Modesty in young women's clothing is getting a boost from the dismal economy.
When consumer spending was in overdrive, retailers could sell to the masses and ignore the more muted voices asking for, say, a decent supply of sleeved shirts or prom dresses that show more fabric than skin.
Now, however, it's the rare retailer who's willing to take the chance of turning off any possible customer. Luxury-store clerks can no longer afford to look down at scruffy shoppers, and store owners of every sort are recognizing the one-size-fits-all approach to retail buying no longer works.
Whether it's more of a fiscal or moral shift, understated girls' clothing may indeed be making a comeback.
Even flashy Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld declared "bling is over" and noted the economy is prompting a "new modesty," in an interview with the International Herald Tribune this year.
Retail consultant Ken Nisch says the trend is more moderation than modesty, but the effect may be the same.
"It's not because of a moral revival but about sensibility," says Nisch, chairman of retail brand and design firm JGA. "What's provocative has often been ultra trendy, and it just doesn't make sense to buy things you can't wear for a lot of occasions anymore."
The evidence is found everywhere, from the baggy and shapeless "boyfriend" jeans that are replacing skin tight ones for many young women to the basic fashions seen all over New York these days, says Meredith Barnett, CEO of retail boutique website StoreAdore.com.
"People want to be more comfortable and more covered," says Barnett. "You're not seeing nearly as much risk taking."
The trend is forcing a shift in the way retailers do business. Just as teen retailers have come to target the gothic girl, the diva and the street-wear aficionado, they now must recognize that skin is simply not always in. For every girl who embraces strapless tops and micro-mini dresses, there might be one who is trying to abide by either a school or moral dress code. Modest fashion typically calls for covered shoulders, thighs and cleavage but is hardly the definition of frumpy that the term often calls to mind.
"For those groups who want to be a little more reserved, (stores) must understand what their needs are and offer them what they want," says retail strategist Cari Bunch of consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates. "It's essential for survival."
When he explained the chain's new local approach to investors last month, Macy's CEO Terry Lundgren cited the chain's ability to offer clothing to working women in Pittsburgh and St. Louis seeking "covered sleeves and more traditional silhouettes."
Finding a bit more coverage in their clothing may be a goal of many adult women, but finding fashion that wouldn't be considered "sexy" can be an obsession for mothers of tween and teenage girls. When consumer insights firm BIGresearch polled 5,000 consumers last fall, 64% of those 18 and older agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, "Fashions for young people have gotten too provocative."
Brenda Sharman, who became national founder of the teen girl group Pure Fashion in 2006, already knew public sentiment was starting to lean in favor of her modesty mission. However, she didn't think there would be much concern about low necklines and high hemlines in a time of staggering economic pressure and spiraling unemployment. But now, she believes the economy has become a boon.
"Fashion's in our court right now," says Sharman, a former model.
Pure Fashion has about 700 members who work as models at spring teen fashion shows, which attract about 11,000 people. The group has affiliates in 10 countries, and is signing new groups on its website, PureFashion.com.
Pure Fashion was an offshoot of a Catholic missionary organization, but Sharman believes its message resonates from Muslims to Orthodox Jews to parents who simply believe it shouldn't be hard to find shorts that completely cover the rear end.
"Girls need to understand: What they wear sends a message," Sharman says.
Evangelical tween group Secret Keeper Girl was founded in 2004 by author Dannah Gresh, partly in response to a 2003 Time magazine report that $1.6 million was spent the year before on thong underwear for girls ages 7 to 12. The group is circulating a petition it plans to send to the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the Apparel & Footwear Manufacturers Association urging them to consider modesty in their designs.
Gresh is hoping to have 50,000 signatures by fall. She says 5,000 have come in on their website, SecretKeeperGirl.com. When they do, Gresh plans to organize a day of shopping at the few stores they think offer appropriate fashion choices for pre-teen girls, including Old Navy, Gap Kids and Children's Place.
Gresh, who also started teen group Pure Freedom, which hosts fashion events in up to 80 cities annually, says the parents of her members are relieved the movement is getting traction.
"When clothes get skimpier and skimpier, moms get angrier and angrier," says Gresh, who's written several books including And The Bride Wore White. "But it's harder to appeal (to retailers) when it's become the norm and you're just one mom trying to hold the line."
Many parents agree.
Joe Cummings of Universal City, Texas, links self-esteem issues about appearance in young women to influences including suggestive apparel stores, Hannah Montana and the Bratz doll line. "It is no wonder that this might be the most difficult period in recent history to be a teenage girl in school, or a parent of one," says Cummings, who has a 12-year-old daughter.
