Garments essentially serve two roles in the LDS community. The first, which I'll call their explicit role, is as a personal reminder of covenants made in the temple. This is how garments are almost universally described in official talks and publications: they are outward but hidden. Sometimes garments are tied to modesty, with the assumption that they will be entirely covered and thus encourage proper, normative modes of dress. But I'd venture that most Mormons would agree that their primary purpose is to daily reinforce a personal covenant relationship with God.
|Hey, hey. Let's cover those thighs, White Adam.|
Many members find deep spiritual significance in wearing garments, going so far, in some cases, as not letting them touch the floor. I confess: that's not me. I admire the performative symbolism of literally clothing oneself with a representation of one's covenants, but--and maybe this is just a personal failing--I struggle to ascribe any particular spiritual significance to my underwear unless they've just come out of the dryer (mmm, warm).
Nevertheless, I respect that wearing garments can be a source of spiritual inspiration for some. But my criticism today is not directed at the explicit role of garments, but at their secondary, implicit role: as outward, public signifiers of orthopraxy.
The crux of the matter is this: garments are generally pretty easy to spot if you've been Mormon for a while. From telltale fabric creases to bits of white peeking out of shorts and t-shirts, endowed Mormons can usually pick one another out without too much trouble (this is especially the case for women, but that's for another post). Because of this and the general Mormon emphasis on appearance, garments function as much more than personal reminders of sacred covenants. They are visible markers of belonging to a broader community, often packaged with assumptions about shared beliefs or values.
|For this particular group, that shared value would be "Reach for the sun!"|
What exactly this means depends on the circumstances and people you're around. The implicit function of garments is inescapably social yet rarely discussed, and there is no single Mormon protocol for addressing whether someone is or is not wearing them besides formal interviews (the propriety of which is also an issue for another post). But the visibility of garments means that not wearing them can become a matter of gossip or discussion for family, friends, and even local church leadership. You also hear apocryphal stories of Mormons on dates looking or feeling for garment crease lines underneath the jeans, and similar "righteousness" policing. All that strikes me as a massive breach of privacy and dignity. The result is that matters of personal faith are reduced to cotton-polyester and carinessa. Underwear becomes shorthand for righteousness. Those who choose not to wear them but still wish to participate in their religious community know their underwear choices will likely be noticed.
That isn't to say that Mormons are always going around checking underclothes and judging each other. Most probably don't particularly care or even notice most of the time. My argument is more personal and selfish: I don't want to know if someone is or isn't wearing garments. It's ultimately not a matter of judging anyone; it's just not my business. Noticing, for example, that someone who once wore garments no longer does provides me with information about their personal faith journey that it's not my place to know unless that person has confided in me personally. Even if someone is wearing garments I'd still rather not know. That's between them and God. For the skeptic who's convinced this is just an elaborate argument to justify my not wearing them myself: yes, I'd also rather nobody know what underwear I'm wearing (although frankly, at this point garments are just what I own, and for men they're basically just t-shirts and unfashionably long boxer-briefs, so I'll manage). But really, let our actions demonstrate our commitment (or lack thereof) to our covenants, not our all-too-visible underwear.
I still think it's strange that I wrote a whole post about underwear, but again, if you're Mormon this is just one of the things you put up with every day. It shouldn't be this way. Garments are not yarmulkes. They are not cross necklaces. They should not be outward manifestations of anything to anyone but the people wearing them. People who wear them should do so freely, comfortably, and with as much privacy as is reasonable. People who do not, for whatever reason, should be able to do likewise. I don't have any particular solutions in mind; that's above my pay grade. But if you're Mormon, I shouldn't be able to tell what underwear you're wearing. It's just weird, isn't it?