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A Style of Our Own

By: Guest - November 04, 2008

As Matt mentioned in his generous introduction, I was fortunate to study for a summer under Claudia Bushman at the (then) Smith Institute at Brigham Young University.  I  spent two months reveling in the history I knew, and was alternately fascinated, disturbed, and incredulous at the history I did not.  At the time, I was interested in how LDS Church teachings linked female modesty and morality and its effect on women’s self image. As projects often do, it transformed; my resulting paper focused on changing standards and  rationales for women’s dress, particularly as indicated by the evolution of  the BYU Honor Code and the For the Strength of Youth pamphlets.

Historically, modesty in dress had important symbolic meaning for Church leaders and members alike—it represented women and the Church’s effort and responsibility to maintain boundaries between themselves and the world. Brigham Young often warned women against following the indecent fashions of his day; thirty years after Young’s death, President Joseph F. Smith worried that women in the Church were “seemingly oblivious … to the promptings and duties of true womanhood,” especially related to dress and fashion. [1] In 1917, in response to President Smith’s charge, Amy Brown Lyman led the general boards of the Relief Society, YLMIA, and Primary to issue dress guidelines for all Mormon women. [2] Several decades later, on February 13, 1951, Elder Spencer W. Kimball delivered a speech to students at a Brigham Young University devotional entitled “A Style of Our Own: Modesty in Dress and its Relationship to the Church.” [3] Kimball’s talk defined standards of modesty for LDS women in the twentieth century (with a specific pronouncement against strapless dresses) and also articulated enduring rationales for proper dress.  Generally regarded as the “first” modesty talk of the twentieth century, it caused a stir at BYU and elsewhere.  My own grandmother, in attendance at the devotional, had planned to wear a strapless dress to an upcoming formal dance and “kimballized” it by adding a jacket.

Here is a brief summary of subtle changes in both dress standards and rationales for modest dress, that in part reflect changing LDS Church’s teachings and attitudes towards chastity and women, the feminine ideal, and women’s roles.

In 1951, Elder Kimball denounced “immodest dresses that are worn by our young women, and their mothers” as contributors to the breakdown of moral values in America. He encouraged women to create “a style of our own” that would set them apart from the world. He declared to the students that “immodest clothes lead to sin,” [4] perhaps first articulating an oft repeated rationale for  women’s responsibility not only for her own dress and related chastity, but also for the chastity of her male associates.  Much has been written about women’s responsibility for chastity.  I am more interested in the great emphasis placed on feminine dress, perhaps even more than “modest” dress, in LDS publications and addresses in the late 1960s and 1970s.

In the 1960s, Church leaders witnessed a decade of incredible social change in the United States, and were especially worried about the effects of the societal upheaval on their youth. This perceived nationwide moral crisis was epitomized by the popularity of new women’s fashions, including the miniskirt and hip hugging bellbottoms, introduction of the birth control pill in 1965, a nascent feminist movement, and the sexual revolution. [5] Also alarming to Church leaders was the emergence of the drug culture, counterculture, radical student movements, and a general disregard for authority among the nation’s youth.  In the midst of these changes, Mormon youth began adopting the dress and grooming habits of the new morality and the counterculture, including shorter skirts, “grubby” clothing, and longer hair and beards for men.  The importance of modest dress took on a new urgency; prior to the 1950s, many Church leaders saw immodest dress as a nuisance.  However, in the 1960s, immodest and unkempt dress became symbols of movements Church leaders felt were undesirable, if not evil.

Modesty in dress became a watch cry for protecting the purity and moral values of LDS youth, and increasingly, leaders exhorted members to dress modestly and appropriately.  Although Church leaders singled out the miniskirt as the most perilous of the alarming new fashion trends, by the late 1960s and early 1970s, LDS Church publications and pronouncements indicate that appropriate dress for women now meant feminine dress.  While women of the world began to wear pants, jeans, and grubby clothing in general, adopting a unisex look, Church leaders pled with LDS women to retain their feminine charm.

