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Retro styles created for pint-size fashion plates are the thing for warm-weather wardrobes this year, whether the subject is casual wear or play togs. According to Peter McGrath, vice president for children's merchandise at J.C. Penney, all elements of children's dressing are being affected by the fashion influence from the '40s through the '70s.

For boys, play gear is staying loose and comfortable, with a continued emphasis on a layered look. Comfy tee shirts, polos and roomy cotton sweaters slip easily over loose shorts and denim jeans.McGrath sees a big sports influence in boys' activewear and predicts they will get even stronger the closer we get to the Olympics in Atlanta. "It's a very all-American style."

"We're seeing khaki shorts, flag patterns on sweaters and lots of red, white and blue in boys' apparel this season," says McGrath.

Girls' clothing is following the same general theme, especially in denim and chambray redone in old-fashioned country charm. "For spring, denim translates from the expected pair of jeans, which are still important, to relaxed, pretty jumpers for a more feminine touch. It's another option to the basics," says McGrath.

Spring's sportswear is borrowing the best of the '50s and '60s for little girls, with a plethora of color, texture and patterns. Shapes are simple, with retro mock turtlenecks in stripes, go-anywhere skorts and wrap skirt, and lettuce-edged tees. Madras shorts, zip-front tops and gingham skirts bring to mind those old days at the drive-in.

Even the '70s flower power is showing up again, with graphics, zip-front jumpers and belted minis combined with T-shirts and vests for a "Mod Squad" sequel that seems to fit in today.

For both boys and girls, the season's desirable shades are bold and bright, with a tendency toward fuchsia and turquoise. According to McGrath, "We went through a period of somber colors in children's wear. Now colors are intensifying toward electric brights."

Such commonly accepted trends in menswear as banded collar shirts are trickling down to the boys. McGrath says, "The vest is also an important, basic accessory that found its fashion start in men's. These pieces can be worn together at spring festivities, then combined with other items in the child's wardrobe to create more options."

Kids are expected to dive into the summer season in splashy suits. For girls, the look ranges from what designers call fresh and flirty to high-tech and textured. Silhouettes drenched in tropical florals, stripes and geometric prints can be balanced on the beach by suits in solid stretches of bright shades. Look for defining details like ribs, ruffled skirts, shots of gold and many high-shine fabrics.

Poolside prints for boys include many animal options like dinosaurs, fish and Scottie dogs. T-shirts decorated with graphic logos and zany sayings get thumbs-up approval this summer from both boys and girls.

"The screen-printed T-shirt is the shirt of choice," says McGrath. "They are easy and comfortable, plus they convey a message for the wearer. Kids love them."