Faith on the Runway
It's an understatement to say that Mayra Gomez is passionate about the intersection of faith and fashion.
Gomez, co-founder of Christian Fashion Week (CFW), says her life changed when she, a full-time model, met her husband Jose, a full-time pastor.
"It was kind of like a shock coming to the Christian realm, coming from that fashion industry," Gomez told RealClearReligion. "I tried every single job you can imagine in the church and I was not happy. Why? Because that wasn't me."
So Gomez began Model4Jesus, a traveling ministry that raised funds for hurting women via the runway. But for Gomez, to combine faith and fashion is not to live out her Christian faith through what she wears. It's about displaying ethical practices, integrity, wisdom, and "an inch more of fabric."
"If you're Christian, you need to look like a Christian. But what the heck does a Christian look like? What the heck does Christian fashion look like?" Gomez said. "There is no such thing."
Modesty is a hot topic in Christian circles -- in sermons, op-eds, women's conferences, and young adult novels. Some say modesty has become a checklist: don't expose too much skin, don't draw attention. Simply don't wear what the rest of the world does.
But Gomez said in creating CFW, she discovered the Bible did not have any catch-all dress guidelines for Christians.
"In all reality modesty is contextual. It all depends where you're from, where you live, and where you were raised," Gomez said. "I don't think it was meant to be one rule for every single person."
However, Gomez said Christians must be prudent in determining what is proper, comparing people's talk of "modesty" with the Word of God.
"What you wear to the beach, you're not going to wear to church. What I would wear to my anniversary dinner, which would be a killer, little black dress, it wouldn't be smart of me to wear it to a church meeting or an event that has to do with the church," Gomez said. "You have to have common sense."
Amy Buckley echoes Gomez in a May 2015 essay for Relevant Magazine.
"As for whether or not we should wear yoga pants, tight jeans or certain swimsuits, I believe Jesus would instruct that sometimes, yes -- depending on humility, appropriateness and devotion to God -- and sometimes no, depending on humility, appropriateness and devotion to God," Buckley wrote.
Christian Fashion Week has stood upon this idea of "contextual modesty" since its founding three years ago, but it's an idea not often practiced by Christians.
"In Christianity today, we are lacking the love of Jesus Christ," Gomez said. "We're forgetting what the Word of God says about people and loving people and teaching them."
To make her point, Gomez spoke of a prostitute's visit to church wearing her Sunday best.
"The most decent thing that she has to wear is some mini skirt, you know, and a skin tight top. Here is the typical church woman looking down at her. Why?" Gomez said. "That was her most decent thing. Do you really want her to come in what she uses to wear to work? But they don't see it that way."
While the Bible might not have a one-size-fits-all dress code, the Koran explicitly states how Muslims are to dress.
Muslim women hold to the points of hijab -- a standard rooted in the faith, transcending culture's perception of modesty.
"You can have a dress within the mainstream market that's considered modest, but it's a strapless halter that might come down to the floor," Romana Kerns-Muhammed, executive director of the Modesty Defined Islamic Fashion Council of America (MDIFC), told RealClearReligion. "That dress may be modest, but there's nothing permissible to me as a Muslim woman."
The points of hijab include garments which extend well below the knee, cover the neck, conceal one's shape, are opaque, cover the head, and whose color has been carefully chosen. Kerns-Muhammed said color is the only point which is left up to interpretation, as the Koran does not discriminate here.
Kerns-Muhammed said the Muslim community considers clothing an extension of one's belief.
"Wearing my scarf, my covering, the way I dress, you know, is a sign I want people to know right away. I want people to see me and encounter the fact that I have submitted my life to Allah. As a Muslim, yes, I want my dress to identify that," Kerns-Muhammed said. "It's your introduction to people, the general society, who you are, what you believe in, those things."
Yet both faiths are embracing fashion -- no gaudy, too-big, discolored garments required.
Kerns-Muhammed said a Muslim's challenge comes not in finding modest fashion but Islamic fashion.
"Within our community, we do not have a global brand," Kerns-Muhammed said. "We don't have anyone from the Muslim community known at that level or supported at that level."
However, the demand for Islamic fashion is high. According to the council, Western Muslims spent $21 billion on clothing and footwear in 2012, and the Islamic fashion consumer market is expected to reach $320 billion by 2018. The MDIFC will debut its Islamic Fashion Week this month, in the Washington, D.C., area.
Kerns-Muhammed said Islamic fashion is not limited to the traditional jilbab, the loose over garment worn by many Muslims, which isn't practical for the Northern American woman.
"She has a multifaceted life, and her clothes need to allow her to transition through all of those, and our designers understand that we can apply the aesthetics of our faith to garments that are functional in that capacity," Kerns-Muhammed said. "We're really trying to help the American-based consumer understand that Islamic fashion is not what they thought it was."
Though Christian Fashion Week future is uncertain due to inconsisent support from the Christian community, believers are taking the issue of faith and fashion into their own hands. Like Gomez, they're making a ministry out of it.
Bekah Pence, this year's 29-year-old Miss Virginia, is a Mormon. Having recently returned from her mission, Pence felt called to enter the beauty competition. The competition lacked modest attire, but Pence held to her religious convictions and altered the required outfits.
"I'm a firm believer in not just being modest, but you can also be absolutely drop-dead gorgeous, not just beautiful," she said. "I feel like girls don't feel that way. They think that it's a step down if you're modest."
Pence's convictions inspired other contestants to take note. Idaho contestant Afton Liddell, also a Mormon, joined Pence in altering attire for the Miss United States competition.
"I am so grateful that Bekah listens to the Spirit," Liddell said. "Her faithful adherence to her standards and the promptings of the Holy Ghost have already had a tremendous ripple effect and will continue to so do beyond what any of us can begin to imagine."