Without the influence of the feminist movement, perhaps Church leaders would not have worried as much about young women wearing jeans or collarless jackets, both of which were modest and therefore would not lead women to unchastity.  The second wave of feminism, which began in the 1960s, was concerned, among other things, with inequalities facing women in the United States, and sought to redress inequalities in the workplace, government, and education. Some radical feminist organizations such as New York Radical Women and the Redstockings advocated the overthrow of capitalism, and “repudiated the male master class, marriage, and the traditional nuclear family,” positions clearly subversive to LDS Church teachings concerning the importance of marriage and family. Others, like the National Organization for Women also advocated that women did not have to find fulfillment as a wife and mother, but instead could remain single or enter the workplace, even with children at home. [6]

As early as 1965, the Church published its first For the Strength of Youth pamphlet, which provided LDS youth with guidelines concerning dress, manners, dating, dancing, and clean living. [7] Six years after the Church issued dress standards for youth, Brigham Young University and other Church colleges formally adopted a dress and grooming standard as a condition of enrollment. [8] Both documents have evolving definitions of gender appropriate clothing, including the acceptability of pants, jeans, sweatshirts, and shorts.  These two “codes of modesty,” used as a case study for the Church’s emphasis on femininity, indicate that Church leaders invoked modesty to prevent women from at least looking, if not behaving, like women of the world.  The emphasis on femininity was meant to discourage women from following larger American trends away from women’s traditional roles, and instead to encourage women to dress a certain way because it reflected their feminine, God-given nature.

Perhaps Church leaders saw that allowing women to wear jeans or other “androgynous” attire would not drastically alter how they saw themselves, or how they represented themselves to the world.  Subsequent Honor Code statements changed few things about the early 1970s Dress and Grooming Standards, with the exception of finally allowing jeans for women (1981), [9] knee-length shorts for both sexes (1991), and the most recent prohibition of tattoos and multiple earrings for men and women (2000). [10] These prohibitions, along with an occasional threat to revoke the privilege of wearing shorts, have stayed largely the same since the early years of both the Dress and Grooming Standards and the For the Strength of Youth pamphlets.  If anything, both “codes of modesty” have become stricter, emphasizing not necessarily the standards themselves, but youth and other members of the Church’s responsibility to follow them.  Today, most injunctions to dress appropriately are not necessarily related to gender, as they were in the earlier days.  Instead, rather than invoking their distinct femininity when asked to follow the standards, women are reminded of their status as a child of God, or that their body is a temple.

Modesty of dress has had many meanings for many people, perhaps because the specific guidelines and rationales for modesty have fluctuated in response to changes within the Church and within the broader American culture.  For example, Church leaders and publications have emphasized that members should avoid particular fashions, such as miniskirts. They were instructed to avoid pants, grubby clothing and unfeminine dress in general during the late 1960s and 1970s because these articles of clothing were symbols of the counterculture and feminism, two movements that LDS Church leaders did not want their members to be involved with, sympathize with, or even look like.  Symbols and image have been and remain very important to both the leadership and the general membership of the LDS Church—how one dresses matters.  Definitions of modest and appropriate dress are somewhat fluid—as the larger culture and society changed, fashion as a boundary matters, not because it will lead one to immorality or because one must emphasize one’s femininity, but because dress fundamentally represents not only the individual, but the Church in general.

[1] Joseph F. Smith, Anthon H. Lund, Charles W. Penrose, A Call to the Women of the Church, September 22, 1916, Church History Library, Family and Church History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.
[2]  In response to the above cited letter from the First Presidency, the General Boards of the Relief Society, Deseret Sunday School Union, Y.M.M.I.A., Y.L.M.I.A., Primary Associations and Religion Classes (and approved by the First Presidency) issued  Communication on Dress, [1917], which was sent to “All Women Officers and Teachers in the Church,” Church Library.
[3] Spencer W. Kimball, A Style of Our Own: Modesty in Dress and Its Relationship to the Church, An Apostle Speaks to Youth, no. 4 (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 1951).
[4] Kimball, A Style of Our Own.
[5] Karen Greenspan, The Timetables of Women’s History: A Chronology of the Most Important People and Events in Women’s History,” Touchstone Books, 1996, 364.
[6] Robert A. Goldberg, Grassroots Resistance: Social Movements in 20th Century America, Waveland Press, 1996, 200, 204.
[7]  Introduction to For the Strength of Youth (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1965), 2, microfiche, Church Library.)
[8]  “Y Board, Church System Establish Dress Standards,” Daily Universe, July 22, 1971, 1.  The July 22, 1971 Daily Universe was a “Special Issue” that was published by BYU’s Public Relations Department, and mailed to all new and continuing students.
[9]  Code of Honor/Dress and Grooming Standards (1981), Church Library.
[10]  Under President Jeffrey R. Holland, a group of faculty, administrators and students updated the Honor Code and Dress and Grooming Standards.  The 1991 revision of the Honor Code included some supplemental pamphlets, including Honor Code Council, On My Honor: From Students, To Students, (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 1992) and BYU Honor Code and Standards: The Faculty Role (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University, 1992).

