CLASS ACTION SUITS

SOON the lazy days of summer will end, and children will exchange balls and frisbees for books and pencils, bare feet for loafers, and bathing suits for brand-new outfits.

What exactly might they wear when they saunter to the school bus?

A girl might be decked out in florals or sport a down-home American look. A boy could be dressed in a sporty ensemble or the mountain-hiker look (a girl could too).

As families get ready to make the big back-to-school shopping spree, these are some of the styles that designers have deemed fashionable for grade-school kids this year.

``There are many options to go back to school,'' says Robert Rutkauskas, fashion director for Filene's department store in Boston. ``You can look like you're going to the backwoods one day ... or the following day look like a French schoolgirl wearing a plaid jumper.''

Some of the most popular looks:

* Bedecked in Checks. ``What's being used a lot and is very popular in girls and boys wear is mixing two to three, even four different checks in an outfit that ... looks nice but is not necessarily a matching set,'' says Margaret Holt, a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and a designer of girls clothing. ``This is very reminiscent of the early '70s.''

* The Plaid Fad. ``One of the most important ideas for the season is plaids, in short pleated skirts, jumpers, and worn with white shirts, cropped sweaters, cropped cardigans,'' Mr. Rutkauskas says.

* Thermals, Thermals Everywhere. The long-underwear-like leggings for girls is a trend that started last year and is still popular, Ms. Holt says. Find them in prints, natural earth-tone colors, and rich shades of dark raspberry, forest green, and burgundy.

* A Fall Garden. Go into any store, and you're likely to find racks of soft rayon-challis floral dresses, both in fitted and flowing styles. A big back-to-school look is wearing a floral slip dress with a coordinating solid-color T-shirt underneath, Holt says.

* The Great Outdoors. Oversized lumberjack-plaid flannel shirts paired with denim is part of the familiar rugged look. Denim in deep green, russet, and other dark colors is also hot, Rutkauskas says.

* All-American. ``In every boy's department at least half of the department is taken up with logos'' of sports teams, Holt says. ``Boys won't necessarily buy their favorite team; they'll just buy 12 different sports T-shirts, and they'll want to wear all of them.''

OK, so now you know what you'll find in the stores. But that's just a guideline. Though some parents and kids pay close attention to fashion trends, others, especially parents, focus on practicality (not surprisingly).

Take Joan Boegel of Reading, Mass., a mother of three boys, two of whom are school-age. ``They're not very opinionated. I generally pick out their clothes,'' she says. Ms. Boegel and her sons often make a couple of back-to-school shopping trips at the beginning of the school year, but she also relies heavily on catalogs, which she describes as ``a great time-saving strategy.''

Boegel's biggest complaint about kids' fashion is that there's often a poor selection of items for older boys: ``It's no wonder that boys just walk around in sweats and T-shirts,'' she says. She also finds it annoying to see so many cartoon characters, such as Bart Simpson, plastered on clothing.

Carol Sarshik and her daughters Jenna, 8, and Allie, 5, of Acton, Mass., usually head to large discount stores for less expensive back-to-school clothes. ``I try to buy a whole season's worth at once,'' Ms. Sarshik says. ``We just kind of buy everything we see that we like and then we're done until the spring. It's exhausting for everyone, but they like doing it.''

Both mom and daughters select the clothes. ``They have to like it because all the stuff I've ever bought that they didn't want they haven't worn,'' she says. ``I'll veto things based on price or fabric or lack of durability or stuff that I know they have fleeting moments where something looks really wonderful to them, but that I know they really won't like down the road. I've been burned too many times buying something that looks wonderful on the hanger that just isn't practical for their lifestyle.''

Sarshik's other strategies for back-to-school shopping include starting early in the day and on a full stomach. The children also never try things on in a fitting room because it takes too long. ``We go home with 10 bags worth of stuff and then we have a fashion show at home,'' she says. ``Typically 90 to 95 percent of the stuff will fit. The rest we can bring back and exchange. That's the strategy for buying in bulk.''

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