Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Uniform of Babylon

Let’s take a break from more serious topics and have some fun today with the Church’s dress code. Oh, where to start? How about the 1970s? That should provide a little culture shock for those of you who have known only the suit-and-tie corporate Church of recent years.
I was ordained a priest in the Aaronic Priesthood in 1972. The first photograph here is of me during my senior year in high school wearing one of my favorite Sunday outfits. That’s a nice brushed denim jacket with a red turtleneck. Too bad you can’t see the pants that completed the ensemble. You’ll just have to imagine a pair of very white bell-bottoms. Cuffed bell-bottoms, no less, that were wide enough to swallow a pair of Sunday shoes whole and leave no trace. Very patriotic, I might add.
In case you were wondering, yes, I did indeed bless the sacrament in that outfit. And no one batted an eye. Remember, this was the ’70s, which Time magazine dubbed “the decade taste forgot.” I’m pretty sure, though, that the writer was referring to boxy functional architecture, wood paneling, orange shag carpet, and lime-green furniture and not my Sunday-go-to-meeting duds. Still, if one of the priests in a typical ward today wore a getup like that, I really can’t imagine what would happen. It’s just unthinkable in today’s Church. I’m not sure how many of the ward members would partake. They might think the ordinance was somehow invalid if not performed by someone wearing at least a white shirt and tie, if not a full suit.
The other Sunday outfit I remember included the same brushed denim jacket, a nice tan pullover shirt, a pair of navy and tan plaid bell-bottoms, and a pair of really nice navy and tan oxford shoes. Sweet. Too bad I don’t have a photo.
Moving on to Exhibit B . . . when it came time for seminary graduation, my parents thought I needed something a little more “churchy,” so they bought me this nice plaid sport coat and some brown slacks. Somehow they even got me to wear a white shirt and tie. When I had to have a photo taken for my mission application the next spring, I was away at college and hadn’t had time to shop for missionary suits, so this is the photo I sent in. I know, I know—I looked like I was sixteen, but trust me, I was really nineteen, and now, forty years later, the youthful looks are paying a few dividends.
Most of the missionaries in my mission had the good sense to have their mission picture taken in a suit (maybe they borrowed one from Dad), so on the big mission transfer board, I was pretty easy to find. This may also explain some of the assignments and companions I ended up with.
In all fairness, though, the elders in my mission weren’t like the group of young LDS proselytizers I ran into last year at Burger King in Orem. These missionaries of the new millennium were all decked out in black suits. All six of them. They looked like they were going to an undertakers’ convention. In my mission in the mid-’70s, by contrast, I remember a beige suit, a forest-green corduroy suit (yes, that was you, Rick), a royal blue suit, and even a suit that was some shade of yellow I can’t describe in polite company. When my second mission president arrived, halfway through my two-year stint, he took one look at us, shook his head, and laid down the law. The Germans were a formal people, he said, and we had to dress the part if we wanted to earn their respect. So out with the beiges and forest greens and off-yellows, and in with the blacks, grays, and navies. We looked downright professional, especially after he made us dump our crumpled American shirts and replace them with crisp new Seidenstickers, a German brand that featured eternally starched cuffs and collars.
In his delightful mission memoir Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled but Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary, Craig Harline tells about the president of the Salt Lake Mission Home, who boomed at this new crop of inductees, “What we want is for you to look like the local businessmen.” The only problem with this advice was that when Harline arrived in Belgium the same summer I arrived in Germany, he discovered that the local businessmen didn’t dress at all like Mormon missionaries. This was Europe, after all, not Chicago. Instead, the missionaries looked a lot like CIA agents. Go figure.
Now fast forward about twenty-five years. It’s somewhere around the turn of the millennium, and I am employed at Church magazines. I am wearing charcoal slacks, black shoes, a white shirt, and a bland tie, standard Church Office Building attire. My hair is just starting to turn grey. I pass one of our designers in the hallway. She stops and looks at me in a scrutinizing way and says, “You look like a photocopy.” That was in some ways the low point of my seven and a half years at the COB.
Now, if you’ve been paying attention over the past several months, you’ll know that I’m not the corporate type. In fact, when I taught operations management at the Marriott School in the ’80s and early ’90s, when most faculty members were still wearing business suits or at least white shirts and ties, I made it a point to wear colorful shirts and ties. And today, since fleeing the Church Office Building nine years ago and winding up at BYU Studies, I’m back to wearing colorful attire, sometimes rather bright colors, in fact.
So where am I going with this? Well, have you ever wondered when the Church adopted the business suit? The better question, I suppose, is why? I mean, I’m not the first person to refer to the business world as “Babylon.” But why, of all the various options available, would the Church choose the uniform of Babylon as the foundation of its dress code? Maybe we ought to think about this a bit.
As I’ve put it before, “Did the Savior and the early Apostles mimic the powerful men of their day in dress and grooming?” Can we assume that Peter the fisherman or Matthew the tax collector went about dressed like either the Pharisees or the Roman centurians? I don’t imagine so. The Savior actually went to great lengths to criticize and even alienate those who held the power and purse strings in his society. His ministry was to the poor and lame and hungry and humble. Nowhere do we read that he made any effort to fit in with the rich and powerful.
So why do we?
I’m not suggesting that we adopt elaborate robes such as Catholic bishops wear or revert to brushed denim, turtlenecks, and bell-bottoms, but can’t we tone down the corporate look just a bit? Nowhere is it carved in stone that Mormon males have to dress like Wall Street bankers. I’m old enough to remember President McKay and his striking white suits. Maybe he was fighting a losing battle, but I think he may have been trying to make a statement of sorts. Whatever the case, he had a bit of flair, and as far as I know he was never struck by lightning. I feel lucky to be in a ward where the bishop wears sport coats and oddly-cut Asian suits. During the whole month of December, he wears a bright red sport coat. So, since when does the business suit equal righteousness or spirituality or any of the traditional Christian virtues?
In case you haven’t noticed, we have a bit of a double standard in the Church when it comes to “appropriate” attire. I love watching the guest choirs that sing in some sessions of general conference. Invariably, the left half of the choir is as colorful as Vancouver Island’s Butchart Gardens. The right half looks like the aforementioned convention of morticians. The contrast is so stark, it’s almost comical. It is definitely cultural. American twentieth-century cultural. And we’re now exporting it all over the world, so that Nigerian and Mongolian and Japanese and Finnish Mormon men all look like American corporate executives.
Where did this all start? I’m not sure, but I found a picture that may give us a clue. It’s one of my favorite photos from Church history. It was taken on May 6, 1922, at a photoshoot celebrating the first radio broadcast of Salt Lake station KZN (K-Zion?), which was later renamed KSL. 
President Heber J. Grant is holding the microphone and, for some reason, a book. Maybe he’s reading something to the ten listeners who own radios in Salt Lake City. He is wearing the obligatory business suit and is surrounded by several men—other General Authorities and KZN executives, I presume—also in business suits. A woman is standing next to President Grant (someone’s wife?), clad according to a different dress code. And next to her is Elder George Albert Smith, who succeeds President Grant twenty-three years and fifteen days after this photo was taken. I’m not sure what Smith is wearing. He looks like maybe he’s just come back from duck hunting. He’s sporting a nonwhite shirt, buttoned at the neck, but no tie. Some sort of jacket, probably not business attire. And some sort of trousers that are short enough to reveal his knee-high boots. Elder Smith looks like he’s caught in a time warp. Maybe he is. Maybe in 1922 the business suit hadn’t quite yet conquered the Church.
But why the business suit? Why not some other sort of outfit? Because it’s respectable? Perhaps. The Church was certainly looking for as much respect as it could attract, both then and now. But I think there’s another reason. The business suit, in business, is a symbol of power and position. Executives wear business suits. Ordinary workers wear, well, other stuff. It may be the goofy uniform of a fast-food server or just the “business casual” that prevails today in many workplaces. In the corporate side of the Church, this division between those with power and those without it is spelled out in specifics. As an ordinary, nonmanagerial editor, I had to wear slacks and a shirt and tie, but I could get away with a light gray or light blue shirt now and then. I kept a sport coat hanging behind my door in case I had to meet with somebody important. But managers were required to wear suits. Why the different dress codes? Hint: it has something to do with authority.
And speaking of authority, at some point between the flamboyant 1970s and today, somebody got the idea that anyone with authority (translation: priesthood) needs to dress like someone with real corporate authority, and so we now have miniature corporate executives blessing and passing the sacrament in our wards. No more patriotic colors, unless you’re my bishop. Most members probably think this is a good thing. But even if we wanted to be more tasteful than the ’70s, couldn’t we find something, anything, besides the business suit? How about business casual?
A few months ago I was channel surfing and found the movie Heaven Is For Real. In the movie, Greg Kinnear plays Wesleyan Pastor Todd Burpo, whose son has had a near-death experience and seen heaven. In the course of the story, Burpo is shown preaching to his congregation one Sunday. He is dressed in jeans, a shirt that looked like maybe light blue denim, and no tie. Yes, I know this is Hollywood. But it’s a Christian film, and so I assume Burpo’s pastoral attire didn’t offend the sensibilities of the film’s intended audience. But it caught me totally off guard. I couldn’t help thinking what would happen, even in my ward, if the bishop dressed like that one Sunday. It would probably go over like a lead balloon. But why? When Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, do we assume he was gussied up like a member of the Sanhedrin? Of course we don’t know, but I just assume he dressed like, well, a stone mason. (No, he wasn’t a carpenter, and neither was his surrogate father, Joseph, but if you want that story, google Jeff Chadwick’s ebook Stone Manger.) I also assume Peter dressed like a fisherman. And the people who listened to Jesus were probably dressed in their everyday attire, whatever that might have been. Nowhere in the scriptures, to my knowledge, is there one word about dressing up fancy so we can sit in meetings.


