Modest sewing pattern and clothing resources for women -

Welcome, sewing pattern enthusiasts! Things have been busy in 2014 at the home office of Fashion Belle. I had hoped that the launch of my sewing patterns for women would occur by early fall, but so far the work is still in progress. Half of this year has been taken with contract employment with other companies, and beyond that most of my spare time has been donated to unexpected home repairs and aiding 14 refugees who were settling in my area. Please keep checking back for progress on the pattern collection, and also use the tabs above to explore reviews of hundreds of other companies that provide modest clothing and sewing patterns.

Long Dresses from The Row

Screenshot of long dresses from The Row 2012 Fall Collection

(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.

Remembering Susan Dell's PHI Collection

Susan Dell's PHI Collection Storefront in New York City

My first contact with the PHI couture house, which some compared to Jil Sander and Helmut Lang for its timeless fashion, came unknowingly. (The company wrote PHI in caps but pronounced it as "fee," for the Greek letter.) Another company in New York City for which I worked as an assistant patternmaker had been hit hard by the recession in 2007, and I had begun to apply for other jobs in preparation for change. An anonymous ad in Women's Wear Daily caught my eye because it specified couture work, and I emailed a resume and follow-up message to apply for the job as an assistant patternmaker. On my lunch break a few days later, I received a call to schedule an interview. The man on the phone just spelled out the letters of the company's name for me and suggested that I might not have heard of them before. At the time, I thought that was true, though I later learned I knew the company under a different name.

The PHI office was located in Chelsea, outside of the garment district in a classy part of south Manhattan. A sign on the wall indicated that Google shared the building, which impressed me even before I saw the PHI offices. Fresh flowers on the receptionist's desk, spacious rooms with high ceilings, and window walls overlooking the Statue of Liberty signaled that this company was special. It was near Christmas, and most of the other workers had been given the day off, so I sat in the empty workroom with PHI's president Julia Hansen and a man who who worked with her as the financial officer.

I found out right away why I had been selected for an interview. Ms. Hansen explained, "When I saw your email saying that you work for Iby Abraham, I wanted to interview you. He was the head patternmaker here for two years, and I know he doesn't tolerate any nonsense." As she went on to tell me about the history of the company, how it had been founded by Susan Dell, wife of Michael Dell of Dell computers, then I remembered my boss once worked for a company he called "Susan Dell." The company had since changed its name to PHI, which is why I did not recognize it. Michael and Susan Dell are Jewish, which may be one factor that attracted Mr. Abraham to the job, since with his skill as truly one of the best patternmakers in the world he could have his pick of work at any company. He had left Calvin Klein and brought several of Calvin's sewists with him when PHI launched in 2003. Then Mr. Abraham returned to Calvin Klein and later started his own collection.

Ms. Hansen showed me some of the clothing from PHI's designer Andreas Melbostad, who had also come from Calvin Klein with additional prior experience at Yves Saint Laurent, Donna Karan and Guy Laroche. I remember one dress had cutouts in the back with gold chains draped across the opening. "These are investment pieces," Ms. Hansen said, which generally means high-quality wardrobe staples but which in the context of my surroundings I also took to mean extremely expensive. Exquisite fashion photo murals decorated the walls, further indication of the company's status. Steven Miesel was the photographer, I was told, and they loved his work. Of course they would, as he is one of the legendary fashion photographers of our time, making his biggest mark through decades of Vogue magazines.

About a month later, PHI requested that I complete a sample jacket pattern, which I did. By this time, the company where I had been working was winding down its manufacturing operations, and I was ready to transition to another job. My boss found out that PHI had interviewed me, and he volunteered a few interesting details, how that Susan Dell flew to New York in her personal jet to check on the company, how nice a person she was and how that despite slow sales, the company was still on solid footing because of the strength of the Dell finances behind it. One other candidate of which I was aware completed the same jacket pattern assignment for PHI, but I was eventually told that although they were pleased with my pattern, they had decided to try to work around existing staff and not hire anyone else after all.

