For years, Orthodox Jewish girls and women seeking modest dress have lamented the sexy fashions that dominate the racks at local department stores. Particularly in the Orthodox community, many have turned to seamstresses, catalogues and out-of-town stores to make or purchase modest clothing. Now, a national backlash against sexy fashion may be developing, according to youth-trend consulting companies, which have released reports confirming that young women are increasingly covering up.
In May, Blue Fusion polled 200 women 14 to 18 and found that many are favoring more modest looks.
For example, a frustrated young shopper in Washington State recently made headlines when she took Nordstrom to task for stocking clothes that she said leave a girl "half naked." And in Atlanta, two metro area fashion shows produced by Christian youth groups in April drew 1,500 parents and daughters.
At Nordstrom, company executives promised the 11-year old Washington shopper, Ella Gunderson, that they would provide a greater variety of less-revealing fashions.
The news prompted Rachel and Abbey Lewis of Atlanta to go shopping at Nordstrom at Perimeter Mall with their mother, Sydney.
"They wanted to see if the store made good on the promise," said Sydney Lewis.
But because the racks in the junior department are still overflowing with summer fashions such as backless halter tops and micro mini skirts, Rachel, a rising 9th grader at Temima High School for Girls, and Abbey, a rising 8th grader at Torah Day School of Atlanta, each went home with a long-sleeve jacket that could be paired with a T-shirt.
In accordance with the dress code at both girls' schools, the sisters dress modestly, wearing skirts that fall below the knees, and shirts that cover the collarbone and elbows.
"It's very hard to find things," said Abbey, as she thumbed through cap-sleeved T-shirts with plunging necklines. A pretty halter dress with a black and pink pattern caught her eye, but altering an outfit, she said, can sometimes cost more than the item itself. A fitted pink tank top to be worn under a jacket was deemed "too tight" by her mother.
Rachel had a more optimistic take on the excursion. "I'll find a way to make something work," she said. "If I go home with one thing, it's been a successful trip."
Rachel, who favors Old Navy, says she admires Gunderson for her actions. "It's bold to say 'Look, I'm different,' and not try to fit in.' "
Orthodox women and girls are not alone in their disdain for the stretchy, barely there clothing that has been in vogue for several years.
Rabbi Julie Schwartz of Reform Temple Emanu-El in Atlanta is equally appalled by what she sees in high-end stores.
"It's terrible what's shown," said Schwartz, who has three daughters, ages 6, 11 and 17. "I won't give those stores my money."
She explains that while the Reform movement does not adopt dress codes the way Orthodoxy does, and recognizes that "we are allowed to enjoy our physical attributes," it discourages adherents from relating to people based on those attributes.
Personally, she added, "I'm against clothes whose objective is to objectify the female body."
Schwartz says she finds more appropriate clothing at Kohl's, a Wisconsin-based retailer that describes itself as "family-focused" and "value-oriented," carrying clothing manufactured by kid-friendly companies such as Nickelodeon.
"It has a broader selection," Schwartz said.
But even at Kohl's, some customers find themselves leaving the store and heading to the seamstress or the sewing machine.
Temima's business administrator, Ruth Kaplan, whose three daughters are 8, 14 and 21, has become a "pretty good seamstress," she says, closing up slits in skirts and adding kick pleats.
Other families shop in New York, Miami and Baltimore, where there is more demand for stores carrying modest items, or get together with friends to mass order from a store or catalogue and split the shipping costs. Still others turn to Trudi Robbins, whose in-home boutique on Houston Mill Road sells special occasion modest dresses as well as a $30 Plugg Jeans Co. denim skirt that has recently been the rage at Torah Day.
"They're flying off the shelves," said Robbins, mother of an 8-year old daughter.
With higher waistlines, layered looks and lower hemlines on deck for the fall, youth culture experts expect the modesty trend to continue, enabling these local families to set aside their alternative shopping strategies and return to the shopping centers.
Ed Burstell, the general manager of Henri Bendel in New York City, told the New York Times that revealing fashions are "just done."
Gigi Solif Schanen, fashion editor at Seventeen magazine, agreed. "People are tired of seeing so much skin and want to leave a little to the imagination," she told USA Today.
Robbins certainly hopes so. Because as it stands now, she says, what they're selling now "makes me want to stay out of the mall."