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With rise of conservative evangelicals, frocks, low hemlines capture market share in Brazil

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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 Rio suburb 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 favoured 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 by looking at them.

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 per cent of the population, according to the country's IBGE statistics agency. In the 2010 census, more than 42 million people, or 22 per cent 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.

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 block. 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 as well as red and black fabrics and encourages the use of robes.

"The Bible orders women to wear this kind of clothing. It says women's bodies are not meant to be on display for everyone, just for their husbands," Pereira said, adding that adhering to the church's dress code "is a way for women to be in communion with God."

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 the evangelical labels, its garments widely considered the creme de la creme of the sector. Its bestselling below-the-knee denim skirts, the staple piece in most evangelical women's closets, retail for $60 to $75, while the dresses run for about $75 to $100. 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.

"Because she has a real entrepreneurial spirit, she decided to regard this problem as a business opportunity," he said. "She started making things for the ladies at church and then through word of mouth, the ladies from other churches and so on. People would come from all over to the really out-of-the-way neighbourhood we lived in then.

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

A decade later, the family-run 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.

One such newcomer is Kauly, a 10-year-old family-run label that was born again five years ago.

"We sort of stumbled into it by accident after we made a few more sober, conservative pieces," said director Fabricio Pais, a Catholic. "They sold so well we said, 'Hold on, this is interesting.' Six month later, we decided to radically change our product to cater to evangelical consumers."

Since then, the label has seen its profits climb by around 30 per cent annually, said Pais.

The association representing Brazil's textile sector, ABIT, doesn't keep statistics on growth in niche sectors, but one of the group's recent publications emphasized that evangelical fashion was "in real expansion."

The tables have turned so completely that now evangelical specialty clothing lines attract scads of nonbelievers. Batista, the manager of M&A Fashion in Itaborai, estimates that about 40 per cent of the store's clients are not evangelicals.

"It's so hard in regular stores to find clothes that aren't too short or don't show a lot of cleavage that women who aren't comfortable with showing a lot of skin for whatever reason shop here too," he said.

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.

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