Consider the following style tips for girls: skirts and dresses should fall no more than four fingers above the knee. No tank tops without a sweater or jacket over them. Choose a bra that has a little padding to help disguise when you are cold. These fashion hints may sound like the prim mandates of a 1950s "health" film. But they are from the Web site of Pure Fashion, a modeling and etiquette program for teen girls whose goal is "to show the public it is possible to be cute, stylish and modest." Pure Fashion has put on 13 shows in 2007 featuring 600 models. National director Brenda Sharman estimates there will be 25 shows in 2008. It is not the only newfangled outlet for old-school ideas about how girls should dress: ModestApparelUSA.com, ModestByDesign.com and DressModestly.com all advocate a return to styles that leave almost everything to the imagination. They cater to what writer Wendy Shalit claims is a growing movement of "girls gone mild"—teens and young women who are rejecting promiscuous "bad girl" roles embodied by Britney Spears, Bratz Dolls and the nameless, shirtless thousands in "Girls Gone Wild" videos. Instead, these girls cover up, insist on enforced curfews on college campuses, bring their moms on their dates and pledge to stay virgins until married. And they spread the word: in Pennsylvania, a group of high-school girls "girlcotted" Abercrombie & Fitch for selling T shirts with suggestive slogans (WHO NEEDS BRAINS WHEN YOU HAVE THESE?). Newly launched Eliza magazine bills itself as a "modest fashion" magazine for the 17- to 34-year-old demographic. Macy's has begun carrying garments by Shade clothing, which was founded by two Mormon women wanting trendy, but not-revealing, clothes. And Miss Utah strode the runway of the 2007 Miss America pageant in a modestly cut one-piece swimsuit. (She didn't win the crown.) According to Shalit, whose new book "Girls Gone Mild" was published last month, this "youth-led rebellion" is a welcome corrective to our licentious, oversexed times. But is the new modesty truly a revolution, or is it merely an inevitable reaction to a culture of increased female sexual empowerment, similar to the backlash against flappers in the 1920s and second-wave feminists in the 1970s?
Shalit has made a career of cataloging the degradations of our culture while championing crusades of virtue. Her first book, "A Return to Modesty," argued that chastity was hot—and informed readers she intended to remain a virgin until her wedding night. Shalit says she was inundated with letters and e-mail from girls dismayed by cultural pressure to be "bad." She began a Web site, ModestyZone.net—there are at least a dozen similar ones today—and started collecting information from 3,000 e-mail exchanges between 1999 and 2006. "There's a dawning awareness that maybe not everyone participating in these behaviors is happy with them, so let's not assume everyone doing this is empowered," she says. She blames the usual suspects: media, misguided feminist professors, overly permissive parents. Sharman also points a finger at Moms Gone Wild. "It used to be that moms would control the way their daughters dressed. But now we have this 'Desperate Housewives' culture, and the moms are as influenced by the media as the kids," she says. "They've lost the sense of encouraging their daughters to be ladylike." Pure Fashion, which is affiliated with the Roman Catholic organization Regnum Christi, aims to "help young ladies make better choices," says Sharman.
This is not the first time women have been asked to make these choices. During a century of tumult over the roles and rights of women, fashion and sexual expression have remained lightning rods for controversy. The forward-thinking women of the 1920s who cut their hair, threw out their corsets and dared to smoke in public were the Britney Spearses and Paris Hiltons of their day, says Joshua Zeitz, author of "Flapper: A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern." "Everything is relative—girls weren't wearing thongs or getting bikini waxes, but they were coming to school in knee-length skirts, wearing lipstick and smoking," Zeitz says. "The concern at the time was that the culture was sexualizing young girls. The backlash came during the Great Depression, when you see a movement to get women back into the home, in part to correct this culture of licentiousness."
The most recent attempt to turn back the clock may be a reaction to yet another sexual revolution: "Gays and lesbians are becoming mainstreamed, women make up more than half of college populations, they're becoming full partners in the workplace and there's a general cultural deconstruction of what gender means," Zeitz says. "We go through waves of progress and reaction, but you can never bottle these things back up for real."
Another explanation may be the mainstreaming of conservative religious values. Just as WHAT WOULD JESUS DO? bracelets enjoyed a cultural moment on par with rubber LIVE STRONG bands, faith-based programs like Pure Fashion (which theoretically answers the question "What Would Mary Wear?") are gaining acceptance in the culture at large. Most modest-clothing Web sites have religious underpinnings, from Mormon to Christian to Muslim, but attract nonreligious customers as well. Shalit is an Orthodox Jew, now married to a rabbi, and many girls she profiles see religion as motivating. "Since the good girl today is often socially ostracized, a lot of girls naturally find solace in their faith in God," she says.
What makes the movement unique, according to Shalit, is that it's the adults who are often pushing sexual boundaries, and the kids who are slamming on the brakes. "Well-meaning experts and parents say that they understand kids' wanting to be 'bad' instead of 'good'," she writes in her book. "Yet this reversal of adults' expectations is often experienced not as a gift of freedom but a new kind of oppression." Which just may prove that rebelling against Mom and Dad is one trend that will never go out of style.