As spring unfolds and as summer draws nearer, families around the nation are turning their thoughts to sunnier days, warmer temperatures and spending more time outdoors. For some values-minded parents however, generally parents of tweens and teens and particularly of girls, a sense of uneasiness is taking hold as they consider the types of clothing they will allow their kids to wear this summer that actually fit their description of modesty. Anticipation of arguments to come can lead these parents to a full-blown sense of anxiety.
But, psssst… let me whisper so that your kids won’t hear… modesty has made a comeback in our culture and this year it’s likely to make a parent’s job at least a bit easier.
The Modesty Dilemma
Finding common ground with kids regarding modesty has never been easy for parents who believe that living a life that honors God includes the realm of fashion. For generations, moms and dads who strive to pass their values along to their children have struggled and argued over modesty in clothing. And, it’s likely that today’s toddlers and their parents will wrestle with the same issues in years to come.
Fashion trends over recent years have made choosing modesty more difficult for parents. Clothing for tween and teen girls grew skimpier with low-cut jeans, and skin-tight, bare-bellied shirts becoming everyday fare. Retailers stocked the shelves with these items and modesty-conscious moms were throwing up their hands in frustration, simply trying to find clothing they deemed acceptable.
Defining specifics of modesty is rather subjective and complicates the process. We each draw our own lines. As the editor of a monthly parent newsletter, I’ve encountered disputes with subscribers about our graphics over the necklines of women’s clothes. So, I have no doubt that some Christians would call my definition of modesty too conservative while others would see it quite the opposite.
While what is accepted in culture and what is considered modest differs significantly much of the time, the plain truth is that there has never been, nor is it likely there will ever be, a uniform standard of Christian understanding that clearly defines modesty when it comes to specific items of clothing.
Some families find it helpful to align themselves with a group that lives by a set standard for modesty which provides a supportive community of likeminded people.
I know a family who regularly attended a church where there was an announcement in the bulletin one Sunday reminding congregants that wearing underwear in church was required. Say what? Okay, I agree that wearing underwear to church would be considered modest behavior. But, I’m slightly curious as how it was concluded that people needed the reminder.
On second thought, I don’t want to know. Still, this church had a clearly defined standard of modest behavior, and most of the congregation took the underwear admonishment in stride.
But, such clearly defined standards for modesty in clothing runs counter to the life experience of most Christians. In fact, many see a lot of gray-area when it comes to determining whether an item of clothing is modest or immodest (although I think we can all agree that wearing underwear to church is the first step in wearing a modest outfit!) For most families, parents must simply set their own standard of modesty, based upon their understanding of Biblical principles and the values they wish to pass along to their children.
When Culture and Values Meet
So, why has the commitment to modesty just gotten a little easier for parents? A shift toward more modest clothing has been underway in pockets of our culture over the past few years. Efforts made by individuals and organizations such as Pure Fashion have been trying to spread the word that modesty in dress doesn’t have to mean plain, dull or frumpy. Some have lobbied fashion designers and clothing retailers to provide more modest options for tweens and teens and have achieved a level of success.
Further, it now appears that a perfect storm of factors have collided to usher in a recognized trend of modest clothing in pop culture. According to the latest research, factors like the economic recession, role modeling by tween celebrities, and a closing of the generation gap between parents and kids are the components that have dynamically turned modesty into haute couture.
Let’s take a closer look at some of these influences:
Recessionary Times. I don’t personally know anyone who is celebrating the bad economy. But, at least when it comes to fashion, modest-minded parents have reason to offer up a little “Woohoo!”
Clothing sales to teens are down 19% over last year, according to a recent survey conducted by Piper Jaffrey. The downturn in sales has caused retailers to fight for dollars, and with the recession, people are more interested in clothing that can be worn for different occasions, rather than the recently popular-yet-skimpier selections that kids would wear in fewer settings. As a consequence, fashion designers and retailers have moved to more modest apparel to meet consumers’ demands for a wider variety of more versatile clothing.
So, have tween and teen retailers had a conversion experience when it comes to the values that drive their product sales? Have they repented for having sold skimpy and girls-as-sex-object clothing? Have they rediscovered the soul of American consumerism? Uh, that would be no, no and no.
Never forget that retailers’ chief value is making money. I have no doubt that some corporate fashion designers and retailers would offer even skimpier apparel to tweens and teens than we’ve seen to-date if they believed our culture would accept them and that consumers would buy them en masse. Thankfully, whatever the factors involved, it appears we are at least temporarily safe from pop culture pushing the limits of decency past the current status quo. Still, if our culture’s past is any indication of how it will develop in the future, it’s just a matter of time before the line of acceptability will shift again.
Role Modeling by Tween Celebrities. According to TrendCentral, when Hannah Montana the Movie debuted in theatres in April, modesty as fashion trend became official. The Chicago Tribune (“Tween Style Takes a Modest Turn”) reported “star Miley Cyrus wasn't even allowed to wear leggings while the cameras were rolling. Spaghetti straps were verboten, as were bare bellies, micro minis, one-shouldered tanks and anything resembling a camisole.” Other tween pacesetters have also moved to modest apparel (notably iCarly and High School Musical.) When tween celebrities pronounce a blessing upon a fashion style by wearing it (be it Britney Spears a decade ago, or Miley Cyrus today), kids clamor to dress like their idols.
A Closing of the Generation Gap. Trendcentral reported recently, “tweens these days are much closer to their parents and are hyper-conscious of anything that could upset them. As the generation gap closes, tweens are truly looking to their parents for second opinions and are seeking parental approval in their clothing choices.”
I freely admit that I didn’t see this positive factor emerging. I don’t know if it’s a fleeting trend, or if the pendulum has truly swung toward an ongoing, overall improvement in parent-child relationships. I certainly hope for the latter. But, the result has been a pronounced movement towards more modest clothing.
Also, it’s worth noting that parents often have more influence on their tweens and teens than they realize. No matter what pop culture and retailers may say or do in the future, keep building positive relationships with your tweens and teens and don’t underestimate how much of an impact you really can have on your own kids.
So, modesty has made a comeback! It’s a rare happening these days when pop culture actually moves in a more conservative direction. Parents, utter a sigh of relief and enjoy the moment while it lasts!
Published May 20, 2009
Jim Liebelt is a 20+ year youth ministry veteran and is the Senior Editor of Publications for HomeWord, including oversight of the "Good Advice Parent Newsletter," Today’s HomeWord daily devotional, and HomeWord’s Culture Brief. Jim is also a presenter for HomeWord's parent seminar, "Building Healthy Morals and Values." Jim joined the HomeWord staff in 1998, and has served over the years in various pastoral ministries, as a youth ministry and parenting seminar speaker, an adjunct youth ministry instructor at Gordon College, a national presenter for Group Magazine Live, and has served on the council of the New England Network of Youth Ministries.