To my surprise, 10 months later in November 2008, Ms. Hansen contacted me again and asked me to come for another interview. PHI was branching out with some pre-seasonal collections, and they had hired a new patternmaker from BCBG who needed an assistant. I met with him and completed a sample pattern on site for him. We talked about the long hours at PHI, and he told me he had worked as many as 80 hours in a week prior to a fashion show. "Andreas is a very prolific designer," he said, meaning the staff was required to produce numerous samples that would be dropped from the final line. When I heard "80 hours," I was disheartened. This must mean he lived close to the office, because working those hours with any commuting time would not be possible. By this time, I had already worked as a patternmaker for another company's runway show and had exceeded 70 hours in the final week, with 60 to 70 hour weeks leading up to that. My daily round-trip commute to work was 3 hours (which included 4 miles of walking), and because patternmaking requires standing most of the day, long work weeks were making my feet hurt constantly and were breaking down my physical and emotional health.

Therefore, after the November 2008 interview, I emailed PHI to say I was interested in the job only if I would be allowed to limit my work leading up to fashion shows to 60 hours weekly. I had discovered through experience that my efficiency began to sharply decline past that point, and I felt that 60 hours of solid, hard work would go a long way toward accomplishing the company's goals while still allowing me to survive. Ms. Hansen was extraordinarily kind and called me in person to tell me that the patternmaker for whom I had done the working interview was very excited about me, but when they saw I wanted to limit my working hours to 60 per week, that brought up "red flags" because it would discourage the other workers if I went home and they couldn't. "We have down times, but we really hump it before shows," she said. While I was sorry to miss the experience I would have gotten at PHI, I have many times since smiled in amusement at the thought that 60 hours a week was not enough. Other garment workers with whom I am acquainted have developed chronic illnesses from the strain of similar hours.

Shortly after this, I returned to the Midwestern United States to start my own business, Fashion Belle. I have been encouraged by remembering the words of the PHI patternmaker after he saw my portfolio and the sample pattern I did for him, "Why are you applying for an assistant job? You can be a patternmaker." I had told him how much I enjoy learning from more experienced patternmakers like himself, and I always will. Having your own business is wonderful, but it doesn't mean you stop learning. Mr. Abraham had told me the same thing, that one of the reasons he loves patternmaking is because there is always something new to learn.

It had been several years since I checked on PHI's business, so I was surprised to find recently that the company closed in early 2010, a little over a year after I last had contact with them. It is always sad to see fashion businesses close, and for those people whom I've mentioned here, if you find and read this story, please know that I wish you the very best in your present endeavors. Working with you, interviewing with you and seeing how you run your businesses has been a tremendous privilege. Also, please contact me if I have offered details here that you would rather not have in print. I have tried as much as possible to edit the story to something that would be enjoyable to general readers as well as courteous to the people involved.

Photo of the New York PHI flagship boutique is courtesy of Wunderbloc archives via Google.

Religious Girls and the Miss America Pageant

Logo from the Miss America pageant

Logo from MissAmerica.org

Plenty has changed from the Miss America pageant's humble beginnings on the Atlantic City boardwalk in 1921, where the first winner was awarded the title of "Golden Mermaid." My beloved dance teacher from decades ago was a Miss America finalist, and today her same sweet personality shines through the same lovely face that catapulted her to the top of pageant circles from a small town in the Midwestern United States. As a talented dancer and natural beauty, she had what the judges were seeking to be crowned a winner in one of the most highly competitive states in the nation within the Miss America pageant circuit. She excelled at all forms of dance and for competition chose a lyrical routine to a patriotic song with strong religious references. She has continued to maintain her commitment to her Christian faith in years since. Smaller states offer few opportunities for their winners throughout the year, but her year was filled with continual speaking and performing engagements. She went on to become one of the most famous dance choreographers of her genre and still travels internationally to teach at conventions. Her pageant activities captivated my interest at a young age and laid a foundation for my attention to fashion trends that influences my work today. Her mother was also a role model for me, especially in respect to how well she and her daughter worked together at their family dance studio. Their good relationship was legendary in my community and attracted families to enroll their daughters in classes for the influence of seeing that mother-daughter relationship in action.

