Americana: Utah

Latter Day Dress
October 11, 2011 to October 24, 2011

As a region first settled in 1850 in the hope that it would become the new holy land , Utah’s heritage is far from secular. The initial goal of Brigham Young, founder of the Church of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) was to establish a Mormon community free from the confines of contemporary society, a concept in line with deeply rooted Republican and nationalistic ideals about personal freedom and liberty. However, the fervent anti-individualism and communal economics of the initial state of Deseret run contrary to the patriotic ideologies of the United States. A definitive part of this anti-individualist stance are the garments adopted by members of the community. Dress or fashion, a phenomenon inextricably linked to ideas of the feminine, are profoundly significant within LDS Utahn social structure, in which women adopt highly traditional roles, such as mother, wife, seamstress, quilt-maker and/or homemaker. It is through the trope of dress and its relationship to women, that the fanaticisms of LDS communities in Utah evoke a culture that is resolutely anti-modern.

Positioning themselves against and isolated almost entirely from modern society, Mormons adhere strictly to their holy book, Doctrines and Covenants which outlines law on diet, hygiene, relationships, everyday life and the requirements of clothing and dress. As one of the most visible cultural indicators, dress and clothing (particularly in more fundamental religious groups) is an ideological tool in which the body becomes a site to be controlled. All of the major monotheistic religions—Christianity, Islamism and Judaism—suggest correct attire in their own religious laws but the more fundamental or fanatic followers of doctrine adhere strictly to certain dress as a path towards devoutness. This is no less the case in the Utahn Mormon example, as clothing from birth to death is inextricably tied to the individual’s salvation, redemption, resurrection and their everyday earthly existence . It is viewed as godlier to dress modestly, with designated garments assigned for all activities of everyday life: pure white temple garments, traditional austere pastel day-dresses designated by color for each family cell, sacred underwear and posthumous funeral garb.

The concept behind the display, therefore, reflects these traditional roles which women take in Mormon society, encapsulated by the role of the dressmaker and patternmaker. Each iteration of Mormon dress since the mid 19th century has been deconstructed into its pattern pieces, and overlaid onto each other showing the subtle changes in the garment. What is interesting is that the more modern iteration (the shorter hem and pantaloons underneath) was the first garment adopted by LDS women in the 1850s. The use of dressmaking patterns not only holds a literal relationship to the garments worn by women in these communities, but discloses the garment’s deconstructed state; symbolically revealing and concealing what is fundamentally a ‘stitched-up’ culture. Using Mormon dress as a metaphor, it is hoped that a critical dialogue in relation to Mormonism in Utah will be opened that respectively connects to wider discussions, surrounding the growing fundamentalism of Christianity in American society and politics.

Peta Rake

Special thanks to Hemmie Lindholm.

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