Seven-year-old Kayana Benson can go on and on about her friend Avery's cool purple top that makes the shape of a butterfly.
She got it at Target. It's "really cute." And, did she mention it looks like a butterfly?
Kayana starts third grade soon. She can't wear anything purple. She won't get her clothes at Target. And, tops that resemble butterflies are absolutely out of the question. She attends the private Merryhill School and wears a uniform every day. While she laments the fashion freedom her neighborhood friends have at their public schools, she still finds ways to express herself, even with the strict limitations of her uniform.
"I want a lunchbox that's, like, kind of a purse," she says. "And, it, like, has designs on it, like peace signs and hearts."
When skinny jeans and puffed sleeves aren't an option, accessories become the priority. Dangly earrings, open-toed shoes, sleeveless tops and nail polish are all prohibited at Merryhill. But, Kayana can still don her favorite headbands, multicolored rubber bracelets, TOMS shoes and, fake polka-dot-decorated eyeglasses.
The most recent addition to her closet came in the form of midcalf-length Converse sneakers, also known as her "Shake It Up" shoes. The moniker comes from the hit Disney show of the same name about two teenage dancers.
Her mother, Elaine Benson, says Kayana gave up the princess-themed or Hello Kitty book bags a couple of years ago.
"She thinks they're for littler kids," says Elaine. "She wants a roller backpack."
A 7-year-old girl not wanting to be confused with a kindergartner doesn't surprise Gail Ashburn, stylist at Fashion Show mall.
"A lot of kids don't want to feel like kids," she says.
That's why young men who wear school uniforms may be drawn to a messenger bag over a backpack. It's a style statement, but it also feels a little more "grown-up."
Ashburn recommends young girls head to the popular Justice clothing store, where trends are translated in an age-appropriate manner. Aside from headbands with big floral embellishments and sparkly bangles, she suggests uniform-wearing girls get expressive with their shoes. Studded ballet flats come to mind.
Footwear is also the best option for boys in uniform. Olympic track and field stars have popularized bright, loud sneakers. If boys want to keep it more understated, Ashburn notes that dark gray sneakers are hot for back-to-school as are canvas Vans that are "similar to boat shoes."
If dress codes are especially stringent, kids can still find creative loopholes, such as scrunching up their sleeves or popping their collars.
"If girls are feeling like they can't find their individuality," Ashburn says, "they can paint all their toes a different color. That way their secret is safe and the school will never know."
Uniforms aren't exclusively worn at private schools. Of the 325 schools in the Clark County School District, 96 participate in what's called "standard student attire."
"The idea was brought forward where, it's not the principal who decides, it's the community," says Byron Green, director of instruction for the Clark County School District.
A committee of six parents, two school staff members, two students and one administrator determines the attire, and a ballot is sent to parents by mail. If 10 percent of the ballots are returned and 55 percent vote in favor of it, standard student attire is implemented. It must require the basic colors, khaki, navy and white, but additional school colors can be added.
Green says accessories generally aren't regulated. It's more about sleeve lengths, collars, where waistbands sit, etc. Sneakers, socks, belts, jewelry and hair accessories are all up to the student.
"A lot of schools like standard student attire, especially if it's a low socioeconomic school, because it's a great equalizer," Green says. "Kids may not feel bad if they don't have the most hip, stylish clothes. Everyone looks the same."
He hears from principals that it also turns the focus to achievement and learning, rather than who's cool and who's not. The downside? "It really limits creativity and self-expression," he says.
Kayana and Elaine Benson know that all too well.
Whenever her daughter expresses the desire to attend public school like some of the other kids in her neighborhood, so she can dress freely, Elaine has an answer prepared. "I just tell her she's so smart she has to go to private school," she says.
As she prepares for her back-to-school shopping this year, though, Kayana's looking at things a little differently.
"I kind of like uniforms," she says, " 'cause, like, if you have clothes, you have to go, 'Um, should I wear this one or that one?' "
Contact Xazmin Garza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0477. Follow her on Twitter @startswithanx.