Some history of Mormon underwear

By: J. Stapley - January 05, 2007

With the political prominence of several Mormons, some media outlets have focused critically on Mormon beliefs and practices. Included among these reports have been some write-ups on the underwear worn by many faithful Latter-day saints, which we call “garments,” “temple garments,” or more formally the “garment of the holy priesthood.” Perhaps out of ignorance or malice, these sacred vestments have been treated by the media in a manner that is offensive to most Mormons. Notably, images of individuals posing in the clothing have been distributed. Though such incidents have occurred since the 19th century, such explicit treatment of the sacred is, not surprisingly, disturbing to faithful Latter-day Saints.

Mormons do not have a professional priesthood. Instead, as outlined in a 1997 article from the official organ of the Church entitled, The Temple Garment: “An Outward Expression of an Inward Commitment,” each member may, by the rituals in the Temple, make the commitments of service and fidelity that result in lay governance. Part of the ritual includes the authorization to wear garments as a private symbol of the commitments. For more information on the garment, see the Temple Preparation FAQs and bibliography at Mormon Monastery.

Garments are currently manufactured by the Mormon Church and distributed to those members that live according to the tenets of their faith and that have participated at the Temple. Historically, acceptable patterns were distributed to members who would then fashion them from available materials. Currently, authorized garments come in a variety of fabrics and patterns. Generally, they are similar to underwear that extends to the knee and t-shirts.

The patterns have gone through two major changes since 1842, when they were first introduced. At that time they were designed after the fashion of the underwear of the period, reaching the ankles and the wrists. The patterns were updated in 1923 and 1979.

Settled next to an account of the baseball game between the Brigham Peaches and the Provo Timps (incidentally, the Timps won), the 8 June, 1923 edition of The Box Elder News (now the Box Elder News Journal) carried a story entitled “Style of Garments Changed” that is a wonderful historical vignette:

Coming not as an order, nor as a rule to be rigidly enforced, but rather permissive in character, is a recent outgiving of the first presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It concerns the garments worn by members of the church, who have been married in the temple, or who have participated in other ceremonies performed or rites observed therein.

While minor modifications of the temple garment, it is said, have been made at various times during the past years, the latest order in permission is regarded by younger members of the church as most liberal and acceptable. Among the older membership the optional change is variously received. Some of the pioneer stock look upon any deviation from the older order as a departure from what they had always regarded as an inviolable rule. Others of long standing in the church accept the change as a progressive move intended to add to personal comfort.

In the old days the temple garment was made of plain, unbleached cotton cloth. Unbleached linen was as far afield in “finery” as the devotee was permitted to go. No buttons were used on the garment. Tape tie-strings took their place. The garment itself was uncomfortably large and baggy, but despite these imperfections, the old style garment is faithfully adhered to by many of the older and sincerely devout members of the church. These regard the garment as a safeguard against disease and bodily harm, and they believe that to alter either the texture of cloth or style or to abandon the garment altogether would bring evil upon them.

One good woman of long membership in the church, hearing of the change that has recently come about, went to the church offices and uttered fervid objection. “I shall not alter my garments even if President Grant has ordered me to do so. My garments now are made as they were when I was married in the endowment house, long before the temple was built. The pattern was revealed to the prophet Joseph and Brother Grant has no right to change it,” she said.

Explanation was made that the first presidency had merely issued permission to those who so desired to make the modifying change; that any member of the church who preferred to adhere to the original style was at perfect liberty to do so.

President Charles W. Penrose says that modification of the garment is elective with each individual member of the church who has gone through the temple. The change in style is permitted for various good reasons, chief among which are promotion of freedom of movement in the body and cleanliness. Formerly the sleeves were long, reaching to the wrists. While doing housework the women would roll up the sleeves. If sleeves were to be rolled up, they might as well be made short in the first place for convenience, it was argued. Permission to abbreviate is now given, but it is not an order and is not compulsory, it is explained.

Encasing the lower limbs, the old-style garment reaches to the ankles and is looked upon by young members as baggy, uncomfortable, and ungainly. The young of the gentler sex complained that to wear the old style with the new and finer hosiery gave the limbs a knotty appearance. It was embarrassing in view of the generally accepted sanitary shorter skirt. Permission is therefore granted by the first presidency to shorten the lower garment. Also buttons are permitted to take the place of the tie-strings.

Younger men of the church, especially those who take exercise or play games at gymnasiums, favor the short and progressive one. Altogether, and except in a few instances, the permissive modification is welcomed as a sanitary move and a change looking to the comfort and health of those who wear temple garments.

