Mormon Culture vs. Mormon Doctrine: Episode 147: What to Wear

There was certainly a part of me that wanted to rebel and stride through the temple lobby flaunting my corporate chic pantsuits. But I didn't. It's no challenge for me to wear skirts: I like them, (my husband likes them on me!), I don't get a lot of chances to wear them, and I do feel it's appropriate to dress up to worship -- and "dressing up" usually means something other than pants. (Although I draw the line at denim skirts. Any pant is more dressy than those.) For these reasons, it is easy for me to follow this simple guideline that shows my dedication to the organization, even if it shows very little about my inner worthiness to enter the temple.

The church is an organization of 13 million people. Having worked for one of the largest corporations in the world myself in a marketing role, I understand how hard it is to get millions of people to uniformly and effectively represent a quality brand. Asking 13 million people to dress similarly is an obvious way to create a unified front. It's low-hanging fruit in the effort to create "a people," a culture that adheres to itself and thereby effectively attains its loftier goals. I sympathize with the effort to create physical representations of our spiritual unification. It is a struggle for all of us -- those who are leaders of the organization and those who are not -- to journey to spiritual transcendence within the physical paradigm of our bodily tools.

I also sympathize with the desire to increase the reverence in our worship services by lending them formality through our clothing. People act differently when they're wearing jeans than when they're wearing something that took a little thought and perhaps even a little money. Absolutely. But there are many fronts on which we could attack the reverence issue among our people: instead of picking on people's clothing -- a measure so subjective to condition, place, and personality -- we could instead insist on a culture in which we sing our hymns with greater enthusiasm, we limit our trips in and out of the chapel during Sacrament meeting, and we strive not to fall asleep during talks. A person who falls asleep is not respecting the spirit of the meeting, even if she is wearing haute couture.

Our error as members of the LDS church is confusing the doctrinal essentials with the fences we've built up around those essentials. Wearing skirts is not an essential doctrine, and we would do well to cut some slack for the slack-wearers. Warmer feelings and a lack of judgment among our brothers and sisters would make up for the potentially non-uniform appearance of our congregations and the perceived decline in reverence.

Last week, I attended the Salt Lake Temple and had to rent the white dress women change into to participate in temple services. I entered the locker area, changed out of the skirt -- of course -- I had come in and zipped the polyester white dress up the back. I don't even bother to look in the mirror when I'm wearing those dresses.

As I came out one of the temple volunteers gently tapped me on the shoulder.

"Sister, are you comfortable in that dress? You have it on backward."

"Oh!" I exclaimed, looking down and wondering what kind of outfit would zip up the front. Only my mother's old bathrobe and my grandfather's baby blue jumpsuits zipped up the front. "Well, I'd rather wear it this way, actually. It makes me feel less like I'm wearing a hospital gown!"

The words were out of my mouth before I'd thought about them, and in a split second it registered that I had just compared a temple dress to a hospital gown. Was it blasphemy? Would I be led down the hall to my second temple censuring? The lady simply laughed wholeheartedly, and I was left with a glimmer of hope that maybe we're lightening up after all.

Neylan McBaine grew up Mormon in New York City and attended Yale University. She has been published in Newsweek, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Segullah, Meridian Magazine and She is the author of a collection of personal essays -- How to Be a Twenty-First Century Pioneer Woman (2008) - and the founder and editor-in-chief of The Mormon Women Project, a library of interviews with LDS women found at The Mormon Women Project. She blogs at

3/12/2010 5:00:00 AM
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