An 11-year-old objects to girls' gear at a Nordstrom department store. Teenage girls flock to a seminar in Miami to learn how to project their personalities in style and dress. Young New York designers see the classic feminine look as the key to the future of women's fashion. An advertisement in Vogue magazine calls for a new definition of beauty. The message is that female vulgarity has gone about as far as it can go. Ellen Gunderson, a from Washington state put it bluntly in a letter to Nordstrom: "I see all of these girls who walk around with pants that show their belly button and underwear. Your clearks sugjest that there is only one look. If that is true, then girls are suppost to walk around half-naked."

A girl need not be a spelling champion to make an impression on the apparel industry. It pays to listen to someone who has decades of purchasing ahead of her, and Nordstrom did listen. It wrote back admitting the chain should cater for girls who want a more modest look. The media thought there was something in it too, and made Ellen the poster girl of the modesty movement.

And there is a movement. Internet-based companies ModestApparelUSA.com and ModestyByDesign.com – where the slogan is "Clothing your father could be proud of" – report that sales have jumped in the past year.

Seminars to promote sense and sensibility in fashion are springing up around the country. One held recently in Miami asked teenagers: "Are you tired of dressing like everyone else? Do you find that the media is trying to just sell a look? How about doing something different? Be part of the newest trend where having personality means more than a just a pretty face."

And, just to make the point perfectly clear, the brochure stated: "We are challenged in the 21st century to be young women of character and integrity where modesty and refinement go hand in hand with fashion trends."

Teenagers rose to the challenge. The 140 who turned up learned about style, make-up and nutrition. They were given insights into the digital manipulation that produces magazine cover girls and the tricks of marketing. Self control over eating was presented as the way to deal with issues of "size".

Coached by former Miss Venezuela, Denisse Floreano, girls of all shapes and sizes modelled in a final fashion show. Said co-ordinator Sandy Romeu, "The show demonstrated to the girls how one can be stylish, look great, and be refined all at the same time." Nice word, "refined" – one that deserves wider currency.

Last month young fashion designers gathered in New York idenitifed elegance and femininity as key components in their 2005 spring collections. Interviews by Vogue editor Jessica Dahl with finalists of the Vogue and Council of Fashion Designers Association new Fashion Fund award suggest a major shift is taking place.

Behnaz Sarafpour's sashed kimono tops and shibori-print dresses are feminine (and in some cases classic-demure) without being "frilly and sweet", reported Dahl.

Peter Som, whose designs include a floral silk duster jacket over easy khakis and "an entirely work-appropriate linen shirt", says he has "always wanted to design clothes that a woman and her mother could wear. I think that's why everyone is so interested in my generation of designers. We're the first group in a long time who just want to make beautiful clothes. Shock value is absolutely the last thing on our minds."

Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schlouler say they identify with the house of Chanel "because of its timeless chic". Says Hernandez, "There was a period where all it took to be a designer was to do a ripped T-shirt. People started to actively look for something more elegant. There was a vacancy for a young label to do sophisticated clothes for a cool girl".

But fashion also has to address the needs of older girls. A generation of greying baby boomers in the United States, Canada, Australia and elsewhere has the numbers and the spending power to force the industry to provide something better than the shapeless, monochrome garments that currently are the sole alternative to mutton dressed up as lamb.

Dove Corporation in the US has latched onto the older market with a daring campaign to make grey beautiful. It recently ran a six-page advertisement showing women wrinkled, grey-haired, flat-chested, freckled and size-16 asking the readers: "Will society ever accept old can be beautiful? Why aren't women glad to be grey?"

The ad ends, "For too long, beauty has been defined by narrow, unattainable stereotypes. It's time to change all that. Because Dove believes real beauty comes in many shapes, sizes, colours and ages. It's why we started the campaign for real beauty. And why we hope you'll take part. Together, let's think, talk, debate and learn how to make beauty real again. Cast your vote at campaignforrealbeauty.com"

Dove is onto something here. I doubt that they will persuade many women to celebrate their wrinkles and freckles, but they are right about the need for a big discussion on feminine beauty, and I suspect that this discussion will be as demanding on women themselves as on the fashion industry. After all, if women know who they are they will know what they want to wear.

What is a woman? What is feminine? Now that words like refinement and modesty are in circulation again we have some chance of answering those questions.

Louise Stebbins lives in Florida