Get a group of grown-ups talking about teen fashions, and it's only a matter of minutes before someone stops the conversation cold with a terrifying question:
What will they come out with next?
Enter Ella Gunderson. Remember her? She's the preteen Catholic from Redmond, Wash., who made headlines last spring by writing executives of Nordstrom, the respected retail chain. Suddenly the hand wringing paused as millions of ears inclined to hear what the youngster had to say.
“Your clerks suggest that there is only one look,” she wrote. “If that is true, then girls are supposed to walk around half-naked. I think you should change that.”
Much publicity followed, including an appearance on NBC's “Today Show” with Katie Couric. The most intriguing development came when Nordstrom and many others in the teen-apparel industry publicly promised that this fall's styles would trend more toward modesty than in years past.
Fall's here. Have they made good on their pledge?
“I actually did notice that the girls’ section was more appropriate this year,” says Sherianne Ricks of Seattle, Wash., mother of 10-year-old Danielle.
“Last year, I really had to search to find clothes that wouldn't show so much, but this year, we found jeans that weren't so low and tops that were long enough to cover her belly. No spaghetti straps anywhere to be seen. We even found some floor-length denim skirts.”
Some others were not as impressed.
“When I first heard that the trends were leaning toward more modest styles, I thought, uh-oh, what am I doing here?” says Charity Miller of Salbrook, Calif., proprietor of Far Above Rubies, a newly established online clothing business aimed at providing teens and young women with fashionable, modest alternatives to current skin-baring styles. “But then I realized that the looks they are calling ‘modest’ are wool sweaters or tweed blazers paired up with teeny, tiny miniskirts. They are only halfway there.”
A dearth of modest fashion options for young women was what propelled Miller to start her business (online at www.faraboverubies.com). Many of her current customers are young women and parents who are unhappy with the fashion industry's definition of “modest fashion.”
Indeed, when asked about this year's more modest styles, Gigi Solis Schanen, the New York-based fashion editor for Seventeen magazine said, “If modesty is what you are looking for, it's going to come full force in the fall. The ’50s sexy-librarian look is in.”
“This is just what the Holy Father was talking about when he referred to a ‘culture of death,’” says Father John Gerth, a teen mentor known as “Father J” on the website of the Catholic youth group Life Teen.
“We need to move away from a popular culture that turns people into objects. Lately, there's been a rise in the acceptability of magazines like Maxim and FHM that promote immodesty and the objectification of human beings. The culture takes a living, breathing human being and turns her into an object.
“When we dress immodestly, we do that same thing to ourselves,” adds the priest. “Other people are not seeing our humanity, only our form.”
Father Gerth believes that, when it comes to encouraging young people to make appropriate fashion decisions, parents are more powerful than they realize.
“Be convicted,” he urges parents of teens. “Our young people will probably never say it, but they really do want strong parents. There are so many other voices in the world trying to steer them away from the truth. Peers and television tell them, ‘Wear this’ or ‘This product will make you happy’ — but parents are the voice that young people need to hear the most. Catholic parents should not be afraid to take a stand against things contrary to their faith.”
Theresa Kuhar, a mother of six in Philadelphia, is not afraid. Not only does she bar her own teen-age sons from wearing the offensive-slogan and suggestive-picture T-shirts popular with boys — but she also makes her “house rules” clear to their friends.
That's not to say that they're not welcomed with Christian hospitality.
“If any of the guys who come to spend the weekend come in with inappropriate clothing, they are offered one of the boys’ T-shirts and a room to change in,” she says. “If they decline, they are asked to leave and shown the door. In general, they know the rules and are glad to obey them in return for a comfy couch, a stocked fridge and a full complement of video games.”
Kuhar has developed a unique way of helping her kids to recognize a poor choice on their own. When her 15-year-old son recently asked to purchase T-shirts celebrating drunkenness, she asked him if he would feel comfortable wearing them to Mass. He admitted that he wouldn't, and he didn't buy them.
“I almost always frame my answer in the context of Mass, and it solves the matter on the spot,” she says. “If you can't be seen in church wearing it, it doesn't belong in our house.”
Father Gerth applauds mothers who, like Theresa Kuhar, take a strong stand on the importance of appropriate dress. And he emphasizes the importance of a father's involvement as well, particularly with regard to a daughter's clothing choices.
“So much about what is wrong with women's fashion has to do with women seeking to meet the expectations of men,” he explains.
“A dad is so important because he can give his daughter a male perspective on the matter,” he adds. “He can tell his daughter what he remembers about the ‘type’ of girls who would dress immodestly when he was younger. He should tell her, I don't want you to be a ‘type’ of girl. I want you to be a child of God.”
Ultimately, according to Father Gerth, a person's fashion decisions and outward appearances matter because they are a reflection of who a person is on the inside. As a result, he finds the suddenly ubiquitous verbiage on the rear-ends of girls’ shorts and sweatpants particularly distasteful (not to mention the recent explosion of tattoos on girls’ legs and lower backs, along with jewelry affixed to their bellybuttons).
“Why be a walking billboard for Company X?” he asks. “We are called to be a walking billboard for Christ. Don't strive to be popular — strive to be saved. Don't worry about making lots of friends. Worry about leading (yourself and) others to Christ.”
“Sometimes,” he says, “that can be as simple as changing your clothes.”
Danielle Bean writes from Center Harbor, New Hampshire.