This guest post is written by BDBeal. Yes, it’s a post about women’s dress written by a man . . .
All groups have their idiosyncrasies. Mormons are no different, although there are days when I suspect we have more than our fair share of quirks.
Today’s little bundle of weirdness: A cultural ban on women wearing pants to church. You have to love a church in which the sight of a woman wearing a pantsuit in 2011 is controversial.
I haven’t settled on an explanation for this, although my list of possibilities is short: a) a mindless slavishness to past dress standards (think the 1950s), b) an inability to either recognize the socially-defined nature of dress standards or to accept that social norms—including dress standards—evolve over time, c) a desire to keep uppity women from being able to sit in any other position but with their legs demurely crossed, or d) a desire to simply ignore everything around us and keep doing what everyone else in our tiny church bubble is doing (and avoid rocking the proverbial boat).
I suspect it’s a combination all four. Here are a few quick observations:
1) Society defines what kind of clothing should be worn to show reverence, respect and deference. The Mormon Church, contrary to the beliefs of some members, is not in charge of these standards. Sure, the church can dictate that its members wear purple polka-dotted underwear, but that’s not going to change societal norms. We’re only 2% of the population (and that’s counting all the folks that never show up). Hence, society has, in its infinite and mysterious wisdom, decreed that men shall, in formal settings, wears neck ties. I’m sure ties have a rich and glorious history—although I’m not familiar with it. It’s seems odd for me to tie what appears to be a large phallic symbol around my neck on Sunday morning to show reverence and respect, but what the hell, right? That’s what’s done.
2) Society—today’s society, not 1950—has defined what women should wear to show reverence and respect. Hint: It’s not a denim skirt and flip flops. It’s not a Laura Ashley floral print dress with an appropriately modest cut and sleeves. It includes. . . (and I’m whispering here) conservative pant suits and other similar attire. Here’s a handy link to a few pant suits on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/b?ie=UTF8&node=1045108. Before you pat me on the head and explain that the Church sets its own standards and we shouldn’t pay attention to what “the world” tells us, I’ll let you explain why there is such a convenient correlation between how men dress professionally “in the world” and how they dress at church. I notice that the dress norms that apply to men have evolved in lock stop with societal norms, so why hasn’t the same happened to women’s dress norms?
3) If you’re a woman and you don’t believe that social dress norms have evolved, go to your next job interview in a dress. Let me know how it goes.
4) If you’re a woman and a professional of ANY type (really, about ANY type), would you wear a dress to work?
5) Many women volunteer in the primary (where the chairs are pint-sized) or in the nursery (where they spend much of their time seated on the floor). I’ll bet you a pair of Super Bowl tickets that if you put all the men in the Church in skirts and sent them to the primary or the nursery for 10 minutes, the norms against women wearing pants would disappear before they could say “kilt.”
6) Can you show respect and reverence by wearing a dress? Sure. Can you show respect and reverence (and keep from flashing all the six-year-old boys in primary) by wearing conservative pantsuits? Absolutely. If you are a woman and you understand this, then why would you continue to restrict your attire to dresses only? Is it because you care more about what other people think than you should?
7) Much has been written in the academic literature on social norms about control freaks, OCD types, busybodies, mother hens, gossips, etc. Whatever the term, these are the folks that seem to take delight in communicating how “things are done” and then sanctioning those that don’t play along. These are the folks that seem to get their underwear in a wad every time someone deviates from the norm—regardless of how silly the norm may be. The people that were purported to play these roles always seemed like caricatures to me—and I didn’t really believe they existed. Surely people have better things to do with their lives than enforce mindless rules they can’t provide a reasonable explanation for enforcing? Nope. These folks are real. I meet more than one everyone Sunday morning at church. Do you really want to be one of these folks?
8) For those of you that are into mindless rule following, here’s a quote from the first presidency on the matter: “The Church has not attempted to indicate just how long women’s or girls’ dresses should be nor whether they should wear pant suits or other types of clothing. We have always counseled our members to be modest in their dress, maintaining such standards in connection therewith as would not be embarrassing to themselves and to their relatives, friends, and associates.”This quote is from a directive entitled “Dear Brethren” and dated April 12, 1971. It is taken from a book entitled “Statements of the LDS First Presidency: A Topical Compendium” by Gary James Bergera (with a foreword by Dale C LeCheminant). ISBN-13: 978-1-56085-195-0.
9) The church handbook does not prohibit pantsuits. A search on the church web site doesn’t return anything useful. ”For the Strength of Youth” doesn’t mention it. The norm makes no sense in terms of modesty (actually, the dictates of modesty tilt things in favor of pantsuits). The norms make no sense in terms of social norms (social norms dictate that conservative pant suits would be more appropriate, in many cases, than what many women wear). Unless we intend to dig a hole in the ground and live in it, sooner or later we’ve going to have move into the 21st century.
10) Aren’t adult women capable of choosing how to dress? Can we trust adult women with the task of deciding what constitutes modest dress that communicates reverence and respect and is appropriate for Sunday worship? We let women get driver’s licenses. We let them vote. Can we men in the church let them dress themselves?
Anyone else have any thoughts here?
P.S. My wife wears pantsuits to church.