Faithful Broadsheet readers might remember this post by Rebecca Traister about Bratz dolls-themed padded bras for 6-year-olds. Gross. But here's something from the other extreme: A Web site called Pure Fashion that describes itself as "a faith-based program that encourages teen girls to live, act and dress in accordance with their dignity as children of God." The organization trains "pure fashion models," puts on fashion shows and helps parents find places where they can buy "appropriate" clothing for their daughters.
On the site, smiling teen girls walk runways wearing clothing that's not too short, not too tight and not too sexually provocative. (Many of the V-neck dresses, for example, have a shirt underneath; one leaves just enough exposed skin to display a necklace with a large black cross.) These are, after all, examples of the "pure fashion model," which the site defines as a young woman who is a "model of virtue, wholesome and happy, modest in her thoughts, words and actions, convinced of her dignity and acting accordingly, sincere and unselfish, generous and grateful, prudent in her decisions, kind and gentle with others, energetic and enthusiastic, stylish yet dignified, courageous in defending what is true and right, pure of heart, obedient to God's commandments, committed to chastity, a follower of Christ, helpful at home, a leader of many and a servant to all, obedient and optimistic, proud to be PURE!"
As might be obvious, when I get worked up, I start quoting -- and this site really gets me worked up. It's not because I think the Britney Spears look is a style worth emulating -- call me a prude, but I think there are certain times to show your underwear (or lack thereof) and those times are usually not in public. But when fashion and religion start to mix, I get creeped out, especially when the guidelines seem to be sartorial echoes of the virgin vs. whore ideal. "Stylish, yet dignified." "A leader of many and a servant to all." Girls are supposed be chaste and obedient while at the same time confident and put together -- and should do all this without exposing their shoulders.
Actually, the site has a whole list of rules for how a pure fashion model should dress. Working off the premise that "our private parts should remain private" and "our bodies are holy and sacred and our clothing should not reveal what should be concealed" (and my personal favorite: "Virtue is the most important must have for every season"), Pure Fashion provides specific recommendations. For example, shirts' necklines should not be more than 4 inches below the collarbone. Bra straps must not be visible beneath your clothes (if you can see them, the shirt is too tight). Tank tops shouldn't be modeled without a jacket, sweater or shirt over them. No skintight tops, pants or skirts, no panty lines, no spaghetti straps. And if you think these make it sound like girls should just wear potato sacks, keep in mind that loose clothing can pose problems, too: "If the neckline droops from your body when you bend over, guess what everyone can see?" the site asks. "If the armpit is too loose, think about the view of the guy standing next to you -- right to the inside!"
The tough thing to grapple with is that if you just looked at the photos of the girls on the site (minus the crosses and commentary), they wouldn't be surprising. Many of the outfits are stylish without being revealing, and are good examples of outfits you could comfortably wear to the office without worrying about seeming too risqué. In other words, the clothing itself, minus the message, is an improvement over padded bras for prepubescent girls. But once these clothes become a matter of morality rather than choice -- with the implication being that "purity," as expressed by the opacity of your shirt, is the most important characteristic for young women to embody -- I get worried. It's a step back to a world where women were not only expected to be pure, obedient and chaste but had to look pure, obedient and chaste as well. As for the guys? Unsurprisingly, they're not on Pure Fashion. Presumably, they can wear whatever the hell they want without worrying that their board shorts will make a comment about their morality.
I was originally alerted to Pure Fashion by this editorial in the Los Angeles Times by Anne K. Ream. It's worth a read on its own, but I particularly agree with this point:
"Scratch the surface [of the modesty movement] and what's supposed to be good for girls reveals itself to be all about the boys: dressing in a way that doesn't over-excite them, demurring so that their manhood remains intact and holding tight to our sexuality until we find a husband who is worthy of that ultimate 'prize.'
"What's lost in this view of the world is the power of female desire: not just sexual and sartorial but professional and intellectual. There is something liberating about a girlhood (and womanhood) that is not lived solely in anticipation of, or in response to, a man."