In Utah, Fashion and Religion Collide

Carole Jeffs and family in Utah
Carole Jeffs and family in Utah | Courtesy of Carole Jeffs
As images of some of the world’s most famous people decked out in religious-inspired garb at the fashion extravaganza that is the Met Gala flooded social media, the general public became part of a discussion oft left to designers and fashion intellectuals surrounding the tension of divine dressing in a secular world. But what about those who don’t inhabit a secular world?
Greta Gerwig in The Row's gown at The Mark's after-party for the Met Gala, 2018. This year's theme was 'Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,' but this looks bears a striking resemblance to an LDS prairie dress © Neil Rasmus / BFA

In Utah, a large Mormon community aligns its dress with its strict Christian beliefs. For Carole Jeffs, a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), growing up in this community meant dressing in traditional clothing and fighting feelings of shame when she didn’t conform. Having now left the FLDS, this single mother of eight weighs in on what it was like to dress for God and what she misses about it now that she buys clothing off the rack.

Jeffs, who was born and raised in Hildale, Utah, describes her childhood in the FLDS as idyllic. “I had a loving, close-knit family,” she says. At the local elementary school, she describes a low-key dress code “where everyone generally dressed modestly.” This meant girls wore skirts or dresses below the knee and sleeves to the elbows and wore long pants or jeans and long-sleeve shirts. Nothing extreme. After receiving her high school diploma from a correspondence course, Jeffs and her sisters worked out of town in construction and cleaning. In turn, they dressed in jeans and long-sleeve shirts. “This was not the norm for the community,” she says. “Most women did not wear ‘men’s clothing’ like we did.”

Although Salt Lake County is home to the headquarters of the FLDS, Utah is considered one of America’s best states for adventure travel. Boasting five national parks, world-class skiing, mountain climbing, hiking, stargazing, as well as sites to explore dinosaur fossils and ancient Najavo and Ute ruins, Utah offers some of the most stunning natural wonders. It’s the only U.S. state where every county is populated by a national forest and landmarks include sandstone arches, canyons and salt flats (used for land speed racing).

And although the state is the most religiously homogeneous in the country with 62.8 percent identifying as Mormon, according to 2016 Census data as reported in a Salt Lake Tribune article, these numbers aren’t so unusual within a greater American context. In fact, an article in The Washington Post points out that Catholicism and Protestantism are more prevalent per state, with Catholicism being the dominant religion in 17 states and Protestantism the most dominant religion in 15 states.

After Utah, Rhode Island leads the U.S. as the most religiously homogeneous state, with 44 percent identifying as Catholic; next comes Tennessee, with 43 percent identifying as Protestant. Iowa and North Dakota are also marked by a high density of Protestants. These stats shed light on the fact that religious homogeny is not limited to the state of Utah and is actually more characteristic of America’s settlement history. In other words, you might know Utah for Mormons, but there are plenty of non-Mormons who enjoy the community. In fact, this the subject of a 2011 memoir written by Chrisy Ross, called To Mormons, With Love: A Little Something From the New Girl in Utah.

It’s also worth noting the aforementioned Salt Lake Tribune article points out that percentages of Mormons in Utah were much higher in the past and indicates that the concentration of Mormons in Utah is on the decline.

According to the American Religious Identification Survey 2008, the period from 1990 to 2008 marked an increase in Mormon population. These statistics fall in line with Jeffs’ story, as in the ’90s, Jeffs’ life took a drastic change. When Jeffs was almost 21, her parents arranged a marriage to “one of our Prophet’s sons. I was his first wife.” Her husband’s family, who lived in Salt Lake Valley, was much more restricted in comparison to how Jeffs was raised.

Jeffs recounts her experience upon moving to Salt Lake as a drastic culture shock. “I was seen as wild or wicked by many. I changed my clothing to fit in with his family a little more. My sister-in-law helped me make dresses with longer sleeves and lower hemlines.” For the first time in her life, Jeffs was given Mormon undergarments, known outside the community as “magic Mormon underwear.”

