Zelophehad’s Daughters

Mormon Aesthetics on the Runway

Posted by Kiskilili

Architecturally, our roots seem deeply planted in low church sensibilities, at least when it comes to chapels. No stained glass windows anywhere in sight for us; no gilded reliquaries, stations of the cross, imposing statues, or pictures of any kind adorn our chapel walls. Our meeting houses are modest, simple, functional, and spartan. Nothing that could be construed as an icon presents itself.

Nothing, that is, except perhaps ourselves. This joy in simplicity, so evident in our places worship, seemingly goes out the window when it comes to the female body, on which we concentrate the lion’s share of our interest in visual aesthetics. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that in certain wards sacrament meeting bears more than a passing resemblance to an out-an-out beauty pageant. I’ve had roommates who spent more time curling their hair and applying their make-up in preparation for church than they spent at church. In a sense, we women are the decorations that adorn our bare chapels.

In spite of this, there seems to be a bizarre concern among some that Mormon women are not sufficiently fashionable and are committing greivous sins on the order of dressing in floral print jumpers and incorrectly curling their bangs. Is this concern warranted? Is this entire pageant phenomenon unique to singles’ wards, where women are expected to throw themselves into netting a mate with all the precision and forethought of a military assault?

I’m not sure where the happy medium is when it comes to aesthetics in worship (or what their relationship should be). I personally like dressing up for church. I like showing respect for sacred space. So I’m not sure where the line should be drawn between dressing nicely out of respect for God’s house and dressing for the Governor’s Ball. (But then, I also like cavernous cathedrals with their imposing stone statues and glowing stained glass images.)

And although I feel it appropriate to show a certain sartorially manifested deference in a building dedicated to God, I have to nevertheless remind myself that all indications are Jesus would have skipped the ball to dine with the women in the floral print jumpers.

24 Responses to “Mormon Aesthetics on the Runway”

  1. 1.

    I think it’s a function of singles wards. Most parents don’t spend more than 10 minutes on themselves getting ready…

  2. 2.

    Queno’s right. Who has time for that, when you also have to get four distracted/contrary/wild children ready? That floral-print jumper sure is quick to throw on…

  3. 3.

    Interesting question, Kiskilili. This is tangential to your point, but I recall a missionary companion of mine who didn’t want to go back to our apartment for lunch before church, but then changed his mind because he wanted to “do his hair.”

    And just to raise another tangent, how do our ornate temples fit in with our spartan chapels? Sorry, another tangent, I know. :)

  4. 4.

    In a sense, we women are the decorations that adorn our bare chapels.

    And the jewels that adorn the one-time-polygamist crowns (apparently — that’s the traditionaly rhetoric at least)

  5. 5.

    You are absolutely right, which is why I stay far far away (no, not from judea’s plain) from these supposedly-sweet (but ultimately stinking) sisters. There’s a reason the serpent succeded with Eve. Look no further than Isiah/Nephi’s prophesies (2 Nephi 13:16-24):

    Because the daughters of Zion are haughty, the Lord will smite with a scab the crown of the head of the daughters of Zion, and the Lord will discover their secret parts.

    In that day the Lord will take away their tinkling ornaments, and chains and the bracelets, and the ear-rings and nose jewels; the changeable suits of apparel, and the fine linen.

    And instead of sweet smell there shall be stink; burning instead of beauty.

  6. 6.

    I think it’s a waste of time. :-P I dress nicely for church in 5 minutes. Tops. Haha.

    My girlfriend is so beautiful without makeup, why cover it up?

  7. 7.

    As you alluded to, in referring to church buildings, with the modern church much traditional ceremony, ritual and iconography were discarded. For some women (I am one) dressing up for church is an opportunity rather than a burden for and about potential mates. In todays world there are very few places where dressing up is necessary or appropriate. I’ll admit that using the sabbath as the opportunity to be creative and attentive to ones looks is questionable and I’m glad for the reminder. I’ll watch out for scabs and stench…

  8. 8.

    I enjoyed how the women looked in my singles wards. Didn’t feel bad about it then. Don’t feel bad about it now.

    I’ll leave the cognitive dissonance to you guys.

  9. 9.

    The sisters in my ward range from plain to modestly adorned, I would say. The most ostentatious thing going on is this old lady who wears loud colors and goofy hats. But we don’t have any young singles so there’s no mate winning going on.

  10. 10.

    Nice comment, Claire. I’m not necessarily opposed to people putting energy and creativity into how they look for church, if that’s meaningful and rewarding to them personally. Just so long as they don’t shun the frumps among us, or complain that Mormon fashion sensibilities are not sufficiently sophisticated. :)

    Ziff, there seems to be a relationship between ornate buildings and ritual or ceremony, in our church and others. I’d love to explore further what that relationship is exactly.