Instead of the old style, coarse, unbleached, irritating material of which temple garments were once made, the finer knitted goods, and even silks, are now used. These materials and modified styles are officially approved, but such alterations are optional with each individual, and by no means compulsory, church officials desire it understood. -Tribune.

The changes in 1979 updated the garments to be two-piece; that is, a T-shirt and underwear as apposed to one piece under-garment. Faithful Mormons are quick to defend that which they hold sacred. Garments are very personal and viewed as holy vestments. As more Mormons gain the public sphere, it is the hope of every Latter-day Saint that their sensitivities be respected.

Due to the sensitive nature of the topic, this post may or may not remain open for comment


  1. On New Year’s Eve I saw a little pit of Matisyahu, the Orthodox rap artist, who was performing at the House of Blues here in Chicago. His tallit with its four tassles (tzitzit) was clearly visible. The Mormon garment is functionally much like a tallit worn under the clothes.

    Thanks for this, J. I’m sure I’ll have occasion to point interested questioners here over the next couple of years.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — 1/5/2007 @ 5:13 pm

  2. Oops, that should be “a little bit of Matisyahu,” whom I saw on TV, not in person.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — 1/5/2007 @ 5:14 pm

  3. What a great read! It is interesting to see the relationship that people develop with the actual garment vs. the general concept of the garment. I hesitate to call it a form of idol-worship because I think, ultimately the intentions of the orthodoxists (real word?) are good – but it is unfortunate when such an ideology leads to contending against the words of the current prophet.

    Thanks for the lesson J.

    Comment by Ryan — 1/5/2007 @ 5:18 pm

  4. I’ve often compared the garments to the Jewish Phylactery, as both have a similar purpose (a constant reminder of the covenants we have made with God).

    Comment by Capt. Obsidian — 1/6/2007 @ 12:01 am

  5. Every religion has some sort of clothing that they wear as a reminder of thier commitment to God. Similarly, puting on the garment represents putting on Christ and applying Christ atonement. This is a great reminder each morning .

    Also, the advantage of being under the clothing is to promote modesty in dress and behavior even better than something worn on the outside which would tend to attract attention. We should only attract the attention of others though our Christ-like example, not the clothes we wear or don’t wear.

    Comment by BRoz — 1/6/2007 @ 1:01 am

  6. I have read where the Mormon garments are a remnant from Joseph Smith’s introduction of polygamy – that the garments were signs of those who practiced the “principle”. Is this true?

    Comment by Timothy — 1/6/2007 @ 2:10 am

  7. Wonderful vignette, J, and a sensible statement by you on our garment practice.

    Comment by Ronan — 1/6/2007 @ 8:44 am

  8. I thought the Washington Post article “Unmentionable No Longer” was an amusing account of a non-member’s view of garments.

    Comment by Sylvia — 1/6/2007 @ 10:06 am

  9. Timothy, Joseph Smith introduced several innovative practices in Nauvoo. Temple worship and polygamy were both introduced at that time. Joseph didn’t introduce either generally (he was killed before the temple was finished and polygamy wasn’t announced until 1852). Consequently he ended out teaching the principles to a relatively small group and there was a significant (though not complete) overlap between those who participated in both.

    Obviously, when the temple was completed, thousands of saints participated at the temple (something Joseph anticipated) but only a very small minority engaged in polygamy.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 1/6/2007 @ 11:12 am

  10. Siding with J. Stapley, Joseph Smith, of course, reintroduced temple cermony and services to the believers. However, he did not introduce “polygamy” (a practice of taking on more than one wife) BUT “plural marriage” where it is a calling of God to take on more than one wife. There is a great difference. Temple garments and/or, clothing on the other hand, were common throughout the Old Testament. Adam, in fact in the Old Testament was given “clothing” to hide his nakeness in the first of othe OT.
    Concerning people who make fun (and ignorance cannot be an excuse)of other people’s religious clothing or rituals, is totally inconsistant with maturity, Christian principles, and simply not taking the effort to totally understand LDS beliefs. ;o)
    John — Boise, Idaho

    Comment by John — 1/6/2007 @ 4:22 pm

  11. Would it be wrong to remove the sleeves from the women’s garment if it meant the difference between wearing them or not wearing them at all? For me, garments are intensely private and personal, so if the garment top resembled a camisole instead of the easily identified garments themselves, I would feel more comfortable wearing them—especially under a white shirt. Men don’t have this problem, for the top looks just like any other T-shirt.

    Please know that this is in no way a rationalization for wearing sleeveless things. I do not have a problem with dressing modestly. I stopped wearing mine during menopause when I came to hate them because they were so hot and uncomfortable. Mostly I stopped wearing them because it didn’t seem right to curse something that was sacred.

