FOR 12-year-old Steffie Rendon and her friends, who live in a black and Hispanic neighborhood in Brooklyn, looking well-dressed is an obsession. ``I have to get it right,'' Steffie says, ``get my socks right, my sneakers right. I won't go to school if I'm not properly dressed.'' And for these girls, looking ``properly dressed'' is a creative act: They wear their sneakers a couple of sizes too big to accommodate two or three pairs of colorful socks. They wear designer jeans with their friends' names penned on them. And their clothes are always immaculate - the newer, the better.
This look is expensive: Just the basics - designer jeans and sneakers - can cost $100. And for their teen-age siblings and friends, the amount of money spent on clothing and jewelry escalates: A gold tooth cap - some teen-agers have all their teeth capped - can cost $70. The huge, bamboo-textured gold earrings, seen everywhere on inner-city streets, can cost $250.
This obsession with appearance is a source of frustration for many of these children's parents. And it's a source of concern for many educators and counselors. ``There's enormous pressure on black parents to provide their children with the latest fashions - these kids won't wear last year's jeans,'' says Errol L. Hibbert, director of the Higher Education Opportunity Program at New York Institute of Technology, and the father of two children. ``As a parent you're always fighting against the glossy stuff in magazines, and what your kids see on TV.''
Competition over clothing and jewelry ``has become a feeding frenzy'' for some of these children, says Richard Sloves, director of short-term psychotherapy in the child and adolescent psychiatric unit at Kings County (N.Y.) Hospital Center. ``It can interfere with schoolwork and even with the major tasks of adolescence, like making friends.''
It serves some positive purposes, however, says Mr. Sloves. Looking well-dressed functions as protection on the street, he says: ``It's almost like armor you put on when you leave the house. You put on a larger identity and look successful, attractive. The message is, `Stay away from me.' Otherwise you're a victim.''
Looking well-dressed also gives these children ``an identity and a way of being part of a group,'' says Christina Spellman, who teaches urban sociology at New York University. ``All kids need to create pecking orders,'' she says, ``and clothes can do that.''
Providing stylish clothing is also a way for inner-city parents ``to show the world their child is well-cared for and loved,'' Ms. Spellman says.
Many black and Hispanic parents, however, feel this emphasis on appearance is a function of misplaced values. ``I grew up with the old-fashioned idea of making sacrifices,'' Mr. Hibbert says. ``Designer clothing is something to wait for.''
But many inner-city parents feel they can't ask their children to wait: ``All the kids have gold caps on their teeth,'' says Janet Velardo of Brooklyn, who recently saved enough money to buy her 15-year-old daughter, Nina, a gold tooth cap for her birthday. Mrs. Velardo has four other children and is on welfare.
Some of the same pressures are at work on families in suburban Scarsdale or Great Neck, N.Y., Sloves says, adding, ``but it's harder for the inner-city parent.'' Some of these parents work double shifts to provide their children with trendy clothing, he says, and this puts a strain on the whole family. ``You have kids parenting themselves, because the parents are working so hard,'' he explains.
Young people also take jobs so that they can wear the latest clothing. ``Some kids work one full-time job and one part-time job, just to get that extra stuff,'' says Darnell Paige, a 22-year-old senior at New York Institute of Technology. ``And a lot of the guys I know get it from drugs.''
A counselor at Covenant House, a shelter for young runaways in Manhattan, says that it's not just boys who deal drugs to buy clothing and jewelry: ``The girls deal to buy the big hoop earrings and leather bombers. The boys deal to buy Fila sweatsuits, jackets, and sneakers.
``In an eight-hour shift,'' says the counselor, who asked that his name not be used, ``they can make between $400 and $500.''
``Everybody's impressed by this stuff, especially the younger kids,'' says Mr. Paige, referring to the clothes and jewelry drug dealers wear. Eighteen-year-old Earl Batts of Far Rockaway, N.Y., agrees: ``When people in my neighborhood see a four-finger ring, they think it's a sign of power.''
To alleviate competition over clothing, selected inner-city schools in Baltimore; New Haven, Conn.; Washington; and Liberty City, Fla., have adopted uniforms on a voluntary basis. New York Mayor Ed Koch last year initiated an experiment with uniforms in one public school.
``It's working out very well,'' says Wendell P. Whitlock, a consultant in the Baltimore school system, who helped initiate that program. ``It takes the focus off how you look in the morning.'' A quarter of the city's public elementary schools now have uniforms, and by the 1990-1991 school year the remaining elementary schools are expected to follow.
In Baltimore's high schools, gold rope chains were banned by a panel of students, parents, teachers, and community leaders. Also banned were ``the big leather coat look, the torn look, and the spandex look,'' Mr. Whitlock says. By September, he says, each high school will have set up a committee to establish a dress code.
``There are those parents and students who feel resentful of our dress code,'' says Elzee Gladden, principal of Baltimore's Dunbar High School, which has had a dress code since 1982, ``and they say, `Let's enforce one for teachers.' But most of my kids wholeheartedly agree that expensive leather coats and jewelry do not belong in school.
``They know they can become victims of robbery on their way to school,'' Mr. Gladden adds.