These undergarments, also called temple garments, resemble a white T-shirt and shorts and are supposed to be worn to show an unflinching commitment to God. The FLDS Church’s handbook states, as noted by the Los Angeles Times, that temple garments also “provide protection against temptation and evil.”

Jeff says, “Most of husband’s family wore long underwear covering their bodies from neck to wrist to ankle. I did not do that until we were told by the leaders of the church that it was mandatory, when I was pregnant with my third child.” Although these garments were physically uncomfortable, especially because Jeffs was pregnant, she “felt like I brought shame to my husband if did not conform to the family’s way of dressing.”

Soon thereafter, she began dressing her little girls in the undergarments as well. “My husband and I lived in an area where his older brothers were our neighbors, so there was peer pressure from their wives to conform to the dress code, which I did most of the time. I did have a cleaning business and would wear jeans and a long shirt when I went to work but it was definitely frowned upon and embarrassed my children when their cousins would see me dressing like a ‘gentile. ’”

This created a dilemma for Jeffs. On the one hand, FLDS Church leaders “suggested more and more restrictions on the women’s clothing,” but didn’t outright decree these regulations, like in other religious communities where religious dress, especially for women, was not up for debate. Still, she says, “the peer pressure is there. You want to fit in, you want to be considered a good person and that’s how a lot of people measured [that], by how much you conformed.”

Because of other “suggestions,” like a restriction on big prints and stripes, as well as an affinity for collared shirts and long, tea-length dresses, Jeffs ended up having to sew most of the clothing for herself and her daughters. “The lengths went longer until most ladies wore tea-length dresses. We wore leggings or heavy skaters’ tights to cover our long underwear. Near the end of my time in the community, they were restricting us on things such as darts on the busts of dresses because they enhanced or drew attention to the shape of a woman. Even decorative stitching on clothing became taboo.”

Jeffs admits that “custom-made clothing can fit very nicely and be very comfortable.” In fact, now that she no longer is an FLDS member, she misses her custom-made attire. “I have yet to find clothing off the rack that fits as nicely or feels as comfortable,” she says.

Additionally, although the variety of styles was restricting, Jeffs notes that how she dressed rarely stopped her from doing activities she enjoyed, or limited her ability to move freely in life. In fact, her dress code gave her an added sense of purpose, connection, and enlightenment. “It was a constant reminder that we are different, but it was also a connection with our community. How we dressed did reinforce our sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves,” she says.

Dressing for God, or more aptly, the FLDS community, in a secular world also helped Jeffs build strength of character. “We did get stared at and sometimes treated poorly outside our community,” she says. “But we had been taught that God’s people have trials they have to go through and this was one of them. It served as a constant reminder that we definitely were not part of the outside world.”

These days, Jeffs still lives in Utah, but is divorced and no longer a member of the FLDS. As a single mother of eight in her late 40s, entering the dating world for the first time, the wide variety of clothing available is a trip. Jeffs, who works as a commercial photographer, has developed her own aesthetic.

Like many people who have left or been expelled from the FLDS, Jeffs says her relationship with clothing has been a journey. “At first I was determined that being outside the community wasn’t going to change me, so I continued to wear prairie dresses. Then I started wearing jeans and long shirts and kept my body covered. Then I quit wearing the long underwear and started wearing skirts with no tights or leggings, then shorter shirts, then T-shirts, shorts and tank tops.” Perhaps, the American trope of blue jeans as a gateway to unbridled fantasy is indeed true.

Now single and dating, Jeffs is navigating the world of dressing for the occasion, and enjoying it. She says, “If I’m going out to a club I’ll squeeze into that short mini dress, or wear shorts or a bikini at the lake, but generally I dress casual-professional or wear jeans or shorts and a T-shirt.” She calls her relationship with clothing “fun.” “I enjoy shopping and trying things that are more trendy or stylish. As a single mom in my late 40s, just entering the dating scene for the first time in my life, I’m learning to push myself in many ways, clothing included. It’s definitely been more comfortable being able to fit in with a crowd when we are in public.”

Still, there’s a part of her that enjoys being looked at for her style of dress. “At 5’10” I love to wear high heels, so I still stand out just a bit.”