By Katherine Boyle
Disney moms, listen up: it’s time to turn off Miley and give your daughter the September edition. It seems counterintuitive, but high fashion–an art form that thrives upon pushing the boundaries of sex and skin–may actually be turning toward (gasp!) modesty.
Blame it on the recession, weather patterns, or “Mad Men” euphoria, but fall fashion is trending conservative. There are different theories why Lagerfeld, Galliano and others tamed the sex kitten this fall. But the revival of minimalism, calf-skimming skirts, thick and frumpy sweaters and full-figured-50s frocks seems to suggest that a prudish, cleavage-free season has arrived.
Despite these high fashion trends, we may be leaving our daughters behind.
Contrast expensive grown-up lines like Louis Vuitton and Valentino with the likes of younger, moderately priced ones that dominate department stores. Lines that target teens–Bebe, GUESS, Juicy Couture–have ignored the prude-chic vibe of fall, keeping barely-covers-the-bum shorts on the racks.
So why is modesty coming back to (of all places) high fashion?
The term “modesty” has long been associated with religion. The origin of the term relates to other religious concepts and virtues–moderation, prudence, humility. Whether it’s the covering of hair in Islam and Orthodox Judaism or simply not showing one’s shoulders during Mass, organized religions have standards for dress that imply modesty as virtue.
But the modesty trend isn’t exactly new or exclusive to religion. Last year, Vanity Fair voted style icon Sheikha Mozah of Qatar to its International Best-Dressed List, highlighting a woman whose haute couturier is Jean Paul Gaultier while embracing modest standards of dress in Islam (always wearing the hijab, long sleeves, pants, or ankle-length skirts).
Other international style icons are garnering attention for modest style. Ivanka Trump wore a conservative wedding gown with to-the-elbow lace sleeves for her Jewish service. But even style setter Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the one-time model, dresses considerably more conservative since her marriage to French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
But we’re not just reading about modesty in fall fashion reviews. The term comes up again with a promise from Bristol Palin, a young mother, that she’ll wear the appropriate “modest outfits” on her stint with “Dancing with the Stars.”
It’s ironic, but Bristol may be onto something. Reality TV, a genre that targets younger audiences (think MTV’s Real World in the 90s and now Jersey Shore) has a greater reach than Vogue among the young. In August, fashion magazines reported sales in perpetual decline— with Teen Vogue sales falling 30 percent in six months–further suggesting that the teen market is going elsewhere for its fashion fix. Teens will mimic their icons, but they’re not copying Blair Waldorf’s wardrobe.
Of course, Lolita syndrome is nothing new. No teen wants to dress like the Virgin Mary.
But that other Madonna (unlike the Virgin) is making a creative comeback. Famous mother daughter duo — Madonna and 13 year-old Lourdes — launched a juniors clothing line for Macy’s last month. The 80s-inspired line aptly called “Material Girl” ignores high fashion trends (and possibly trademarks), instead styling rock star bustiers and fishnet stockings with flannel, leather, and yes, rosary beads.
So the question remains: why are 13 year-olds bucking the modesty trend? Why should they sport sex while high fashion goes modest? If rail thin supermodels– the very ones who make teens and tweens count calories — aren’t revealing cleavage on Fifth Avenue, then why is the pep squad revealing it in fifth period?
Perhaps we’re seeing two different trends emerge, separated by class, age and unfortunately, marketing. While the luxury market caters to recession-ridden elites and the growing Middle Eastern and emerging couture markets, the American teen market watches Miley skimp down in a revealing (and hideous) bird costume. As Louis Vuitton opens its first store in Beirut, high fashion becomes a bit more ladylike and demure. Time will tell whether new conservative markets are influencing trends long term.
But that doesn’t change our American teens that crave (and devour) the racy behavior fed to them.
The result? Stylish women will dress with discretion this fall. But material girls will buy affordable, accessible bandeau bras that barely cover their barely-developed bosoms. Shakespeare was spot on this season: a deformed thief it is.
Katherine Boyle is the Assistant Styles Editor for Washington Post Express and Fashion Washington.