Religious Girls and the Miss America Pageant

Logo from the Miss America pageant

Logo from

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.

How to Encourage a Fashion Designer

Abby of the Silk and Purple Christian blog

Abby recently requested that I add her Silk and Purple blog to the Fashion Belle blogroll, and after seeing the quality fashion, etiquette and recipe material she posts with the help of several other contributors, I was happy to do so. Abby also publishes an individual blog called La Vie est Belle (French for "Life is Beautiful") with even more photos of cute, modest outfits. While reviewing the Silk and Purple blog, I was impressed with a post by Abby and wanted to share it here. Thanks so much to Abby for giving me permission to re-publish her quote for this article.

Fashion designers have souls, too

On September 15, 2012, Abby commented on New York Fashion Week and the Spring 2013 collections in the news. She reflected on the anger that some of us may feel about the influence high-profile designers have on what types of styles infiltrate the stores and that are then worn by women around us. I identify with Abby's disappointment, because shopping for stylish, modest clothing in our culture is tough. Designers could do more to swing trends back to more coverage, but they rarely take the opportunity to do so. Abby recommended that rather than stagnating in resentment, a better way to deal with the frustration is to reach out in positive ways to designers. She suggested the following:

Take some time in your prayer life for these souls. Think of a creative way to spread Christ's love to them! Write prayers and periodically send them to a famous designer or celebrity, or encourage them through their Instagram or Twitter feeds. Or if the Lord calls you to become a fashion designer, design for HIS glory and lead hearts to HIM!

As a patternmaker who has worked in New York's fashion industry, including for one designer runway show, this suggestion meant so much to me. Designers and the people who work for them are usually exhausted after runway shows from work weeks that easily run between 60 to 70 hours or even exceed 70 hours in the months preceeding shows. Had some anonymous person taken the time to send a card of encouragement to my designer boss and his staff, it would definitely have been noticed and appreciated. While it may seem that most high-end designers have little respect for religion, my experience is actually the opposite. While working for three different companies in New York, I encountered many Jews whose lifestyle standards covered a wide range but most of whom observed the Sabbath and held a high respect for God (or G-d as they usually print it, to show respect by never destroying an item on which the full Name is spelled out). I also encountered female co-workers who did not dress modestly by average standards but who initiated conversations with me that showed they were seeking God related to various issues in their lives.

If a fashion designer is male, there is a regrettably large chance that he is also gay, though this is not always the case. I worked alongside a number of people who were openly homosexual who grew to respect my own expression of faith through modest dress and conservative lifestyle. Many gays in New York are involved in religious pursuits, though they may doubt the power of that religion. While my life probably spoke louder than any words, I had a memorable chance to speak about my faith to one gay man when he asked me a specific question about the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac. I later learned that he had been raised a Methodist. Many people may not realize this, but a fairly strong number of Christians work in New York's fashion industry. The Models for Christ organization enjoys a strong attendance at activities hosted throughout the year in major fashion capitols of the world. A card with an expression of faith sent to any fashion organization may garner more respect than you think.

Abby's two blogs and the others listed here on our site provide a constant stream of modest fashion inspiration that should encourage shoppers of any age to know that style and modesty can co-exist. Thanks for your insight, Abby!

Christian Model Kylie Bisutti's Clothing Line

Kylie Bisutti's exclusive interview on the Stay Famous website

Wow! . . . in a wonderful way, was my first thought when I saw this quote from former Victoria's Secret lingerie model Kylie Bisutti in a September 2012 interview on

I definitely want to start my own clothing line. It’s something that I’m really passionate about. I want it to be based on modesty and I really want it to be for women and girls of all sizes, rather than just the stick thin model figure. I want it to be something that girls of any size and age could see themselves wearing.

Kylie left her high-paying role with Victoria's Secret because she felt convicted as a Christian to honor her husband through increased modesty. When I first researched Kylie's story for the forum post Fashion Model Kylie Bisutti's Decision for Modesty, I read the full history of her @VSKylie Twitter account and noticed the progression of modesty she was experiencing, from being comfortable in revealing clothing to wanting to cover up more as the months went along.

Even after her decision in December 2011 to leave Victoria's Secret, her clothing choices for several news interviews that followed in the wake of that decision would not have been considered modest by the average person. Yet, in less than a year, Kylie has made great progress toward true modesty in her clothing choices, and I am excited to see that she now wants to start a modest clothing line. Kylie is proof that someone who is comfortable in the skimpiest of styles can make a genuine change toward modesty, and in Kylie's case, it came through her reading of the Bible. She has often mentioned in interviews the influence of Proverbs 31 as a motivation for changing her apparel to honor her husband.

The interview mentioned above also contained a quote from Kylie about the reality she faces in almost any modeling job while trying to maintain modesty not only in clothing, but also in attitude.

I’ve stepped away from a lot of modeling jobs, because even if you’re fully clothed, they still want you to portray some sort of selling of sex, because that’s what sells in our society. So even some jobs that I’ve done where I’m fully clothed, it’s just the poses and the facial expressions that they want – it’s all based around the selling of sex. So I haven’t really been focused on [modeling] as much.

