Modesty, Garments, & Nudity within Mormonism – Part 1

This is an old post from the old blog, with some new editing, links and streamlining.


So what exactly is modesty? It’s really interesting, considering the increasing emphasis in the current church, that I wasn’t really able to find anything in the scriptures on the subject. A quick search of the scriptures led to a single use of the word modest, in 1 Timothy, Ch 2. Here, the use seems to fall in line with the traditional definition of modesty, which has nothing to do with dress per say. It’s about being humble. About avoiding what the Book of Mormon calls fine twined linens and costly apparel. About not being prideful.
Looking through the scriptures, I find lots of negative comments about clothing generally, and some neutral ones like admonitions not to worry about it. When it’s not mentioned negatively, any positive views are often talked about only in reference to clothing the naked. Here, it seems, it’s more about providing something to someone who is poor, no different than providing housing to the homeless.

After reading over at MormonMatters about the mormon nudists, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. I’ve also been scanning the bloggernacle for older posts having to do with modesty, nudity, and the garment. I have to say my thinking has undergone some interesting shifts over the last couple of weeks.

 So I guess one question that comes up is this: When did modesty start to mean dressing in a way to conceal certain body parts? (I seem to have found the answer: 1913. Charles Penrose is the first such use I can find in general conference) Why has the church focused so much energy on this issue which, seems to find so little scriptural support? The scriptures that are cited  promote the notion of clothing to conceal our bodies seem like they are being stretched a bit.
Fig Leaves in Eden
Most commonly, the reference to Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden is given as a reason we wear clothes. Upon eating of the fruit, they become aware of their nakedness. Actually, this is pointed out to them by Satan. (As referenced in the question from God, “who told thee that thou wast naked?”) God, finding them naked, doesn’t seem bothered by it in the least. Rather, he seems concerned as to how they came to this realization. They seem to have encountered shame for the first time, and that shame did not come from above. Satan is the one who tells them to hide, and to use the fig leaves.
God does, later, make clothing for them. However, this is not so they will be properly dressed to be in His presence, but rather to prepare them to be sent out into the world. At this point, we’re just talking about a man and his wife, so I still see no reason to believe that God had any moral reason for making them cover up. (Let me qualify that by saying that there was probably an important symbolic element in it… in that the clothes were made of skins, necessitating the animal sacrifice to produce them, symbolizing the atonement) Rather, the simplest reading to me is that a loving father, upon kicking his kids out of the house, gives them what they’ll need to keep warm outside.
Members frequently resort to bad logic, defining of terms and circular definitions to defend interpretations of modesty. For example:
Youth: Why are garments so long? (Long inseam, cap sleaves for the ladies)
Teacher: One of the purposes of the garment is to help us know how to dress modestly. It’s very important to dress modestly.
Youth: But what exactly are modest clothes?
Teacher: Clothes that cover the garment.
Youth: So… Being modest means wearing clothes that cover garments, and garments are there so we know how to dress modestly.
Teacher: Yup.
Youth: So, if garments were longer or shorter, modest clothes could be longer or shorter?
Teacher: Hmm…. that wouldn’t…. er…. happen?
The problem is that the garments were longer (and shorter, if my most recent purchases from the distribution center are typical of the current products). The garment changes. If modesty is a commandment, then how do you explain the changes to the garment, to accommodate changes in fashion (which would then change the definition of modesty)?
Sacred clothing has been around since the beginning, but garments as we know them have been around since the time of Joseph Smith. I’ll try and find the source, but I remember reading a quote from the First Presidency (way back when…. early 1900’s) saying that the garment had been revealed to Joseph, and that the pattern could not be altered, unless a specific revelation were received on the subject. Just a few years later, after doing a little history, they discovered that in fact Joseph didn’t receive a revelation designating the style of the garment, but rather it was designed by a group of women (going off of styles of underwear popular at the time) who showed it to him, which he then signed off on. Based on that new info, the (new) First Presidency introduced changes to the style of the garment: shortening the legs and arms, allowing buttons, getting rid of the collars, etc. Later (much) they again approved the switch to a two-piece garment, this time it was done quietly however, with no need to explain that such an action was permissible, since it was no longer the position of the church that the garment style was revealed from on high. (Despite the common “knowledge” that this is the case)
Another problem in church culture is the issue of enforcing: Garment-Covering=Modesty even on people who are not endowed. Teaching the youth (and even toddlers) that they are immodest if they are wearing something that wouldn’t cover garments is such a stretch to me CRAZY. I can’t find anything scriptural or reasonable to back that idea up!
Immodesty is about an attitude. It’s about seeking to make ourselves look better than others, to get more attention for ourselves. That can be done by dressing in a way that makes ourselves into sexual objects. It can also be done (the more frequent use in the scriptures) by simply the expense or style of the clothes that we chose to wear… having nothing at all to do with sexuality or degree of skin exposure. We are told of the wickedness of those that begin to wear “fine apparel.
This post is long enough. We’ll go into body shame vs. modesty, and even delve into public nudity and it’s relation to the gospel in Part 2.

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