Holy Underwear

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The Happy Feminist posted an entry about words and phrases she doesn't like, one of which is panties. I also hate that word, but I quit using it when I quit wearing conventional underwear and started wearing the temple garment, or Mormon sacred underwear.

This is a strange thing a lot of non-Mormons don't know anything about, and I've been accused of making this up. I swear to God, I am not. Anyway, below is the explanation of garments I provide in my book, which is forthcoming god-only-knows when. (Supposedly my agent has it at a couple of presses now.)

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Because of the Fall of Adam and Eve, I had to begin wearing special long white underwear known as the temple garment before I could go on a mission. The temple garment symbolizes the status of Adam and Eve before God after they ate of the Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Upon discovering their nakedness, Adam and Eve cover themselves with fig leaves, then hide from God when he visits the garden. When they finally come forward and confess, God first curses Adam and Eve, then replaces their flimsy fig leaf aprons with coats made from animal skins--which, as someone pointed out to me once, means that God had already introduced death into the garden, since he had the hides of dead animals to give Adam and Eve. It's those skins that the temple garment represent: a shield against primordial nakedness, a reminder of what can happen when you deceive or disobey God.

Garments are not to be discussed. They're underwear, they're a daily fact of life, but they're forbidden as a topic of conversation. It would be easier not to talk about them if they functioned better as underwear, but they're neither very practical nor comfortable. They also look funny: they have small geometric symbols embroidered at the navel, each breast, and the knee. They cover enough of you to limit the clothes you can wear over them. It's easier for men; their version has sleeves about like those of a t-shirt. But the women's version has short cap sleeves, which means you can't wear sleeveless shirts. Nor can you wear mini-skirts or low-cut blouses. The worst feature is that women's garments are made to fit a single body type: a woman with full but not huge breasts. I am not especially bosomy, and I never had a single pair of garments that fit me properly.

Anyone who has been in the Church for any length of time knows about garments: it's hard not to notice what your parents' underwear looks like when it comes out of the laundry. You develop an eye for certain details and often can tell when someone is wearing garments, which conveys instantly the fact that this person is a practicing Mormon in good-standing who has been through the temple. You get the garment just prior to a ceremony called the endowment, which Brigham Young, the second prophet of the Church, explained this way:

Your endowment is, to receive all those ordinances in the House of the Lord, which are necessary for you, after you have departed this life, to enable you to walk back to the presence of the Father, passing the angels who stand as sentinels, being enabled to give them the key words, the signs and tokens, pertaining to the Holy Priesthood, and gain your exaltation in spite of earth and hell. (Journal of Discourses 2:31 1853)

In other words, heaven is a very exclusive club, which God has guarded by a gauntlet of angels. And no matter how righteous you might have been as a mortal, you can't get in if you don't know all the passwords and the secret handshakes as revealed in the temple. It's because you get the garment in the temple that you aren't supposed to discuss it; the temple isn't discussed, the rhetoric goes, not because what happens there is "secret," but because it's too "sacred" to be the topic of small-talk. You come to understand the meaning of the temple garment and endowment more by absorption than by instruction.

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If you want to read more about the temple garment and what it represents, I recommend the chapter, "Mormon Garments: Sacred Clothing and the Body," (198-221) in Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995) by Colleen McDannell. A passage from it:

To wear garments is to assent to the "secrets" of the ancestors and elders. By placing a cloth over the most intimate parts of the body and embroidering on it sacred signs, Mormons acknowledge the claim that their religion has over them. At the same time, they interpret the limits and meanings of that claim. That reflection brings tensions and ambiguities that are never easily resolved.

McDannell also points out that "Mormons who decide to stop wearing garments make a strong statement to themselves, their family, and their community. Mormons may challenge doctrine, drink a beer or two, or stop going to services but when they stop wearing garments those around them know they have left the faith."

Which was true in my case: it was the symbolic act by which I told my family I was leaving the church.

It was really hard.

4 Comments

Garments definitely serve a powerful social function. It's the discreet yarmulke of Mormonism. Despite my lack of belief, I think that I can still call myself a practicing Mormon in part because I wear garments. It's these practice elements that make me feel that some aspects of Mormon community can transcend uniform beliefs and other forms of like-mindedness.

The McDannell book looks like a great read--I'm ordering it from Amazon. Thanks!

The McDannell book really is great. She's smart and curious and asks good questions, so all her work is insightful and informative. She's not a Mormon, so her take on things like garments is really interesting.

Re: garments in relationship to status in the church--I should mention that I recently learned of a gay man who is no longer a practicing Mormon but still wears garments, because those are the underwear he's used to. I find it extremely weird: as underwear goes, they're pretty lousy, and it's such a signal of loyalty and support of the church's mission, which is avowedly homophobic.

The idea of wearing next to my skin a garment prescribed by such a patriarchal institution literally makes my skin crawl.

I should also mention that my father loves to talk about the fact that when he first started wearing garments, you could buy them at any JC Penney's throughout the intermountain west, and the most popular brand was known as Lady Gay.

Now you have to buy garments at something called the "distribution center." It used to be that you had to flash a temple recommend to get them, but now apparently they use your membership ID number or some such thing, and if you are in the system, you can always buy them, which is how this gay man manages to buy underwear that he is, technically, no longer "worthy" to wear.

I just happened to stop in and was thrilled to read this post about the temple garment. I was very curious about it when you mentioned it because I had absolutely never heard of it before. Then shortly after you mentioned it I was checking out dooce.com by ex-Mormon Heather Armstrong and SHE made a passing reference to the temple garment too!

I found a calendar with 50s ads in it. The men's underwear in one spread looked exactly like the current garments. I'm still beating myself for not buying that when I had the chance.

I don't think the membership ID is used when you buy them in person. It's been a while, but I don't think I flashed anything, and I remember thinking, "Wow, seems like anyone could buy these." Maybe controls will get tighter when they start showing up on a Milan catwalk...

It's interesting how different people view the same religious symbol. With my on-again, off-again angst concerning the LDS Church, garments don't bother me much. At the moment, they're are primarily a symbol of my marriage to Jana, because of the value she places on them. At one time, I connected them more to my Church commitment. As far as being a public sign of my membership--in the winter I usually hide my white top under a black or brown t-shirt.

The difference in how we perceive this funky underwear is kind of like how the swastika is perceived by different groups--most Westerners view it as a horrific anti-Semitic symbol, but in Japan it's considered auspicious and used to mark Buddhist temples on street maps. Both perceptions are valid, depending on the perspective and context.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on January 27, 2006 12:16 AM.

Church Condemns Homophobia on National Coming Out Day was the previous entry in this blog.

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