Andre Penner, Associated Press
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 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 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 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.
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."
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