Latest Trends in Noncompliant Church Garb

According to the major news networks yesterday, parents are up in arms about Ambercrombie and Fitch’s new tween swimsuit featuring a padded bra.  I would be up in arms about this, too, if I was trying to outfit a tween in swimwear.

But I haven’t even gotten to swim season yet and it’s not because Flat Rock Creek Pool will be closed this summer for its much anticipated major renovations.  It’s because I am struggling to help my teenage daughter locate a dress for Confirmation that doesn’t showcase cleavage, have straps thinner than uncooked angel hair pasta, and pass as a skort without the shorts.

We have two weeks left until the big day and I feel like I am stranded on Slutwear Island. We have trekked to all of the major department stores in our metropolitan area from high-end retailers to discount houses and every chic boutique inbetween and found absolutely nothing.  Nada.  And we are pretty desperate. Meaning we would have been willing to make do—if only there had been anything plausible to make do with.

We began the search the instant sweaters went to clearance post-Christmas and patiently waited for the signs of spring to show up on racks in stores.  The signs that turned up all appeared to be destined for dances—satiny, glitzy, strapless, and ridiculously short.  By ridiculously short, I mean barely covering the tush, the buttocks, the lower vertebrae.  I mean scant as in the absence of fabric below the torso: a deficit skirt, so to speak.

The dresses this season are divided into two camps: slutwear for dances and slutwear for church.  All are cut from the same cloth–literally.  They offer the same cleavage-spilling, butt-hugging features, just in different fabric: polyester sateen solids for dances and 100%  cotton floral for church.

My daughter was perfectly willing to don a shrug to cover the pencil-thin straps, but we couldn’t find a dress that didn’t first require a tank top to mask the bare chest.  Makes me wish we could supersize her First Communion dress.

Never have I been so disappointed by the retailers I most count on.  Yes, Macys, Dillards, JC Penney, Kohls, and even Nordstroms, whose clothes usually offer some respite from the in-your-face Junior wear at the other stores, I’m talking about you.

As if adolescent girls don’t have enough to deal with in regard to body image and media influence and the daily cult-of-celebrity child-star rehab meltdowns.

And I will admit I saw this coming.  When I sought clothes for my son as preschooler years ago,  I noted that the boy’s clothes then looked like miniature adult clothes. I remember wishing they had more of a sense of play.  When time came to purchase clothing for my daughter as a preschooler, the choices for her wardrobe were far more fanciful and frivolous and fun.  I started wondering then about the gender implications of these trends.

Then my daughter hit the tween years and the differences between boys and girls clothing leapt off the rack at us.  At least that’s when we noticed a seismic shift in the apparel selection.  For girls aging out of the traditional girls’ sizes, clothing options became highly sexualized.  Suffice it to say it took us about 10 minutes to find my son a suitable jacket and slacks for his Confirmation.

Around that same time Kohls made the egregious error of selecting Brittany Spears as the spokesmodel for a longtime Junior brand that baby boomers might recognize, Candies, now making a comeback.  Really?  A substance-abusing, has-been pop star mother of two in sexed-up costumes is the best role model you can find for teenage girls?  Remember this was shortly after her very public episodes of bad behavior and the custody of her children was called into question.

My husband wrote a letter to Kohls denouncing this choice and Kohls responded, defending their selection. We used it as a teachable moment for our kids and boycotted Candies, but saw it for the transparent and exploitative act of image-rehabbing that it was.  After all, my daughter’s generation had no idea who this Brittany Spears person was which is precisely what made them the the perfect target demographic for this marketing ploy.

Thankfully, that campaign recently came to a close, though Brittany was seen just this morning on Good Morning America performing in a black corset with lights flashing on the nipples.  No kidding.  But give her PR people their due.  It worked: aging pop star reinvented.  Check.

Our search for a stylish, comfortable, church-appropriate dress has not ended.  And before you dismiss me as a prude, think again.  I rolled the waist band of my plaid uniform skirt with the best of them when I chafed at the nuns’ dress code for my all-girls high school back in the day.  And, frankly, last year we had no difficulty finding some decent stylish dress choices for another religious event in which my daughter participated.

Even our church seems fairly modest in its expectations for this important religious ceremony in two weeks: straps less than two inches wide require covered shoulders a la shrug or cardigan and dresses should be above the knee (NOT the thigh).

But buyer beware: you may find Easter dress shopping pretty tough sledding this year.  And department store professional buyers beware: you might be taking a loss on the glut of unsold slutwear which begs the question, “What were you thinking?”