  1. I'm two years older than you. Not only did I dress like you did as I blessed the sacrament but my counselor in the bishopric father also wore colored, patterned shirts and vibrant sports coats as he conducted sacrament meeting.

    I'm the executive secretary in my ward and last Sunday I noticed the power/authority functions of the clothes being worn in our bishopric meeting. I had a blued chambray shirt and no coat, the ward clerk had a white and blue vertical striped shirt and no coat. The bishop and his counselors all had plain white shirts and dark, monochrome suits.

  2. I remember when Harold B Lee was President. He had a liking for UK store, Marks & Spencer, shirts. Our Stake President would buy some for him and take them over when he attended General Conference. They were not bright colours, but cream, pale yellow, pale green and pale blue. I don't know why today, if we do not wear the shirt and collar of the episcopalian minister, why do we wear the suit? Although Billy Graham always wore a business suit didn't he. Maybe it's considered to be the uniform of the preacher. And I must confess if I was at General conference I would not like to see the general authorities in jeans and polo shirts.

  3. No, I'm not talking about jeans and polo shirts in general conference, but just compare the Brethren with the Sistren who sit on the stand. They get to wear colorful outfits.

  4. Totally agree with the article. I've been wearing shorts to church for the past few years, all of which time I was the clerk. And I passed the sacrament at least once a month or so. But, I am in a small non-US branch. When I'm on vacation in the US I have the same outfit and no one seems to care. Not sure if they take me serious, though....