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Girls gone mild: Teenagers try on modesty

Imagine a home with a teenage girl where the most contentious argument over clothes involves whether it's OK for the lace on a camisole to peek through the top or bottom of a shirt.

That seems to be the case with 15-year-old Morgan Morrissette, whose mother, Shelley, is the founder and organizer of a local Pure Fashion group, a Catholic-based organization that promotes modesty and purity among teenage girls.

"I think it's modest because it's a camisole with lace on it," Morgan says. "And my dad's like, 'you know what the guys think, they think it's underwear with lace on it.'"

It's a small quibble in these days where fashion seems to find a new body part to expose each season — from bare midriffs to cleavage to the cheeks not on the face.

Pure Fashion is one group of teenage girls moving the other direction. At spring fashion shows by 18 affiliates in the U.S. and Canada, teens model clothes that abide by guidelines such as "necklines no lower than four fingers below the collar bone" and pants that fit loosely enough that they can be pulled away from the leg.

Groups such as Pure Fashion could be a mere blip on the fashion radar screen, aided by a poor economy that says hemlines go up when life is good and down when the dollar plummets. Or it might be the start of a movement to excise from public memory images of Janet Jackson's nipple or Britney Spears' nether regions.

Shelley Morrissette of Cary hopes it's the latter. She and Morgan went to a Pure Fashion Show in Atlanta two years ago, attended by about 2,200 people.

"At least for that day, everybody was embracing the message of modesty and purity, and the girls were on board," Shelley Morrissette said of the Atlanta show. "It felt good, I think, to them to know that there were others out there who want the same message."

When Pure Fashion began about 10 years ago, the fashion was cropped shirts with low-rise jeans. Keeping the girls' stomachs covered was the major issue, said Therese Walters, another mother involved in Pure Fashion

"Today, the shirts are much longer, but now the challenge is the plunge, the cleavage, everything is cut so low and the spaghetti straps," Walters says.

Her daughter, Hannah, is a 17-year-old who attends a Catholic school, Cardinal Gibbons in Raleigh. Morgan is in her first year of public school, attending Green Hope High School, where she says she works at converting friends to dressing modestly.

They may have help this year, when a quick glance through stores shows high-collared, demure dresses and coats with names like "The Jackie" as in Kennedy or "The Audrey" as in Hepburn. In February, London Times fashion editor Lisa Armstrong said that "sex is starting to look very last season" and described models at Milan fashion shows as looking like geography teachers.

So, are high-waisted jeans a replacement for the low-rise variety? What do we make of CEO Sharen Turney's statement that Victoria's Secret has become "too sexy" and that the lingerie chain needs to focus on feminine?

"I think what's happening is that we've reached the limit of the 'if you've got it, flaunt it,' philosophy and we're seeing the power of a little mystery and glamour," said Wendy Shalit, author of 1999's “A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue” and 2007's “Girls Gone Mild.”

"When exhibitionism becomes the norm, the fact is, it gets boring," Shalit wrote in response to e-mail questions.

Pure Fashion is an outgrowth of Challenge Clubs, groups for girls in Catholic Churches. The local group's membership is about 60 percent Catholic and about 40 percent other Christian religions. But modest clothing has roots in many religions; Shalit, for example, is Jewish.

She thinks the role of religion has been overstated, citing the "girlcotting" of Abercrombie & Fitch for its T-shirts that read "Who Needs Brains When You Have These?" as an example. The girls "just wanted a different definition of empowerment," she said.

National Pure Fashion director Brenda Sharman, herself a model who's signed by Elite Model Management in Atlanta, says that while Pure Fashion has guidelines for how to dress, fashion has too many variables for hard and fast rules.

"I think we're trying to remind our kids that certain outfits are appropriate at some times and not appropriate at some times," Sharman said in a telephone interview. "I think that women need to examine their intentions when they're getting dressed. Getting dressed with the intention to be pure is different than getting dressed with the intention to lure. Out in public, people will get an impression about them, and they need to be aware that their clothing sends a message about them."

Pure Fashion does have its "modesty guidelines," including that "undergarments should never become outer-garments." Still, Shalit says reporters enjoy portraying "the modesty movement as if it's some kind of dress code (or soon will be), and that's because everyone hates someone who tells them what to wear. It's a clever way of trying to make the movement seem really unappealing, without ever honestly examining it."

Instead, she says, she believes "that for there to be meaningful choices for girls, being publicly sexual cannot be the only way of being empowered. We've got to allow for alternatives _ both in dress and in behavior."

And where is the male responsibility in all of this? Morrissette acknowledges that one of the most repeated comments on cards left at the 2007 fashion show was that young men need an equivalent program. But there is more than an implication that women are responsible for keeping men pure of thought by dressing in way that doesn't excite.

"We want our young men to be able to sit in class and pay attention to their studies and not be distracted because somebody (who's) dressed very provocatively has to go and do a math problem on the board."

Sharman says "it's more challenging for them (boys) to keep their hearts pure and full of wholesome thoughts. ... Out of Christian charity, we want to protect the hearts and minds of men."

Hannah Walters blames scanty clothes for the downfall of some women, saying, "Dressing immodestly is just the first step toward getting married for 24 hours and having 20 kids out of wedlock and doing drugs. It's just one step after another and after you take the first step, you're just on a slippery slope. So it's hard to stop once you start."

Does that mean decolletage is the gateway drug of clothing, leading to the meth equivalent of fashion crimes, such as proving to the public that you're not wearing underwear?

For Shalit, that's not even the issue. The real issue, she says, is sexuality at too young an age.

"Lots of girls have really good instincts but the media, peers — and sometimes even parents —can wear them down, all under the guise of empowerment. What I'm trying to do is to present a viable alternative to this pressure, and to let girls know that it's OK to be themselves," she says. "We've got to learn how to give an 8-year-old girl the space to develop who she really is, without feeling pressured to look 'hot' for the benefit of adult men."

Still, it's not easy shopping for teens who want to dress both fashionably and modestly. Morgan recalls a search for an 8th-grade graduation dress in 2007.

"Me and my mom spent hours trying to find a modest, decent dress," Morgan said, adding they eventually settled on one that had spaghetti straps but covered enough of her chest. "Then we took another hour finding something to go over it," she said. "It was just really difficult."

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