This statement also shows growth, since earlier in the year she had told interviewers that lingerie was the only area she intended to cut out of her work absolutely, though she did want to focus on modeling jobs that were more modest.

When I worked as a patternmaker in New York, I saw firsthand how rare it is for models to maintain any standard of modesty on most jobs. The clothing itself may or may not be modest, but the changing areas are rarely private, and throughout fittings, photo shoots or runway shows, designers and sewing technicians are required by the nature of the work to touch and see models in ways that violate privacy. At one time, prior to my New York fashion industry experience, I thought modeling could be fun work. After observing models at work up close, I was deeply disturbed by the levels of immodesty that young female models endure and have since come to believe that modeling is not a career a Christian should pursue. Added to the immodest environment, with today's media explosion over the Internet, photos can be pirated, Photoshopped and used inappropriately. All this is completely beyond the control of the original owner of the images. Once spread online, photos can almost never be completely erased from the web even with an international legal battle, and a woman can be haunted for the rest of her life if her public photographs are misused. I applaud Kylie for her decision to move away from the modeling industry as a whole. The reasons detailed above are why plans are in place to do all product photography using mannequins for the Fashion Belle modest sewing pattern collection.

As an interesting side note, Kylie is doing a project on her home website blog to demonstrate the intense amount of preparation that goes into modeling for a runway show. Many girls think professional modeling is easy or is reserved only for the most beautiful. Kylie seeks to prove that magazine and television images do not represent reality and that models prep for photo shoots in extreme ways not recommended for daily life. So far, Kylie has lost weight to show how thin it is necessary to be for a major photo shoot. Her cheekbones are prominent after the weight loss, and she says she intends to gain the weight back at the end of this 30-day project, since she doesn't like herself that thin. She has also done tanning sessions, something that is required for models but that has long-term damaging effects to the skin. She has posted photographs of herself before and after Photoshop work. The interview quotes her as saying one of the final steps will be to add makeup, hair extensions and fake eyelashes. It is reassuring to know that the pretty faces all around us in the media have so much help looking that way. Kylie is generous to undergo a 30-day transformation to document the process for our benefit, even though this time she has no runway contract as a motivation. Keep up the wonderful progress toward modesty, Kylie!

Fashion Model Kylie Bisutti's Decision for Modesty

Screenshot of Kylie Bisutti's home website

(Screenshot from Kylie Bisutti, a fashion model and professing Christian, found herself at the center of a media storm beginning December 1, 2011, when she posted the following series of messages to her Twitter account about her decision to start choosing more modest modeling jobs:

  • I am still modeling but only with brands that respect my decision not to wear lingerie. I am also doing TV work now :)
  • For all of you that were looking for me in the Victoria's Secret runway show this year, I wasn't in it. I have decided not to model lingerie
  • Because I personally feel that I am not honoring God or my husband by doing it. My marriage is very important & with divorce rates rising I
  • Want to do everything I can to protect my marriage and be respectful to my husband. God graciously gave me this marriage and this life and
  • My desire is to live a Godly faithful life, I don't however judge others for what they do. Everyone is convicted on different levels.

In the weeks following her announcement to leave her lucrative modeling contract, Bisutti appeared in numerous television interviews, print and online media articles elaborating on her motivation behind the decision. Press coverage seemed to be mostly positive for her faith-based move, though most news sources ran photos from her lingerie modeling days along with their stories, in obvious disrespect to Bisutti's actions to leave that part of her career in her past. Bisutti's step away from Victoria's Secret, a job she won via a model search precisely two years earlier in 2009 at the age of nineteen, coincided with the Proverbs 31 Movement started by Alex Ecklund, a student at Baylor University, who in November 2011 began a social media campaign around the phrase, "I'd rather have a Proverbs 31 wife than a Victoria's Secret model." Appropriately, Bisutti responded on Twitter to Ecklund on December 21, 2011, as follows:

I stopped being a Victoria's Secret model to become a Proverbs 31 wife! @eklund #Proverbs31Movement

Ecklund subsequently featured Bisutti's tweet along with her photo on his Live 31 website which has since been taken offline. In a video about the founding of his Proverbs 31 Movement, Ecklund states the following:

. . . It just kind of saddened me that in our culture it seems that all we value is not only external beauty but a certain type of external aesthetic. In a culture where the divorce rate is so high—I mean one of out of every two marriages will end in divorce—shouldn't we be looking for something more than just being physically attracted to someone? . . . My challenge to you is, become part of the movement. Be a Proverbs 31 woman. If you're a guy, look for the Proverbs 31 woman and don't settle for anything less.

My original thought when I first viewed a Good Morning America interview with Bisutti has been echoed by other comments around the web from conservatives who feel that Bisutti's apparel choices for interviews and the photos on her home and social media websites are still not very modest (update: Bisutti has since changed her profile pictures to appear modestly clothed). A gracious response to those complaints was voiced by Courtney Joseph, founder of Women Living Well Ministries, as part of a blog post in which she reported on her personal meeting with Bisutti in February 2012.

