I’ve watched with interest the ongoing debates this week over the proposed “Wear Pants to Church Day” spearheaded by a group of Mormon feminists. I’ve little desire to wade into the treacherous waters that conversation has become, but thanks to our resident Strangite expert Robin Jensen, I now know that the history of Mormon women and the controversial wearing of pants extends back much earlier than the late 20th century.
Not many people know of the history of Mormonism and pants, or more specifically, James J. Strang and Bloomers (actually a bit before Amelia Bloomer first wore her costume that eventually bore her name). By the time Strang and his followers were living on Beaver Island, the women regularly wore a modified version of the bloomer. Several reminiscences state that Strang forced the women to wear this costume, which became a marker of Strangite Mormon orthodoxy. Following is a brief editorial in the 1 May 1856 issue of the Beaver Islander:
The Mormon ladies have their own style of dress, convenient and very beautiful. We should call it an improvement of the Bloomer, but that it preceded that; but there is now and then a lady who deems it beneath her dignity to wear a Mormon dress.
Who are these dignified ladies? What has been their past life, that they will not demean themselves by stooping to Mormon styles?
Here passes one, who, three years ago, stole a dress pattern from Elder Bacon, which, on search, was found in her possession, and she confessed the theft, and promised restitution, but has never made it. About six months earlier she was caught in the act of adultery, and her paramour was publicly flogged by the injured husband, who put her away, and she was cast out of Society. It is right that such a one should not wear a Mormon dress. They don’t belong to that set. But is it not a little curious to see them put on airs about it? Who keeps such company? Look and see, and judge them by the company they keep.
Neither the current debate over women wearing pants nor the controversy that developed around Strang’s decree in the 1850s, of course, took place in a cultural vacuum, and each was and is part of a much broader conversation. For those interested on the 19th century context, see Gayle V. Fischer, Pantaloons and Power: A Nineteenth-Century Dress Reform in the United States (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2001). (Chapter 3 consider the Strangites at length). For the most recent and best researched volume on Strang and his followers, see Vickie Cleverly Speek, “God Has Made us a Kingdom”: James Strang and the Midwest Mormons (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2006). (Speek briefly discusses the bloomers on pp. 160-61).