Though I grew up with a relative respect for modesty in dress, it was not until a few years after my dance teacher competed in Miss America that I began to learn more about the combination of modesty and femininity as it is represented through Bible verses such as I Timothy 2:9-10, "Likewise the women are to dress in suitable apparel, with modesty and self-control. Their adornment must not be with braided hair and gold or pearls or expensive clothing, but with good deeds, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God" (NET Bible). At age fifteen, I switched to a studio that taught ballet only, partly because pageant fame had drawn my favorite teacher away from town, but also because I preferred ballet above the other dance forms taught in combination at the previous studio. Never did it occur to me to enter a pageant myself, perhaps because of my greater interest in the discipline of ballet, an elegant art form that requires athletic excellence. Eventually, involvement with a high school program that discouraged dance led me away from formal ballet lessons, though decades later I still maintain daily ballet stretching and strength exercises. Full-skirted ballet costumes also remain a strong inspiration in my current design work. My unusual mix of insider knowledge about the Miss America pageant system and my current work to promote modesty in clothing led me to offer thoughts in this essay about why pageants attract girls with religious backgrounds.

Scholarships Drive Pageant Participation

The Miss America pageant is the largest provider in the world of educational scholarships to young women. Many entrants are drawn by the thought of academic aid. In reality, the costs of clothing and talent coaching required to be competitive for the state and national titles usually outweighs any scholarships received. Winners of the titles are rewarded with significant aid, such as Miss America 2013 who received a $50,000 scholarship. That amount is the same that covered my tuition and housing for a bachelor's degree in fashion at a state university, but it is not enough to cover a bachelor's degree at most universities. Part of state winners' expenses in going on to the Miss America pageant are funded by state pageant accounts, but regardless of the sources, more total money is spent preparing girls for the competitions than is dispensed in scholarship funding. One custom-fitted, beaded evening gown alone easily costs thousands of dollars.

Another hidden fact about scholarships and pageants is that not all winners go on to utilize the scholarship money they receive. Several years of competition is usually required before winning a state pageant for the one-time chance at Miss America. Seasoned competitors use most scholarships to pay off student loans from completed semesters. Fame from the titles makes finding work easy for many winners who go on to broadcasting, performance or political careers, sometimes without completed college degrees. Pageant winners also attract high-profile husbands, it seems, offering many the choice of becoming simply the wife of a successful man. Contestants are expected to have future educational goals, however, and the mid-20s upper age limit restricts women from entering who are not of traditional college age. Rules also set forth character standards and prohibit contestants who have been previously married or have had children. With these rules in place, the Miss America pageant attracts high achievers with clean histories, something that often meshes with religious backgrounds.

Judges Favor All-American Girls

Pageant fashion has a reputation for being unique. "Big hair," sequins, paint-by-number-effect makeup, and perpetual smiles are staples of pageants even when runway fashions trend toward the opposite. In an effort to bridge the gap between pageant glamour and real life, a casual wear element was added to the Miss America competition from 2003 to 2005 but was dropped for lack of viewer excitement. Miss America is supposed to embody the ideal of the All-American young woman. In a seeming double standard, sensuality is expected in the appearance but not in the lifestyles of pageant contestants. On the darker side of popular culture, runway fashion celebrates the sultry, promiscuous teenager, where smiles are out of style and virtuous standards of living are obsolete. The runway model aesthetic does not do well in pageants. So, where the line is drawn between popular culture and pageants, girls with religious backgrounds excel. Their clean living lends the brightness to their eyes and faces that pageant judges favor.

Pageant Pressure for Immodesty

A misconception exists that all pageant contestants are happy to expose their bodies in sexy outfits for competitions. This is false. From years of listening to friends who have competed in pageants as well as observing my own dance teacher's modest appearance for years in daily life, I have come to believe that many contestants, if not the majority, are initially uncomfortable with the level of immodesty required by pageant competition. To be competitive, contestants pad their figures and "get over" wearing a swimsuit in front of televised audiences of millions of people. Standards of modesty are challenged by the demands of reaching for the crown, and when those standards give way, contestants become more accustomed to exposure. Former contestants may even continue on throughout life to wear clothing they would not have worn prior to participating in the pageants. This is not true for every contestant, of course. Some feel no inhibition with pageant costumes, but the pressure for immodesty is uncomfortable for those who do feel that they must break out of their own innate modesty zones in order to be successful.