. . . I commend Kylie for her bravery and courage to not only quit her job but to then go on television interviews saying – “I want to honor God with my life.” We are all on our journey towards growth and maturity. Let’s support our sister in Christ in love.

Another comment left on Joseph's blog post shares a similar tone toward those who criticized Bisutti for her clothing choices during the publicity storm immediately after her decision to leave lingerie modeling.

I see both sides of this discussion, however when I think about walking a mile in Kylie’s shoes (probably some really expensive pumps), how would you make this turn around? What would it cost? Your photos and videos are everywhere with strangers owning the rights to them . . . you will never be able to fully leave the past. You could not run fast enough to escape the thousands of critics. Walking away from hundreds of thousands of dollars of income with people on both sides judging your decision has to be very, very hard. A mile in her shoes may give us all some new appreciation for grace.

It is true that few women have the height and weight requirements to do the type of modeling for which Bisutti was being booked (heights of 5'9" to 5'11", sizes 2 to 6, almost always with breast augmentation surgery required). She left behind multi-million dollar modeling contracts to take the step away from the part of the industry that she did. If she made one such change, it is entirely possible that in coming months and years she may make further changes toward modesty in her wardrobe selection. As another model, Sara Sampaio, explained to Women's Wear Daily about the price Bisutti paid to walk away from the type of contract she had with Victoria's Secret, "They pay so, so well. That’s a money job you want. Those girls don’t need to do any other jobs. They’re set." Read more about Bisutti's career and the events that led up to her decision to choose more modest modeling jobs at her blog, I'm No Angel. Bisutti writes as follows:

. . . The Lord graciously opened my eyes and saved me from the love of worldliness that was taking over me. He brought me to a place in my life of realization and truth! He reshaped my desires for my life and showed me that my body is a temple and was created to be honoring to Him in all things, especially in my marriage and in being an example to younger girls! I decided to make some changes in the path that I was headed down. I vowed to never pose for a men's magazine again. I decided not to be seen in lingerie by any man but my husband. I decided to stop trying to become a sex symbol and to pursue being a wholesome, Godly example! Everything I went through was for a bigger purpose. For HIS purpose. He used my sin to bring me to a better place. A place where I can now be an example to other in the way that I live and I am so thankful for that! My prayer is that the Lord will use everything I have done as a platform to help others through honoring Him and God willing change lives.

Kylie Bisutti's decision to pursue more modest modeling jobs is an inspirational example that change toward modesty can happen through God's influence in the lives of people, beginning at even at the highest levels in the fashion industry.

Update: Since this article was first published, Kylie Bisutti has continued to increase her standards of modesty. She is quoted in a September 2012 interview, "I’ve stepped away from a lot of modeling jobs, because even if you’re fully clothed, they still want you to portray some sort of selling of sex, because that’s what sells in our society. So even some jobs that I’ve done where I’m fully clothed, it’s just the poses and the facial expressions that they want – it’s all based around the selling of sex. So I haven’t really been focused on [modeling] as much." Read more news about Kylie from a September 2012 Fashion Belle forum post.

Dolce & Gabbana Lead in Visual Merchandising

Floral printed dresses from Dolce and Gabbana Winter 2013 fashion show

(Photo credit: Dolce & Gabbana, Fashion Show Winter 2013, Woman) The study of best practices in visual merchandising has become a special area of interest for me in the formulation of plans for marketing Fashion Belle sewing patterns, both on package covers and possibly in retail fabric stores with a display of custom fabric. New York City's concentration of designer flagship stores offers a stunning introduction to what can be achieved through the use of construction materials, finishes, color and layout in visual merchandising within retail stores. While perusing these stores in 2008 at the end of my 18-month stay in the city for patternmaking work, the Dolce & Gabbana store at 825 Madison Avenue impressed me as my favorite. (Future visitors to New York should be aware that with the company's opening of a nearby location at 717 Fifth Avenue, speculation exists that the Madison store may eventually close). The interior design was not one that I would have naturally chosen, with expanses of reflective black surfaces, oversize chandeliers and gold accents, as my tastes generally lean toward light colors and simple fixtures. However, the Dolce & Gabbana interior offered a perfect balance of simplicity with luxury, and I felt transported into a world of modern luxury as soon as I stepped inside. Plenty of open spaces and a grand staircase kept the black from overpowering, and the chandeliers provided contrast to the remaining simple shapes.

Because of my impression of the Dolce & Gabbana store in 2008, I have since visited the company's website several times to see what I might learn about online visual merchandising. Over the past few seasons, the site has offered a burst of random photos on the home page, and links lead to a maze of other entertaining material. People who want to spend time enjoying the fashion experience probably enjoy the depth of the Dolce & Gabbana site layout, but shoppers who want to go straight to the products may prefer more direct navigation. During one visit to the site, I was delighted to find a beautiful collection of needlepoint florals inspired by Sicilian Baroque for the Winter 2013 women's collection. Two of my favorites are pictured. To view close-ups of the needlepoint florals and the handcrafted gold accents that define the collection, see the Dolce & Gabbana FW13 Womenswear Video Guide. While Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana are far from being known as designers focused on modesty, they do produce modest styles from time to time, as is common among most designers at their level.

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