Catholic Student's Modesty Impresses Nordstrom

BELLEVUE, Wash. — Ella Gunderson, an 11-year-old Catholic school student, has started what could become a new fashion — making clothing retailers take notice that girls and young women can wear styles that are fashionable without sacrificing their modesty.

Ella was one of 37 girls between ages 10 and 16 who participated in what was billed as the first annual Pure Fashion Show in the Seattle area May 23 at the Hyatt Regency Bellevue Wintergarden.

Sponsored by the Challenge Club of Greater Seattle, the show's message was that there can be fashion without compromise. Ella's mother, Pam Gunderson, is president of the Seattle-area group, part of an international network of clubs and camps for Catholic girls.

Although there have been Pure Fashion shows by Challenge groups in other parts of the country, this one attracted national media attention because of a letter Ella wrote to the Nordstrom clothing company — and the response she received. Ella and her mother appeared on national television-news programs within days.

Ella's letter said she had tried shopping at Nordstrom but that all the jeans she tried on “ride way under my hips, and the next size up is too big and falls down.”

“They are also way too tight, and as I get older, show everything every time I move,” her letter continued. “I see all of these girls who walk around with pants that show their bellybutton and underwear. Even at my age, I know that is not modest.”

Her letter goes on to say that the store's shirts for girls are too far over the bellybutton and that with clothing from the store it seems she would walk around showing half her body.

The letter says clerks at Nordstrom suggested there is only one look. “If this is true,” Ella's letter says, girls are supposed to “walk around half naked. I think you should change that.”

‘You're Right’

Ella received two letters in response. One was from Kris Allan, store manager of the retailer's Bellevue location, who wrote: “I think you are absolutely right. There should not be just one look for everyone. This look is not particularly a modest one and there should be choices for everyone. I am sorry that you were unable to find anything while in our store. I am sharing your letter with Kianna Mitchell, the Brass Plum manager, so she can coach her team that everyone does not want to look like a fashion-diva model.”

Brass Plum is a line of clothing for teen-aged and preteen girls.

The other letter came from Loretta Soffe, a company vice president and corporate merchandising manager, whose comments included an assurance for Ella.

“We will do our best to educate our salespeople as to the many different looks that are available,” the letter said. “So, the next time you come into Nordstrom, we can find you something in the store that you like.”

Ella, a fifth-grader at Holy Family Catholic School in nearby Kirkland, said she didn't expect a reply — certainly not so much media attention.

“We can be stylish and look really nice but still be modest at the same time,” she noted.

Her mother noted that the motto of the Challenge Club is: “Challenge yourself, challenge others, challenge the world!”

“I believe Ella did all of these,” she said. “It took a little girl to write a letter proclaiming the obvious.”

Pam Gunderson said families involved with the show prayed “a novena to Our Lady” prior to the fashion show, which attracted a capacity audience of 250.

‘Earn Respect’

The show's featured speaker was Coleen Kelly Mast, an Illinois-based chastity author who co-hosts the radio advice program “The Doctor Is In,” produced by Catholic Answers.

“We earn respect by becoming virtuous,” Mast said in her talk. “Girls and women who want respect choose to be beautiful on the inside. Beauty on the inside is what shines through.”

Ella's father, Bob Gunderson, runs his own computer-software and consulting business. Of the attention Ella has generated, he said he and his family are “trying to be as open as possible to the Holy Spirit, who is definitely in control of this whole thing.”

“Obviously Pam and I have a responsibility to shield Ella from inappropriate media attention, but we are taking this one step at a time,” he said.

Deniz Anders, spokeswoman for Nordstrom, said the company believes it did have modest fashionable clothing for girls when Ella shopped at the store's Bellevue location but that Ella was not directed to those items. Anders said Nordstrom has in the past received other customer letters about difficulty in finding fashionable modest clothing for girls, but she did not know if any of those letters came from minors.

Annie Sparrow is a trend-watcher who owns a Seattle women's boutique called Tulip. Sparrow said young women have been asking for less-revealing clothes and that retailers have been relaying that message to the fashion industry, which has begun to listen.

“We've been challenged,” Sparrow said, “especially with jeans being so low.”

Armando Machado writes from Mount Vernon, Washington.