Pageant Swimsuit Controversy

The Miss America pageant began in 1921 as simply a bathing suit beauty competition. In 1951, Yolande Betbeze became the first Miss America to refuse to pose for publicity photos in a swimsuit. Since then, official photographs have been taken with each year's winner wearing an evening gown or business suit. Until 1997, contestants were required to wear one-piece swimsuits during the swimsuit competition, well beyond the time that two-piece swimsuits were standard in popular culture. Some contestants since then have still chosen to wear one-piece suits, notably Kylie Kofoed in 2010, a Mormon from Utah. Christianity Today explored the question of why Teresa Scanlan, a strong evangelical Christian who won Miss America in the same competition with Kofoed, did not also choose a one-piece.

Miss America calls the swimsuit element "Lifestyle and Fitness in Swimsuit," to downplay the obvious sexual display of skimpy outfits. Controversy has raged throughout the decades as to whether the swimsuit element should be dropped from competition to show greater respect for women. Many who oppose this portion of competition feel that the television networks resist dropping the swimsuit display because viewer ratings would plummet. Some have called the swimsuit competition "cattle judging," in reference to the way the shape and health of animals is evaluated to set their worth. This concept reflects my own feelings of the system in place when my dance teacher went to Miss America. At that time, contestants were required to pause during their walk and pose with legs together directly in front of the judges and then turn slowly so that the contours of the legs and torso could be matched against "ideal" standards. Nearly all contestants use bra padding or surgical breast augmentation to change their shape, so what is being judged is rarely natural, anyway.

The Religion and Pageant Paradox

Most readers of this website are drawn here to find clothing resources that are more modest than those intended for pageants, so the question of whether to wear a cleavage-featuring evening gown or a swimsuit of any kind in public—other than while swimming—is not something you would consider. However, many girls whom we would otherwise call conservative or religious participate in pageants and wear what they feel they must in order to have the best chance at winning. It does seem a paradox, that pageants attract such a large percentage of contestants with religious or conservative backgrounds. The Miss America pageant is a little more conservative in its standards than some other pageants. Participants frequently attest to gaining valuable communication skills, confidence and opportunities as a result of the Miss America state and national titles. Miss America winners have often used their publicity to honor God and promote their faith.

Are You Willing to Be a Winner?

Modesty, like most standards of living, is defined differently by different people. What is most important is that our society should support young women in maintaining whatever standards of modesty they have without pressuring them to change to become "better" in the eyes of people who have opposing standards. In my opinion, removing the swimsuit element of the Miss America competition would be a positive step toward this outcome. As mentioned above, the swimsuit issue has been contested for decades with the result that the swimsuit competition, with bikinis encouraged, remains intact.

For girls or their parents who feel attracted to the benefits pageants offer, please stop and consider first whether you feel comfortable with your or your daughter's conforming to the clothing and activities typical for winners of the Miss America crown. Many winners have come from small towns, and it is possible that any girl who begins to compete could make it to the top, especially if she has the clean life and positive attitude that marks the winners.

Instead of reaching for the Miss America title, maybe another goal would be a better one to set, especially for girls who come from families for which the expenses of pageant competition would be a hardship. A Russian friend of mine offered what I think is the ultimate comment on pageants. She said in regard to the Miss Moscow competition with which she was familiar, "You know, the real Miss Moscow might not be the one who wins. The real one might be at home knitting." So true. Real Miss Americas exist, too, who never made it on stage but who embody ideals of personality, talent and virtue for our nation.

Thanks to Wikipedia for documenting history details about the Miss America pageant referenced in this post. Readers may also be interested in a doctoral dissertation by Mandy McMichael that examines the role of religion in the Miss America pageant.

Pages

New Clothing Reviews

Modest and Modern

Handmade, modest and modern are the three rules that guide this home-based dressmaking company. Several ready-to-wear styles are...

Christian Modesty

Taylor Willett offers her Bible-based views on modesty and posts pictures of ideas for outfit variations within the plain clothes...

The Virtuous Closet

This online retailer of various brands stocks a range of styles to please almost any level of modesty and fashion-forward trend desired...

Reviews of around 100 sewing pattern brands