The Big Cover-up

After years of bare midriffs and low-rise jeans, some girls are opting for more modesty

Family Matters

September 04, 2005|By Stephen G. Henderson | Stephen G. Henderson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Many young girls feel self-conscious and awkward about their developing bodies and aren't quite sure how to dress. For some, though, finding clothes has been particularly complicated in the last few years as America's retailers copied the trashier-than-thou fashions worn by celebrities such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera and produced sexy styles of low-rise pants, shrunken T-shirts and flimsy camisoles.

Claire Maisel, 15, a sophomore at Liberty High School in Eldersburg, groaned in exasperation when asked what types of clothing are popular among her female classmates. "Most girls like to wear shorts that are pretty short, actually extra short, and mini-skirts. Also sleeveless shirts that are low cut."

"But I don't wear stuff like that," she quickly added. "It would make me feel exposed, and I think it is gross."

Kassie Sandacz, a 15-year-old sophomore who's being home-schooled in Jessup, found it nearly impossible this summer to find a bathing suit. "Everything was two pieces," she explained. "But I finally found a tankini, and my Mom sewed buttons on it because I didn't like showing my stomach and everything. That would make me uncomfortable."

As school starts up again this year, however, the anxiety felt by Claire, Kassie and other 'tweener girls like them (meaning, those between the ages of 9 and 15) may be lessened, since a "grin and bare it" approach to girl's dressing appears to be headed out of style. In fact, there's a growing sentiment that modesty is, well, mod.

"Clothes are becoming a little bit more covered up," said Linnea Olson-Schwartz, market director for Elle Girl magazine. "Waistlines on girl's jeans had gone so low, they couldn't go any lower. Now we are seeing a higher rise. The look is cleaner, less ripped to shreds, with T-shirts that are looser and longer at the waist. Sure, you can still see Jessica Simpson in her Daisy Dukes [denim shorts with a buttocks-baring hemline], but there's less of that."

Nancy Chistolini, senior vice president of fashion and public relations for Hecht's department stores, agrees.

"We did go through a period where there was criticism of girls having their stomachs exposed and skirts much too short," she said. "But now, we're definitely cycling back to things being more covered, more modest, because girls don't want to give off the wrong signals. They want to send their own message and not someone else's."

About emotional health

That fashion can send the wrong signal is very much on the mind of Dannah Gresh, author of Secret Keeper: The Delicate Power of Modesty (Moody, 2002, $8.99). Along with her husband, Bob, Gresh founded a ministry called Pure Freedom, which teaches both girls and boys that self-respect and empowerment can come from dressing appropriately. The couple has toured America all summer, conducting seminars on what they call a "Pure Freedom" tour; on Sept. 23-24, they will hold a conference at Heritage Community Church in Severn.

"America's 'tweenagers' ... want to be beautiful, but they don't understand that beauty has a sensual element," said Dannah Gresh.

"I have an 11-year-old daughter, so I know that at this age they are not quite women, but not quite girls. Because our society is so highly sexualized, though, it is tempting for them to want that," she continued. "They look at Jessica Simpson, and don't understand all about her personal trainers or that her posters are 'Photoshopped.' They just get depressed because they don't look like her. Our mission with Modesty is not just about morals or integrity. It is about emotional health."

For retailers, of course, the mission is to make money, and this age group not only has lots at its disposal -- they spent an estimated $20 billion last year on apparel, said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst of the NPD Group, a market research company based in Port Washington, N.Y. -- but they are exceedingly fickle in how they spend it. So, even though 'tweener fads appear and disappear with lightning speed, manufacturers serving this demographic can't afford to ignore this new "prim is in" mood.

Certainly, no business wants to suffer the embarrassment that Nordstrom endured last year when 11-year-old Ella Gunderson of Redmond, Wash., initiated a letter-writing campaign to the company's headquarters in Seattle. Gunderson's demand that Nordstrom offer less revealing and more modest clothes attracted national attention.

"Yes, sex sells, but only up to a point. People have become inundated with the navel," said Tina Wells, CEO of Buzz, a youth marketing firm based in New York City. "Look what happened with Abercrombie & Fitch. They got into trouble because all their catalog talked about was sex-sex-sex, and they forgot to highlight the great clothes they had. Kids didn't want to go into the store with their parents."

They're demure

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