(Photo Credit: The Row) Celebrity twin sisters Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have received media notice for their counter-cultural modest fashion selections, both during their acting careers beginning as children in 1987 and as fashion designers since 2007. While modesty is not a core value for these women—they wear and design clothing with varying degrees of coverage—it is true that they more frequently select high necklines, sleeves and longer hemlines than might be expected among their peers, and journalists have drawn attention to that in dozens of articles over the years. The long dresses pictured are from the Olsens' Fall 2012 collection for The Row, a high-end designer line named after London's Savile Row, the birthplace of bespoke tailoring. While the price points for this collection are high, styles from The Row may serve as inspiration for sewing similar looks at home. Shoppers who can afford pieces from the line will be rewarded by luxurious European fabrics and exquisite tailoring in styles that serve as wardrobe basics. I examined workmanship in The Row while browsing through Bergdorf Goodman when I worked in New York City in 2008. The overall effect of the collection's styling is simple, but closer examination reveals brilliant patternmaking techniques. The Olsens have launched several other clothing collections, including the contemporary Elizabeth and James, Style Mint club and Olsenboye for J.C. Penney, however, The Row generally offers the most modest styling among these collections.
My first introduction to Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen came through viewing their 1997 musical video You're Invited to Mary-Kate & Ashley's Ballet Party, filmed with members of the New York City Ballet. In this video, the ten-year-old twin sisters were adorable and also indistinguishable to me. In one article I read, Ashley claimed that even she and her sister could not tell themselves apart when they watched re-runs of some of the early Full House television episodes where they alternated playing one character. To my amazement, I eventually learned that the sisters are not identical, but rather look-alike fraternal twins, Ashley being the older of the two, and in adulthood, slightly taller by about an inch. In succeeding years, as I saw photos of the girls maturing into their teens and early twenties, I learned to recognize the differences between them, especially around 2006 when Mary-Kate opted for a darker hair color while Ashley remained blonde. Mary-Kate is often the more daring with fashion trends and color combinations, while Ashley usually tends toward classier looks. Then recently, I ran across an online quiz with individual photos of the sisters sorted randomly, challenging the quiz-taker to identify one sister from the other. With my score of fewer than half correct, I realized that telling the two apart even in adulthood is still not easy.
While living in New York City for work, I met a fashion designer who mentioned that she had interned with Zac Posen in 2005. Ashley Olsen had been in the news for an internship there at the same time, so I asked this young woman if they had ever crossed paths. She told me, "Yes! I was sitting at my desk one day, and she came up and handed me a memo. I asked her, 'Are you Ashley Olsen?' And she said, 'Yes.' She was very polite. I really respected her for coming to do an internship there. You know, she didn't have to do that type of work, but she did."
My closest encounter with one of the Olsen twins may have happened in the summer of 2007 in the east courtyard of Chase Bank near New York's Times Square. The Olsens were living in New York and starting production of The Row that year. During my lunch hour on sunny days, I left my patternmaking office on 39th Street and walked east to Broadway to a platform surrounded by steps and a few iron chairs to eat my lunch along with a crowd of other people and flocks of pigeons. One day, a group of about ten young guys and girls, who looked and dressed like they could have all been celebrities, walked up to the Chase ATM. A few of them took turns making withdrawals. My attention was immediately riveted upon one of the girls whom I thought looked like Ashley Olsen. She was of a petite height despite high platform heels, and she wore a casual top and shorts with large, dark sunglasses, a trademark accessory of both sisters. Her blond hair was styled the same as in media photos of Ashley at that time. One particular thing, however, cemented my feeling that it was Ashley—when she noticed me looking at her and she looked back at me, she made an expression with pursed lips that was just like I had seen in multiple recent photos of her. The group finished quickly and walked on. Though I feel that the similarities were so close that it could not have been anyone else, to this day I do not know for certain whether I saw Ashley, perhaps Mary-Kate instead or just a striking impersonator.
Journalists who have questioned each of the girls in interviews over the years have asked about their motives behind the modesty of some of their fashion choices. Ashley told one interviewer that during the phase of their childhood and teen years when they marketed products and entertainment to tweens, it was all about being appropriate, while the launch of The Row was about what they themselves would choose to wear. When the sisters entered New York University in 2004 (though neither completed a degree), Mary-Kate sparked an international trend by being photographed in college outfits that the media tagged as a "homeless" or grunge look consisting of oversized layers and Panda-eyed sunglasses. In an interview years later, Mary-Kate claimed that her motive for hiding under layers was not to make a fashion statement but simply an attempt to stay warm in the New York winters. As a result of so much media exposure during childhood, Ashley and Mary-Kate shy away from too much publicity in adulthood, and it is possible that some of their covered fashions reflect an innate need for privacy. Red carpet photographs of the sisters since their college days continue to show a sprinkling of modest choices along with more revealing ones. Whatever their motives, The Row is a fun place to see leading trends with an occasional mix of modesty from two sisters who have become internationally celebrated fashion designers.
To find around thirty additional online stores that offer long dresses with sleeves, visit our Links to Modest Dresses page.