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15 Comments

  1. Well, there goes one of the Keepa posts I had stockpiled, based on Pres. JFSmith’s 1917 call! (Kate has gone much farther than I did, so I cheerfully bow to her better post and scrap mine.)

    Interesting post, Kate. Discussions of modesty and dress standards tend to degenerate pretty quickly to arguments over fractions of an inch in hemlines, or precisely how brief a sleeve can be to avoid the label “sleeveless” — maybe putting it in a historical context the way you have done will let us talk about the purposes of dress codes and not bog down in those fractions of an inch.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — November 4, 2008 @ 9:03 pm

  2. What, no hermaphrodite pantaloons?

    Great post! I had not realized FTSOY came so early or the BYU Dress & Grooming codes came so late.

    I am intrigued by the idea of “modesty” defined as a social marker rather than an intrinsic virtue that you describe in the last paragraph—That is, “modesty” as a uniform (of sorts) rather than a symptom of spirituality. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone explain modesty to a YM/YW or a YSA with “We do this so we don’t look like ‘them.’” As harsh as it sounds, I think I find it easier to swallow than convoluted explanations why people who recognize their individual worth and divine nature would use one pair of earings but not two.

    Comment by Edje — November 4, 2008 @ 10:20 pm

  3. Kate – this is fascinating. I’m interested in the use of language here, particularly that term ‘kimballized.’ Did you come up with that, or does it turn up in primary sources?m

    Comment by matt b — November 5, 2008 @ 12:16 pm

  4. This is great stuff, Kate. It manages to address a number of holes in Mormon historiography, including 20th-century history, 20th-century women’s history, and Mormon discourse treating sexuality, chastity, and gender.

    Out of curiosity, have you compared Mormonism’s approach to these issues with other religious groups of the era? My impression is that Mormons fall in line on these with fundamentalist evangelicals, while other evangelicals seem to appropriate some of the “world’s fashions” and counterculture by incorporating rock music and accepting informal dress and grooming (essentially embracing the countercultural image in an effort to win more converts). I wonder how Catholicism responded to the countercultural movements (I admit that 20th century American religious history is not my forte).

    Comment by Christopher — November 5, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

  5. Wonderful post. Have you published this anywhere or is this part of a master’s thesis?

    Chris–there is a chapter in a book edited by Linda Arthur and Gabriella Lazaridis on Religion, Dress, and the Body (Berg, 1999?) on the changing dress of women religious (nuns) in the wake of Vatican II. I can’t remember a lot from it, but I do remember that many women religious began donning regular clothes outside of cloistered communities….hmmm…I’m blanking here on anything more.

    Comment by David Howlett — November 5, 2008 @ 4:14 pm

  6. Thanks for your comments.

    Ardis–nice to “meet” you. There are so many fascinating things happening in the 1910s in the church–and I’d love to see what you had to say about Pres. Smith’s 1917 call to action.

    Edje–I can’t believe I missed hermaphrodite pantaloons, but let me assure you, I have read all sorts of, er, cringe worthy statements on this topic over the years. I think that justifications for female modesty (of dress) have been relatively fluid over the years. The standards haven’t changed that dramatically in the last 50 plus years, although there is a much greater willingness to define standards than there was even in the early 1970s. I thought it interesting that during the 1960s and 70s modesty is most often spoken of in terms of “not wearing the uniform of the counterculture” instead of in terms of chastity. I would have thought chastity might have been foremost in people’s comments due to the sexual revolution, etc., although of course it was there. In the 1980s, there is a large push for sister missionaries to attend dress and grooming classes so that they have project a more “professional” appearance; same thing with employees at the church office building. I did some surveys in 2003 and was surprised that people gave SO many different reasons for why LDS church leaders preach modesty…

    Matt B–my grandma used the terms “kimballized,” and said that the entire campus used the term until a general authority asked them to stop singling out (then) Elder Kimball. I believe it also was mentioned in the BYU newspaper articles, but honestly can’t remember.