  11. 11.

    Only at BYU did I ever feel like women were putting significant effort into their appearances. Anywhere else (including singles wards outside of Provo), I generally feel that the women are perhaps less adorned than the average non-lds woman. I have never encountered a sentiment that women were committing any sort of sin of omission if they were not fashionable. In fact, if anything, I’ve experienced the opposite – where LDS women are hesitant to wear fashionable clothing to church.

  12. 12.

    I found the exact opposite. During my BYU days I hardly paid attention to my looks for church.
    But when I moved to a wealthy part of AZ, I noticed how much more fashionable the women were, and their teen daughters.
    Maybe it’s a class issue and not a church issue, though. Even in my ward, it’s a big thing to look nice for church. But the emphasis on looks is worse in my mom’s wealthier ward.
    I enjoy looking nice on Sunday, but do question the reason why women have to wear dresses/skirts.
    We had dinner with our Bishop’s family last night and I brought up the topic by comparing a girl in a denim skirt and t-shirt to a woman in a nice pantsuit. So, now when I forget to shave, I’m wearing dress pants and the Bishop will know that it’s my Sunday best :)

  13. 13.

    I’ve recently gone through phases of wearing the same skirt to church for months at a stretch. (When you’re working in nursery, practical considerations tend to overtake others.) But I’ve also enjoyed my little rebellion against the church of the catwalk. I sometimes take a perverse delight in dressing as plainly as possible for church.

  14. 14.

    P.S. I have long desired a reliquary, a gilded one, for my private worship. Of course, by the logic Kiskilili points out above (either you adorn your worship space or your female body), this would necessitate worshiping in the same skirt for the rest of my life. Oh, what a shame!

    Yep, I definitely need a gilded reliquary, now, so that I can be forever released from the unbearable obligation of gilding myself.

    (Evidently it’s long past my bedtime.)

  15. 15.

    I sometimes take a perverse delight in dressing as plainly as possible for church.

    LOL – I’ve done this, too. I used to have to dress up for work, so Sundays were my dress down days. Come to think of it, I attend Church almost every Sunday with my hair wet. I do manage to put on some lipstick or something in the car on the way, though.

  16. 16.

    The church of the catwalk is alive and well where I am, and I live outside of Provo. Some weeks it is full on haute couture Sunday. : ) I also think that it has largely to do with income. Those who have more tend to think that everyone should be as visually appealing as they are even without the means to reproduce such feminine, or masculine, jewels (and yes, I think some of the men are just as bad or worse than the women, so men you might want to watch out for the stink and burn as well).

  17. 17.

    Jess, I thought the exact same thing about the AZ church culture. And I agree — it depends on where you are.

    And Zenaidad, I (er, um, I mean “Stephen”) would very much like to see you scripturally justify that statement. Stink and burn in deed :)

  18. 18.

    ECS, if you turn on the heat or AC and blast it in your face, you can blow dry your hair with the fingers of one hand while you drive with the other hand. Not that I’ve ever done this, of course.

  19. 19.

    I think all of you are right that this is very bound up in issues of class.

    It stands to reason that even things like dress clothing generally are at root displays of wealth: even if they’re not ostentatiously or obviously expensive, they tend to inhibit movement in various ways. No doubt the point is to display the fact that you don’t need to move–you can afford clothes in which you simply sit still, clothes that are pristine, unwrinkled, and unscuffed. They’re a luxury in that they’re specifically non-utilitarian.

    A helpful byproduct of this is that they restrict ease of engaging in physical (thus, non-sabbath-appropriate) activities. (I once had a roommate who regularly wore a unitard under her dress to mitigate this problem.)

    But obviously various types of Sunday attire are nothing more than a convention, and hopefully not a reason to engage in the sort of class snobbery that the Church should seek to eradicate.

  20. 20.

    delurking, if I may:
    In my singles ward, it’s mostly the younger sisters (and some of the brothers, too, I’ll say) who go all out for Sunday (and all of the activities). It could be that the rest of us have just given up.

  21. 21.

    maybe i have a history of attending particularly frumpy wards.

  22. 22.

    A unitard . . .?

  23. 23.

    My husband tells me women dress up *a lot* more to go to church in the south, and from the few times I’ve attended church with his family, it’s pretty true. I would never dream of wearing truly formal attire to church, yet for Christmas Eve services, I would have been truly frumpy in anything less.

  24. 24.

    Most of the time, I dress up for church. I think its about showing respect for God and setting apart Sunday as a special day. Still, having to shimmy into hose isn’t especially fun.

    I love sparkly jewelry – the bigger and glitzier, the better. A couple of years ago, my grandmother divided her jewelry between her granddaughters. I mostly wear it to church.

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