My Mormon granddaughters wear T-shirts under their sleeveless dresses. Five-year-old Goody criticized my backless swim suit at the pool—not being aware that her own swim suit—like most swimwear—revealed a bare back. Recently, we watched George’s favorite movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy, together. Goody squealed, “They’re immodest!” when the loin-cloth wearing Kalahari Desert natives appeared on screen.
I don’t know why the Church has gotten onto the current modesty kick of insisting that everyone at all times should be wearing clothing that covers shoulders, backs, bellies and thighs. But I would like to present what I think is a better option .
Last Sunday, I attended Mars Hill Church in Seattle with our son Wort and his family. Pastor Mark Driscoll’s sermon was based on 1 Cor. 12—Paul’s extended analogy of spiritual gifts with body parts. When Driscoll, a gifted storyteller, got to verse 23 about the less honorable, uncomely members of the body, he related the experience of seeing a young man in Starbucks take off his shoes and clean between his toes. Driscoll made the point that while toes provide a useful function for the body, it is uncomely to clean them in public.
It struck me that the more rational approach to modesty is not that some body parts are bad or “sexy” and should always be covered, but that attire should be appropriate to the occasion. Uncovered butts and breasts are appropriate to tribal peoples of the Kalahari, but not in many places in modern America. Devout, endowed Mormons should wear garments which cover their shoulders, but children and young people should not be expected to dress the same way. And non-members should certainly not be labeled “immodest” for not wearing clothing that would conceal garments.
Mormons are possibly the only religious organization in the U.S. who maintain traditional dress standards for Sunday worship service. I know it’s a trivial complaint, but I’d like to see the dress code for women expanded to include slacks for Sunday meetings. I suppose it will happen someday. We’ve already progressed beyond the strict code of the ‘70s. Back then—at least in my Seattle ward—dresses were mandatory for all meetings. A favorite excuse for less-active women we invited to Relief Society was, “I don’t own a dress.” Girls who showed up in pants for after-school Primary were seated in the foyer until after opening exercises to avoid desecrating the chapel.
These days Mormon males actually have the more rigid dress code. Boys officiating in the sacrament ordinances wear white shirts and neckties. Grown men follow suit—in suits. Only mavericks who never hope to be called as bishop or high councilor show up in colored shirts. And no matter how many GQ issues feature photos of sports-jacketed, tieless hot males with open collars—that trend is taboo for most wards.
For women and girls the only requirement seems to be a skirt or dress. While the Aaronic Priesthood boys show up clean shaven and conservatively attired on Sundays, the Young Women, sporting bare legs, flip flips, and untucked shirts topping very short or very long skirts appear headed for a day at the beach. Sunday dress for the boys is driven by their priesthood office. No such motivation exists for the girls.
Mormon women and girls are routinely reminded to dress modestly. Here again, I make a pitch for pants. Pants do not ride up exposing a panoramic display of thigh when a woman sits. And pants are not slit up the back—sometimes to mid-thigh—to allow walking room. In addition to pants, even dressy ones, sleeveless clothing is also a no-no in Mormon culture. A woman, even if she has not been to the temple, causes head-shaking if she reveals bare upper arms. Curiously, the design of LDS garments allows full-busted women to expose considerable cleavage while being righteously attired.
Our son Wort invited us to attend his evangelical church when we visited him, and my first question was: Do I have to wear a dress?” “Only if you want to be stared at,” he said.
Wearing nice jeans, I worshiped comfortably at Wort’s church—at least until a female vocalist appeared on stage exposing a bare mid-drift. My staid Mormon eyes are fine with pants on women and colored shirts on men, but surveying belly buttons while singing hymns makes me uncomfortable. I know that’s a personal character flaw, but I’m stuck with it. And maybe that’s where we draw the line. Somehow, I doubt God cares much about how we dress at church— so long as we don’t make others uncomfortable. And that’s why I keep two skirts in my closet. I’ll let someone else challenge the comfort level of my ward members.