    Christopher–the larger work that this is based on was a short term project–I tied the various modesty campaigns to larger events in US history, but did not look at other religious groups. Good idea.

    David–This was published shortly after the summer seminar in a collection of “Summer Fellows’ Papers 2003: Latter-day Saint Women in the 20th Century.” I have good intentions to publish it (Kristine will be happy to hear this). But has anyone ever re-read their graduate student papers several years after the fact? It needs some polish before I can read parts without groaning.

    Comment by Kate — November 5, 2008 @ 7:37 pm

  7. I know you focused your study on woman’s fashion, but as you mentioned, church standards for men’s grooming also came as a reaction to the counterculture of the 1960′s.

    A few years back I had a prof at BYU tell our class how in the early 1990′s she was hosting professor visiting from a rather more liberal university (I don’t remember which one). As he was walking around campus with her, he kept on making remarks about how impressed he was with how open-minded the school was and how it wasn’t what he was expecting. After a few of these remarks she questioned him about what was surprising to him. His reply: So many of the men are ‘out’. He thought all those well groomed, clean-shaven men were gay. Then she had to explain about the Honor Code.

    So sometimes our dress standards can be misleading. The tricky thing about fashion is that the same styles can mean different things to people with different backgrounds or who are from different cultures. And it changes rapidly.

    Comment by cahkaylahlee — November 6, 2008 @ 9:12 am

  8. Thanks for the info, Kate. I think I actually purchased the proceedings from that Summer Seminar a little while back. I’ll check my bookshelf to see tonight, and if so, will make it a point to read your paper soon.

    Comment by Christopher — November 6, 2008 @ 3:25 pm

  9. “But has anyone ever re-read their graduate student papers several years after the fact?” I’ll have get back to you in “several years” to tell you how it went. I’ll try not to think about it now.

    Comment by Edje — November 6, 2008 @ 4:50 pm

  10. I really liked your (unintentional?) pun, talking about how second wave feminists wanted to “redress inequalities” when the point of your whole discussion is Church authorities wanting to re-dress young women.

    Sorry about my stupid sense of humor. :)

    Comment by Ziff — November 17, 2008 @ 2:29 am

  11. thank god I am not Mormon not offense but your rules or dress codes are alittle extreme, what business is yours telling women how to dress it is a freedom of choice

    Comment by Barbara Godding — January 6, 2009 @ 10:56 am

  12. Barbara:
    “god” justcalled and is alsothankful youare not a Mormon.

    And why shouldn’t you dress how you please? You certainly spell and construct sentences how you please. Stick it to the man!

    Comment by Costanza — January 6, 2009 @ 11:46 am

  13. Barbara,

    This is an academic blog dedicated to investigating Mormonism within larger contexts. In this particular post, the author explored Mormonism through the lens of modesty, fashion, and gender. If you read carefully, Kate did not advocate any of the dress standards suggested at various times by LDS church leaders, but merely examined them. If you would like to participate in that discussion, please join in. If you only came here to criticize Mormonism and religion, then please go elsewhere.

    I resolved this new year to be less snarky and rude on blogs, so I’ll leave it at that.

    Comment by Christopher — January 6, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

  14. [...] (For a fuller treatment of modesty, see its Wikipedia entry.  For a brief review of modern LDS modesty standards, see the blog post, A Style of Our Own.) [...]

    Pingback by The Law of Chastity: What It Is and What It Isn’t « LDS Anarchy — August 18, 2009 @ 5:24 pm

  15. Hi! I thought you might be interested in seeing a fun music video my family and I made about modesty. Here is the link to the video: http://youtu.be/UXzWNQT1cJk . My husband and some friends wrote the song as a means to communicating the sensitive subject of modesty to a show choir at the University of Utah’s Institute of Religion some years ago. It was a big hit and we feel like it might help young women to get the message. Thanks, enjoy!

    Brittany

    Comment by Brittany — October 5, 2010 @ 4:29 pm