- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 5, 2005

Clothes shopping can be a frustrating experience for Mandi Hart.

It isn’t that Miss Hart doesn’t fit into fashionable clothing. In fact, she is 18 and trim. The problem is that the racks of jeans that ride low on hips and shirts that emphasize cleavage don’t mesh with Miss Hart’s conservative Christian values.

“How you look on the outside is a reflection of your heart on the inside,” says Miss Hart, a freshman at American University in Northwest. “You have to think about what sort of image you want to project. As a woman, I want to be valued for who I am on the inside. I don’t want to attract attention by showing skin.”

Miss Hart has set her own rules: No short skirts. No shirts that ride up at the waist. Nothing low-cut. Today, for a visit to church, she is wearing an adorable but demure cardigan and a trendy brooch. Her motto: “If it’s not for sale, then don’t advertise.”

It appears Miss Hart is not alone in her search for modern, attractive clothing that covers most body parts. She has friends who also are trying to solve the modesty fashion puzzle by adopting strategies that turn skimpy clothes into acceptable outfits.

There is evidence of a nationwide response, too. Department stores such as Dillard’s and Nordstrom have responded to customer requests to carry more modest clothing. Pure Freedom, a Christian organization for young women, has sponsored style shows that promote fashionable modesty. Several business-minded young women have started Web sites either advising others on where to go for modest clothing or selling the fashions themselves.

“I think there absolutely is a backlash going on,” says Colleen Hammond, a former fashion model and author of the book “Dressing With Dignity.” “It started about a year ago, but it takes a couple of years for it to filter down to stores like Wal-Mart. There is always a pendulum when it comes to fashion.”

Mrs. Hammond says young women often have a hard time making the transition from an anything-goes college wardrobe to a more professional work environment.

That is why adopting standards — or even a fashion role model — is a good idea for all young women, even those who aren’t specifically seeking modesty, she says.

“People make up their mind about you in the first few minutes,” Mrs. Hammond says. “So it is good to have rules all around. Professional women in careers need to be modest. People do treat you differently based on how you are dressed.”

That is true outside of the workplace as well.

“Men are definitely wired differently,” Mrs. Hammond says. “A lot of women don’t understand that when men see certain things, there is a hormonal reaction. I think boys are actually more comfortable with modesty. Then they can see who you really are.”

Fashion-conscious conservatives

One of the forces behind the fashion pendulum is religion. Virtually all the major religions in this country have some rules about modesty in women’s dress. In Islam and Orthodox Judaism, the rules are specific — keep the head, chest and most of the body covered. In Christianity, there is no definitive law, but modesty is encouraged and, depending on the views of the church or the family, even expected.

Diane Spinelli is a Catholic mother of seven — including five daughters ranging in age from 2 to 19. She has tried to teach the girls to draw attention to their faces, not their bodies. Her basic rules: no bras showing, nothing sleeveless, and skirts must come to the knees.

“I ask them, ‘Would you wear that if you were going to see the president?’” says Mrs. Spinelli, who lives in Springfield.

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, short skirts, tight clothing and shirts that do not cover the belly are considered immodest.

Jennifer Loch, a 24-year-old Mormon, has long struggled with her desire to look current and also be respectful of her faith. She would flip through magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Jane and think, “What’s in this for me?” she says from her home in Utah.

Two years ago, Ms. Loch started Jen Magazine (www.jenmagazine.com), a Web site for modest clothing, music and other facets of pop culture.

“There are a lot of companies that sell all modest clothing,” she says, “but they are like something out of ‘Little House on the Prairie.’”

In addition to writing articles about topics such as finding a modest prom dress or why she follows modesty standards, Ms. Loch has combed cyberspace to point like-minded young women toward longer shorts and skirts that don’t show too much skin.

“It is hardest to find something to wear to a party at night,” she says. “Tops are always shimmery or strappy. It is hard to even find dresses for church. You can find appropriate dresses, but it is usually in the older women’s section, and it is not something a young person wants to wear.”

Fashion finds

Miss Hart and her friends say demure clothes are out there — you just have to know where to look and how to put the items together. Their favorite stores are the same as those of many other women in their late teens and early 20s: Gap, Old Navy, H&M; and Target.

“It is all about being willing to look for it,” says Sabrina Iga, a 19-year-old sophomore at American University.

Laura Kalichak, a 25-year-old nurse who lives in Arlington, says she will adapt her rules to fit the situation. She says she is always seeking flattering clothes and is trying to move from teen-type fashion into classic looks.

“I don’t want to look 15,” she says, “but for a church retreat, when I am in the company of hundreds of guys, I will choose a tankini rather than a bikini. I won’t wear spaghetti straps to church, but [in] my back yard, I might.”

The women all say that layering, starting with a stretchy camisole, is the key to putting together an appropriate, fashionable outfit.

Camisoles — fitted tank tops made of a cotton-Lycra blend — can be worn under sheer clothes so bra straps don’t show. They can cover up sides if a shirt gaps at the armholes. If cut long enough, the camisole also can cover the gap between where a shirt or sweater ends and low-rise jeans begin.

Mrs. Hammond and Ms. Loch are big fans of camisoles. So is Chelsea Rippy, a Utah woman who started her own company, Shade Clothing, last year. Mrs. Rippy, a Mormon, says she was tired of shopping and coming back empty-handed.

“Jeans are getting really low,” says Mrs. Rippy, 31. “I am not comfortable showing my midriff — I’ve had two kids.”

Mrs. Rippy’s company sold more than $2 million in cotton-spandex camisoles, cap-sleeve shirts and T-shirts its first year. The shirts fit snugly, are slightly higher at the neck, and are about 3 inches longer than most shirts.

“A lot of clothes are only good if you are standing perfectly still,” Mrs. Rippy says. “With these shirts, you can stand up or bend down. They don’t come untucked, and you stay covered.”

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