A religiously fashionista story

I love a good fashion story, especially one that taps into religion behind the inspiration for the different styles.

The Associated Press recently assessed the state of style among evangelicals in Brazil, no small story for the potentially steamy topic.

Strolling down the main shopping drag in this working-class Rio de Janeiro suburb, it’s not the second-skin dresses in shocking pink spandex that catch the eye or even the strapless tops with strategically placed peekaboo paneling.

The newest look can instead be found in stores like Silca Evangelical Fashion, where the hot items are the demure, long-sleeved frocks with how-low-can-you-go hemlines and the polyester putty-colored potato sack dresses.

In the birthplace of the “fio dental” or dental floss string bikini, so-called evangelical fashion has emerged as a growing segment of the country’s $52 billion-a-year textile industry, catering to the conservative sartorial needs of Brazil’s burgeoning numbers of born-again Pentecostals.

What makes the piece a winner is that goes into detail not just about the clothes but about the history and context for why the clothes matter.

Introduced in the mid-19th century by American missionaries, Brazil’s neo-Pentecostal churches were long regarded as fringe groups. Aggressive proselytizing, particularly among the poor and disenfranchised, has produced a dramatic spike in the community’s numbers in recent decades and eaten away at Brazil’s status as the world’s largest Catholic country.

In 1980, evangelicals represented just over 6 percent of the population, according to the country’s IBGE statistics agency. In the 2010 census, more than 42 million people, or 22 percent of the country’s 190 million, identified themselves as evangelicals. Some statisticians predict that if current trends hold, evangelical Christians could become the majority here by 2030.

I would quibble with a few word choices like proselytize and the interchangeable use of “evangelical” and “pentecostal,” but the piece weaves the religion and style fabrics pretty well.

Customer Ana Paula Fernandes agrees. As a nonpracticing Catholic, Fernandes converted to an evangelical church two years ago. Dressed in cutoff shorts and a white tank top with spaghetti straps permitted by her congregation for day-to-day wear, Fernandes said it took her a while to get used to the modest garments required for services.

“Once when I first joined, I went to church in pants, and the pastor called me out on it,” said the 25-year-old manicurist and mother of a 7-year-old daughter. “It seemed strange at first, but now I see how what you wear affects other people, not to mention your own sense of self-worth.”

Now, she says she wears only modest, loose-fitting dresses to church.

“I feel dignified,” she said.

Explaining how demographics have changed within the country are the icing on the cake of the story, which is more about style and fashion. Kudos to the reporter who dug beneath the surface on style and went into the fabric of Brazilian religious life.

Image of casually clothed woman via Shutterstock.

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  • Kate Shellnutt

    Even as I watch the Duggars and the Browns (“Sister Wives”) on TLC I am struck by how they can make layering and long-sleeves seem stylish, though you don’t quite see their modest styles on store mannequins here.

  • Julia

    I wasn’t aware that Evangelicals dressed like that in the US. I’m assuming that’s where the proselytizers are from.
    The converts quoted were all previously non-practicing Catholics. Why didn’t they comment on how practicing Catholics dressed for church ? And there has got to be clothing for professional women like doctors and lawyers and teachers, right? I can’t believe there was nothing except scanty clothing available in Brazil before the Evangelicals came on the scene.

    • SK

      I agree. Catholics do tend to dress modestly in Church, based on my Brazilian experience and professional women dressed professionally (as in the U.S.)or stitch their own clothing. Fashion as such whether its professional wear or skimpy beach wear or church wear(baptisms/marriages/funerals) or this new evangelical clothing sells well in Brazil. The demographics which these modest shops are targeting are different from the urban/beach wear/carnival crowd. There is more to Brazilian fashion/clothing than usually depicted in American pop culture.

  • Frank Lockwood

    The history and context would make this piece a winner — IF the history and context were correct.

    Unfortunately, this reporter got a few details wrong. 1.) the neo-Pentecostal movement was not brought to Brazil in the mid-nineteenth century from the United States. The modern Pentecostal movement traces its roots to a Kansas Bible school, where a student began speaking in tongues on or around Jan. 1, 1901. 2.) The Pentecostal movement wasn’t brought to Brazil by American missionaries. Christians from Sweden and Italy were the first to bring the message (which they had heard while visiting the U.S.) to Brazil. 3.) The reporter offers no evidence that the evangelization primarily targeted “the poor and disenfranchised.” Other studies have suggested that Pentecostalism appeals largely to a middle class or lower middle class segment of society.


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