A shocking display in Brazil - of modesty

A Sao Paulo saleswoman adjusts a dress by the brand Kauly, which markets itself as "evangelical fashion."
A Sao Paulo saleswoman adjusts a dress by the brand Kauly, which markets itself as "evangelical fashion." (ANDRE PENNER / AP)
Posted: October 01, 2012

ITABORAI, Brazil - 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.

Once so difficult to procure that evangelical women tended to make much of their own clothes themselves, the modest garb is now popping up all over Brazil.

On the tiny high street of Itaborai, not one but two evangelical clothing stores compete to dress the faithful. M&A Fashion got its start two decades ago as a conventional clothing shop, selling the short, tight styles favored in this tropical country, but shifted to evangelical offerings five years ago. Silca Evangelical Clothing, two doors down, opened in March.

"It used to be that the word evangelical had a tacky connotation," said M&A manager Marcelo Batista, who converted from Catholicism a decade ago. "But now, we're not afraid to show who we are.

"Evangelical women now wear this clothing proudly," he said, gesturing at the racks of ample dresses, long A-line denim skirts, and ribbed sweaters that in the 100-plus-degree heat were enough to make you sweat just looking at them.

Introduced in the mid-19th century by U.S. 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 trends hold, evangelical Christians could become the majority here by 2030.

With the spiraling numbers have come increased visibility and political and economic strength. Three senators and 63 congressional representatives belong to evangelical churches, and a candidate with links to the Universal Church has a considerable lead in polls ahead of next month's mayoral race in Sao Paulo, South America's biggest city. The Universal Church also owns one of Brazil's main television networks, TV Record.

Still, Brazil's evangelicals are far from a unified bloc. Today hosts of homegrown Pentecostal denominations have their own dress codes, which range from draconian to permissive. Evangelical men are also expected to dress modestly, in long-sleeved shirts and slacks that are more readily available in regular stores.

Women in some congregations wear the archetypal Brazilian outfit, tank tops and short shorts, in their daily lives, donning demure skirts and shoulder-covering tops only for services. In others, women are expected to cover up at all times, except at home with their husbands, and don't even remove their form-concealing robes at the beach.

Pastor Marcos Pereira of the conservative Assembly of God of the Latter Days said his church's strict dress code had its foundations in Scripture. The church forbids women from wearing pants or red and black fabrics and encourages the use of robes.

The Sao Paulo-based label Joyaly makes clothes aimed at moderate evangelicals, who generally cover shoulders and knees and shun women's pants altogether.

Launched in 1990, the label is among the oldest and priciest of evangelical labels, its garments considered the creme de la creme of the sector. Its best-selling below-the-knee denim skirts, the staple piece in most evangelical women's closets, retail for $60 to $75. The label doesn't make anything transparent, nor does it make pants.

Commercial director Alison Flores said the brand was born of his mother's constant struggle to find clothes that met the family church's modesty guidelines.

"There was so much pent-up demand because until then, practically no one was attending to this public," Flores said.

A decade later, the company set up shop in Sao Paulo's Bras garment district as the sole evangelical label. "It really shocked people. They'd walk by, do a double-take and say, 'What's that all about?' " he said. Now Bras is chock-a-block with evangelical brands.

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