By Dominique Soguel
Tuesday, November 6, 2007
Women who want to dress modestly but also keep up with fashion are spurring a religious-style retail sector with more than $25 million in annual sales. Some consider the vogue liberating; others warn of a darker side.
(WOMENSENEWS)--The modesty-fashion movement has come far in the past 10 years, but it can still be hard to find a prom dress that keeps cleavage, knees and arms covered.
To address this, Modest by Design, a Murray, Utah, company that helped pioneer the modesty fashion push, plans to launch a line of dresses in time for the next prom season that includes a matching veil, or hijab, for Muslim customers.
Heather Gist, who launched the company in 1999 with her husband Eddie Gist, says the satin dress will come in two styles, one with long sleeves and one with short sleeves. The A-line skirt will have three layers, each with beading and embroidering along the hem.
Since 2001 the company's involvement with prom fashion has taken the form of a yearly prom dress contest in which teens submit designs for the company to produce. Submissions are currently being accepted for the 2008 contest.
Previous winners say the decision to dress modestly rests on religious belief, family values and a heightened sense of personal dignity. Showing less, they say, also puts them at an advantage with members of the opposite sex.
"I feel more secure, more covered," says Kelsey Malone, an 18-year-old freshman at Utah State University, in Logan, Utah. "I feel like I get more respect, especially from guys. If a guy comes and asks me for my number they are not asking me out on a date because they are attracted to me physically."
Emmaline Wilson, an 18-year-old freshman at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, agrees.
"It's easier for boys to concentrate on your face and your personality when you are not revealing anything to them that is distracting to them. I think that our bodies are a gift to us and when we are modest we are respecting our body. We are also not tempting other people. I think immorality is a big problem in society today. I don't want to be a temptation to anyone."
At the same time, however, such young women do like to be tempted themselves, at least when it comes to their own clothing.
In the late 1990s, that could be a tall order. An online search for modest attire in those years turned up monochromatic colors, stiff fabrics and styles that seemed to belong to a different century.
Then came an outbreak of small clothing makers in Utah, with names such as Hannah Lise and Dress Modestly. Between 1999 and 2004 these companies--just a sampling of a larger group--launched Web sites to sell clothing fit for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints faithful but more in step with fashion. (Mormon scripture imposes no fashion dictates on women in day-to-day life, but modesty can be a matter of cultural preference.)
"The people who met the modest needs did not meet the fashion needs," said Richard Arthur, owner of Dress Modestly, based in Logan, Utah. "We wanted to meet both."
At first the stores operated entirely online and shipped domestically and internationally but then expanded to a scattering of brick-and-mortar stores and malls.
The next breakthrough came when Shade Clothing--the Pleasant Grove, Utah, company now widely recognized as the sector's giant--entered the scene.
Launched in 2004 by two Mormon women, it began with a predominantly Latter-day Saints customer base. It now offers its clothing online and in conventional stores but initially it used a home marketing strategy, which allowed women to showcase styles at home and boosted sales through word of mouth.
Macy's--the U.S. chain with headquarters in Cincinnati--now carries Shade clothing in Utah, Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Shade executives expect its clothing to be available in 21 Macy's stores by February.
Another major chain that carries modest fashion--after an 11-year-old, Ella Gunderson, wrote top executives in 2001 to complain that the company's clothes were too revealing--is Seattle-based Nordstrom.
In 2006, two years after its launch, Shade earned $8.5 million from online and retail sales nationwide. It has about 30 competitors, most with annual sales under $1 million. Shade executives estimate the modesty market generates $25 million to $30 million in annual sales.
While modesty shops are frequently--if not entirely--run by religious women and men, most market themselves without reference to religious denomination and try to appeal to a cross section of women. Smaller Utah-based Mormon stores mainly attract other Mormons, but they also attract Jewish and Muslim customers.
One store owner said the clothing also attracts "hippie" or "tree-hugging" women partial to long, loose skirts.
"When we first started we thought it would be a small business for Latter-day Saints women," says Heather Gist, the co-owner of Modest by Design. "But we found that there was a much broader request for modesty from different religious backgrounds that have different requirements of modesty, and non-religious too."
Modesty has no strict fashion designation, but at a minimum shoulders and midriffs must be covered. Cleavage is another no-no.
Hemlines and sleeve lengths vary among conservative Christian, Orthodox Jewish and Muslim women. Some dresses end at the ankle; none rise above the knee.
Layering is a major element of modesty fashion. It allows women to adapt fashions by covering skin that would otherwise be exposed. The best-selling item for both Dress Modestly and Shade is a camisole that peeks through more revealing dresses and tops.
Modesty is about much more than dress, says Wendy Shalit.
"It is about a new notion of empowerment," says the author of "Girls Gone Mild: Young Women Reclaim Self-Respect and Find It's Not Bad to Be Good," published by Random House earlier this year.
Shalit says the modesty movement seeks to "recapture the romance and mystery that many girls find missing in today's pornography-inspired popular culture."
While religious families are in many cases pushing demand for more conservative clothing, Shalit says that some young customers are coming to modest fashion on their own, after the sexual liberation of the baby boomers became an unbearable status quo for the next generation.
"I've had college girls write to me complaining that their baby-boomer mothers asked them if they were lesbians because they were still virgins," Shalit told Women's eNews. "They weren't trying to be cruel, but what is 'cool' to one generation can be oppressive to the next. Today being 'good' has become much more rebellious than being bad."
Jessica Valenti, executive editor of the Web site Feministing, however, has warned of the darker side of the modesty vogue.
"The notion of dressing modestly comes at least partly from the idea that men can't control themselves," she wrote in a 2006 op-ed in the Guardian, a major British newspaper. "By telling women that they have to dress a certain way to quell men's desires, modesty advocates are sending a clear message that the onus is on us to control men's sexual--and possibly violent--actions."
Valenti says she hasn't changed her mind on the matter.
Dominique Soguel is the Arabic editor for Women's eNews.
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