The Fractured Modest Clothing Market

puzzle piece

Like pieces of a puzzle of which no two are alike, groups within the modest clothing market are so different as to often be incompatible with each other. The Fashion Belle website was established in June 2010 as a hub for modest clothing resources including clothing outlets, sewing patterns and educational providers. Now six years later, the biggest lesson that stands out to the founder of Fashion Belle is the extent to which the modest clothing market is a fractured one, particularly within the United States with its variety of cultures and religious affiliations. To illustrate, here is a list of the most distinctly identifiable groups based on the Fashion Belle founder's experience researching and interfacing with modest clothing providers and consumers:

  • Latter Day Saints (LDS) - Also known as Mormons, members of this religious group adhere to specific standards of modesty and have a large retail presence in the United States online and in bricks-and-mortar stores. Minimum modesty standards align with the coverage of LDS undergarments worn by the most strict adherents, including length of skirts and pants to the knee, necklines no more than a couple of inches below the collarbone and cap sleeves. While the clothing produced by LDS-affiliated companies offers similar or even greater modesty than the relatively fewer retail options offered by non-Mormon groups that identify as Christian, differences in religious beliefs may prevent crossover shopping by non-Mormons who don't want to lend consumer support to these outlets. Fashion Belle's view is to wholeheartedly support anyone who is working to provide modest clothing, but this boycotting of companies based on religious beliefs is sadly common. Another factor limiting the appeal of LDS clothing is how similar the styles appear with not much variation among companies from knee-length, cap sleeve silhouettes, however, LDS clothing is some of the most fashionable available that is still modest enough to earn a distinct niche apart from generic retailers. Other conservative religious groups that prefer longer sleeves and hemlines may view LDS clothing as not modest enough.
  • Orthodox Jews - The Orthodox Jewish community displays a range of modesty standards from the ultra-conservative groups in which women wear loose layers to cover essentially everything except hands and face to the more relaxed groups which allow form-fitting styles, three-quarter length sleeves and knee-length skirts covering legs to the knees. Elbow and collarbone coverage is mandatory, as is women keeping their hair covered whether through headscarves or wigs. What seems odd about some of the modern Jewish clothing suppliers is how tight some of the styles are, sometimes featuring slim-fitting, clinging knit fabrics even while maintaining strict coverage of elbows, collarbones and knees. Some Jewish clothing items would be considered fashionable according to Western style standards, but the degree of coverage makes the clothing unwearable in summer for females in the warm climates of the southern United States, and the tight-fitting knits are not acceptable to all groups that promote modesty of not only coverage but also shape. Fits are generally as modest or more so than that of LDS-affiliated suppliers.
  • Muslims - Western Muslims wishing to incorporate into society as much as possible while still maintaining coverage of everything except face and hands favor long-sleeved maxi dresses or a combination of long-sleeved tunic tops over pants. These Eastern-based styles are too far from Western norms to be considered practical for consistent use among non-Muslim groups in the United States. Nevertheless, it is surprising how many Muslim shoppers have expressed an interest in the modesty resources on the Fashion Belle website, perhaps indicating that some items from the overall modest clothing market are of interest to Muslims. The Muslim-based retail market is a large one, and ankle-length skirts are the item of greatest crossover appeal to non-Muslim shoppers.
  • Pentecostals - The three previous religious groups mentioned make up the majority of the specialty modest clothing market in the United States among those who are religiously motivated, but Pentecostals, though smaller in number, still constitute a strong market niche. Modesty standards vary widely among them, but styling often focuses on feminine details such as ruffles and floral prints. African-themed clothing is also a trend among portions of this group. The level of modesty usually incorporates longer sleeve lengths than LDS groups and lower necklines than Jewish groups.
  • Other Conservative Religious Groups - Other groups that uphold some type of modesty standard and promote it among adherents would include Catholics, Independent Fundamental Baptists, plain clothes churches such as Brethren and Mennonite, Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian homeschool groups and others too varied to name in a single list. It is amazing to the founder of the Fashion Belle website how many of these groups teach women to dress modestly while at the same time doing little to engage in retail efforts to provide modest clothing options. Typically, the male leaders in these groups who promote modesty assume that women should be able to find plenty of modest options in most stores, but this is a stretch of reality. More options are needed to make shopping for modest clothing truly easy, and Mormons, Jews, Muslims and Pentecostals outpace other religious groups in involvement in modest clothing production in the United States. Some of the other conservative religious groups that supply modest clothing do so with little regard to modern styling, making their businesses irrelevant to the younger generation that realizes modesty doesn't require dressing in outdated styles that will automatically ostracize them from society. The founder of Fashion Belle grew up among a mixture of influences from Christian church and para-church organizations, some of which promoted modesty and others which did not, with primary influence being the Bible itself which teaches modesty of dress for women.
  • Non-Religiously Motivated Modest Dressers - Fashion articles abound about the benefits of achieving appropriate coverage in various settings. It is common for companies that shift styling too far in the direction of immodesty to lose sales as some women hit a barrier of personal comfort for social settings in the United States. Consumers in this category, while dressing on the safe side, still find plenty of options to fit their preferences in average stores and are not considered part of the core modest clothing target market.

The modest clothing market is complex. Marketing to one group may mean excluding another, and the overall target is already small. Some women who enjoy dressing modestly, especially when presented with options that are modern as well as modest, may recoil from any clothing outright labeled "modest" because of the deception in Western popular culture that immodesty equals beauty. However, in the age of the internet, removing "modest" from online marketing may obscure search ranking, causing people who are interested modest clothing to miss a modest clothing supplier altogether.

After six years of researching and observing the modest clothing market, the founder of Fashion Belle is at a crossroads in deciding how to proceed in producing and marketing an independent line of modest sewing patterns. It is impossible to please the modesty standards of all groups at once while being on trend enough to please the most fashion-forward members of each group. Therefore, the solution seems to be launching out as an individual design company, producing styles that are appealing to us and trusting that our market will grow based on those designs. Fashion Belle designs with a trendy yet modest aesthetic may create a new market drawing members from all groups including the general public.