As a consumer, I’m disgruntled and disheartened.  As a feminist, I’m terribly disappointed.  As a mother, I’m well beyond frustrated.  And as a woman, I am deeply distressed by what these trends signify about the status of women, especially young women, in our culture.


11 thoughts on “Latest Trends in Noncompliant Church Garb

  1. Hi there! This whole topic frustrates me as well. Luckily, I don’t have girls so we don’t have the shopping issue. However, these conversations will have to happen with my boys as well regarding how women are viewed in the media and what the reality “should” be. I wish you luck on your quest for a suitable dress and congratulations on your daughters confirmation.


    • Jackie-thanks for the good wishes; I think we are finally able to focus now on the true nature of the ceremony. It is important, as you say, to discuss these images and issues with sons because otherwise they will read such behaviors as normal and condoned. I am grateful my son has a sister because several times in his young life it has really brought a point home when he imagines it in real terms of his sister instead of in an abstract way.

  2. Mary,
    I was at Oak Park Mall yesterday when Channel 4 was filming outside of Abercrombie and I asked the camera man what the big event was. He told me about the push up bra/swimsuits for young girls that was featured on Good Morning America. Was it a slow news day yesterday for every channel to cover this story on the nightly news? My comment to my husband was – “I am glad I am past the teenage stage for my daughter”. I can totally agree with you about the lack of quality of dresses that are for sale in the stores for young girls after just spending time at our favorite TJ Maxx / Marshalls looking for a dress to wear to an upcoming event.

    • Karen-lots of friends have expressed gratitude at having older daughters. I’ve still got a long path ahead and will look to you and Betty and others for support and inspiration as I navigate the rough waters of pop culture! As your husband pointed out, this is easy and cheap media attention for A and F who is notorious for crossing the line and benefitting wildly by the attention. I once wore one of their perfumes, but threw it out when they last exploited teenagers in their catalog.

  3. I enjoyed your post….I do not have girls–I have 3 boys ages 14, 13 and 10 and so in the stores I just zoom to the jeans/shorts/t-shirts for them. However, in this past year I have been introduced to the world of Facebook (I don’t use it but eldest son does–actually he is banned from it for choosing it over homework)–but I feel like such a prude because the photos of the 13 and 14 yr old girls are very sexual and that is what my boys see from the popular girls. I also have several nieces who are now in 12th grade thru college age and ditto the prude feelings when I see what they wear/wore starting years earlier.
    I love that your husband wrote to Kohl’s. I’m going to observe a little more at the stores. Hope y’all find a suitable outfit soon.

    • Michele-it is indeed a different world for boys than it is for girls. Since I came of age during the height of the womens movement, I got a very different set of messages and learned early on to scrutinize media for how it portrayed and reflected women. I try to teach my kids to do the same by calling out signs of utter disregard like this when I see them. It does feel overwhelming most days and sometimes even hopeless. But I am heartened just to know other folks recognize these signs for what they are as well. Enjoy your trip, by the way!

  4. What a disturbing trend this is. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen little girls wearing inappropriate clothing. I’ve always wondered why the parents allowed it, but you’ve given me another perspective. The selection is very thin.

    My granddaughter will be five soon. Her mother is very conscious of this trend. I dread what’s ahead.

    My sister made a white dress for my baptism. It came almost to my neck (no spaghetti straps). It had a princess waistline and flowing skirt. I felt so grownup.

    I hope you find something pretty and your daughter enjoys her day.

    • Bella-your dress sounds just lovely. I resent that sexuality is so omnipresent and colors so much of what we ingest via media even when we are trying not to! Thanks for your keen observations and good wishes!

  5. I came here via Bella, and was especially interested in the A & F story angle. I don’t have children, but did hear on the news about the padded bikinis being marketed to the 8 year old set. I’m not sure what “Tween” means, but 8 sounds a little young even for that demographic.

    There’s no question there’s a problem – or not, depending on your point of view, I suppose. I notice that a new “reality” show is beginning. I don’t know what it’s called, but it’s first show is going to focus on – Jon Benet Ramsey.
    Apparently there’s a need to stir the purient interest pot again.

    • You know, Shoreacres, I think all of these aspects of our culture are related if we choose to connect the dots and I do think it has reached a “problematic” stage. I spoke only last night with a neighbor whose daughter is to be married this fall and she observed that from 14-24, girls get crazy messages from entertainment/media sources. Prurience, humiliation, exploitation, and voyeurism seem to mark much of what passes for media attention and programming now. I actively choose to detach from these but then find I can’t escape it in instances such as this dress search.

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