, how Miu Miu. Then I wondered, do those come in my size?
‘We get that all the time. We have a word for it: kidults,’ laughs Maria Dueñas Jacobs, the brand founder. ‘A kidult is someone who doesn’t take themselves seriously, who loves to tap into that joy of being a kid.’ Dueñas Jacobs, a former accessories director, wears a four-leaf clover necklace and mood ring from Super Smalls every day.
‘We say the brand is for the young and young at heart. Really it’s for whoever wants to wear it. I mean, we can give you permission, but why do you need permission to wear what you like?’ Why indeed, when Dueñas Jacobs’s main inspirations are JAR, Miu Miu and Harry Winston? Her three daughters are very involved in the brand, wear-testing every last hairclip and choker (Luna, nine, even calls herself a co-founder). ‘So that tween energy is very much around me.’
It’s especially present in the Barbie production design. Director Greta Gerwig and her team considered countless versions of pink before settling on their optimal shade. ‘You wanted it to be that exuberance of using the brightest colour in the box,’ she told The New York Times Magazine. The in-your-face fuchsia brought me back to a time when colour preferences were based on whatever I was drawn to instinctively, rather than acquired ideas of tastefulness. Which is what Tween Girl Summer is all about: returning to a moment when enjoyment was instinctive rather than curated. When we liked what we liked just because, not because it was the right thing to like.
At the cinema a few weeks ago, I watched my daughter take in the Barbie trailer for the first time. Initially she scoffed – ‘A movie about Barbie?’ – having internalised the message that Barbies are for little kids. Yes, I told her, and people are excited about it because it has a smart, cool director. Even grown-ups want to see it. She peered closer, smiling now, and whispered, ‘Can I see it with you?’
Could our preoccupation with tween culture be an antidote to something – a validation of girlhood, a reclamation of all the things we were told we had to leave behind to be taken seriously in the real world?
‘I love that,’ Dueñas Jacobs says. ‘All of the big movies this summer are tapping into nostalgia, and bringing us back to a feeling of being carefree. It’s about not caring so much about what other people think or how they’ll react, and just asking, how can we be joyful?’ A pair of rose-coloured (flower-shaped, bedazzled) sunglasses doesn’t sound like such a bad place to start.