Jenny Carpenter of Washington has applauded moves by apparel makers such as Shade and Layers to offer more modest choices, but she remains appalled by the marketing many retailers use to pitch their products.
"Why are retailers using sex to sell to young women?" asks Carpenter, who has four sons. "My boys will one day be men, and I want them to respect women for who they are — mind, body and soul — instead of drooling after them because of the amount of skin they're showing."
Ella Gunderson unwittingly amped up the modesty movement when she complained to Nordstrom in 2004.
"Dear Nordstrom, I am an 11-year-old girl who has tried shopping at your store for clothes (in particular jeans), but all of them ride way under my hips and the next size up is too big and falls down," she wrote, according to an excerpt on PureFashion.com.
Gunderson's story made national news, and Nordstrom responded with higher cut jeans — and more — when it realized hers was hardly a lone cry. "Around that time, a fair amount of people were looking for modest options," says Nordstrom spokeswoman Brooke White.
That prompted the company to add a "modest" category on its website. Although the designation was later dropped because there weren't enough people using "modest" as a search term, White says the chain did make sure to keep modest selections, which are available depending on demand in different regions of the country.
Macy's new "localization" strategy tailors apparel and other products by store and will include all Macy's by June. Spokesman Jim Sluzewski says, "In those stores where a more modest apparel assortment is expected by the customer, that's what we're working to deliver."
Modest or not, young people tend to prefer specialty stores over department stores, and that trend was evident during recent "mall missions" conducted by Pure Fashion. During these trips, groups of girls who are 14 to 18 years old fanned out across shopping areas to rate retailers on their apparel and atmosphere. They awarded Pure Fashion seals of approval to those that passed muster on at least seven out of 10 areas on their checklist, which includes appropriate apparel, mannequins and music.
American Eagle, Anthropologie and Banana Republic got the Washington, D.C., group's highest ratings, while Delia's, J. Crew and Ann Taylor all got the Pure Fashion thumbs up elsewhere.
"J. Crew is my favorite store, " says Ashley Nowak, a 14-year-old Pure Fashion member from Alpharetta, Ga. "Almost all of the other stores today have booty shorts and tube tops, that are not only revealing, but also set an inaccurate image of what beauty is supposed to look like."
Elsa Rose Hoffmann, who leads Pure Fashion in the D.C. area, says most stores were "very receptive" during a recent outing in Georgetown: Store managers would ask, "What can we do to improve?"
No lack of material
Preparing to address a group of teen girls at a Pure Fashion camp last year, Sharman had props ready to convince them just how far into the gutter fashion — and our culture — have gone.
There was an 8-inch-long skirt from Abercrombie & Fitch, one of the store's shopping bags with a near-naked man on it and a "Bling Bling Barbie," who looked suspiciously like a prostitute. Sharman also showed a camisole that's now sold as a top but was considered lingerie at the time Sharman modeled it in the 1990s, when she says bras and underwear "were more full coverage."
Sharman didn't have to go any farther than her local mall to collect her examples. A floor-to-ceiling photo graphic of a young man with his pants unzipped has greeted many visitors to Abercrombie & Fitch stores. The home page for the chain's lingerie line, Gilly Hicks, has seven men with bare behinds posing with a young model in a bra and underwear. American Apparel's website home page recently featured a topless model wearing see-through leggings.
Still, the stores' sales suggest sex does often sell. Although Abercrombie's sales have plunged with the economy — February's sales dropped a record 30% from Februrary 2008 — it's widely attributed to the chain's resistance to discounting, not a conservative backlash. And along with sister store Hollister, Abercrombie remains one of the stores teens most often list as favorites.
American Apparel, which sells basic cotton tees and other casual wear, had a 9% sales increase in February and is often cited as one of the retail success stories of the downturn. Abercrombie & Fitch declined to comment. American Apparel says its ads are all done in-house and feature employees.
"Sometimes that means our ads are more controversial than other companies' but they are at least, always sincere and genuine," says company spokesman Ryan Holiday, who says provocative ads are at the "core of many fashion brands." While she's pleased by the response her cause is getting, Sharman suspects some of retail's embrace of modesty may cycle back out of fashion again in a few years.
"Fashion has been so sexy for the past seven to 10 years, they wanted to do something different to keep sales going," she says.
Still, all her members really want are options. Hoffmann says most stores these days are acceptable for girls who "know how to shop" with an eye toward modesty.
"Everybody's seeing their bottom lines shrinking, so they want to sell to those who wear modest clothing, as well as those who want to wear it in a more risqué manner," says Hoffmann. "And that's fine with us."