    I find it interesting that some of the garments of old were made of silk—a fabric that actually breathes, unlike the current “drisilk” which is nothing more than nylon and which does not. I know they would be more expensive to produce, but I would certainly be willing to pay the extra amount for them. I would welcome it if the Church made the tops look more attractive, but until they do (hopefully), I have considered removing the sleeves so that I can feel good about wearing them again.

    I have ordered my garment tops without lace to make them less visible under clothing, and since this is acceptable, I am wondering if removing the sleeves altogether would likewise be. How is it any different than tucking the sleeves under my bra strap as I used to do? According to this piece, the women of the early church were given shorter sleeves when it was discovered that they rolled their long sleeves while doing housework.

    Please take my question seriously. I am trying so hard to get back in line with all the teachings of the Church. Garments have been the hardest thing for me. It may seems silly to some of you, but I need help with this question. Removing the sleeves doesn’t alter the sacred markings, and so, in my heart of hearts, I feel okay about it—with reservations, obviously.

    Comment by anon — 1/7/2007 @ 7:44 pm

  12. Anon, I believe the church would respond that it is inappropriate to modify the garment and that only authorized patterns are acceptable. I don’t know that I or anyone else could respond to your questions beyond that.

    An interesting side note is that during the War, before they had military issue garments, the First presidency authorized GIs to alter the standard issue army underwear to act as garments…that said, they were explicitly told that it was a stop gap measure. One that only persisted as long as exigency required it.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 1/7/2007 @ 8:09 pm

  13. But does altering the garment invalidate it?

    Comment by anon — 1/7/2007 @ 9:55 pm

  14. To be precise, the introduction of two-piece garments wasn’t really an update in the sense that the style was changed. As was the case in 1923, the new two-piece garment was made available as an additional option. One-piece garments are still available and are preferred by some.

    Comment by Left Field — 1/7/2007 @ 10:57 pm

  15. I am in the military, and the garments have undergone a new change since I have been an endowed member. They no longer have the markings on the outside. Now, they are just imprinted (not stiched) on the inside of the shirt. I saw this as a HUGE benefit when I was required to remove my blouse (what we call the standard shirt for our camoflouge) for field exercises or working. It meant no more uncomfortable questioning, or wearing TWO shirts (which could get VERY hot and uncomfortable).

    Comment by Hayes — 1/8/2007 @ 9:51 am

  16. Anon, I can’t give you info on the sleeve issue, but I think you can special order the garment in different fabrics. Good luck.

    Comment by claire — 1/8/2007 @ 10:05 am

  17. Good information, J. Thanks.
    I was told a moderately amusing story by a member of HJG’s family. Seems Pres Grant was out of SLC on a train trip with his family at the time the 1923 garment revision was announced. So he told his wives and daughters of the change personally, and within an hour the trash bins on the train were overflowing with cutoff garment arms and legs.

    Anon is not the only one (past or present) who yearns for style changes.

    Comment by Ebenezer Robinson — 1/8/2007 @ 10:46 am

  18. I was interested in this article because it reminded me about my first week in the Mission Field. I arrived in Finland the same time as a notorious ex-LDS man named Pentti Mollinen was featured on the cover of Finland’s “National Enquirer” holding up a pair of garments. Talk about shock and surprise, walking through the grocery store and seeing 30 magazine stands filled with these images. I was unprepared for this.

    I cannot stand in judgement of the magazine, except to say that the images and accompanying article were clearly designed to malign the LDS Church and its members. Mr. Stapley is correct when he states that such images are unsettling to members of the church. I was very disturbed by what I saw on this magazine.

    I must say, though, that the contents of the accompanying article were laughable. Among many other falehoods, Mr. Mollinen declared that the LDS Church intended to send missionaries in space ships to the sun – OY VEY!

    Comment by bRadly Baird — 1/8/2007 @ 2:23 pm

  19. Thanks for the comments, all. Ebenezer, I’d love to have a source for that anecdote, were you to have one.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 1/8/2007 @ 5:30 pm

  20. Oh, what a nice post to find after venturing over here from reading comments on GetReligion’s Massive Garment Kerfluffle of 2006. (From quirky underwear to venomous, tearful religious debate in TEN COMMENTS FLAT! New blogspeed record! {Not.}) I think you’ve summarized things wonderfully, both for nonbelievers and those who happen to be unendowed, like myself.

    Somewhat O.T.–anon (if you’re still checking back here), when you say camisole-style, do you refer to just having simple straps, or being more like a tank-top? I don’t wear garments myself (as I haven’t been through the endowment ceremony yet), but I know my mother has sleeveless tops with just a fringe of lace on the thin fabric “straps” for her garments. She’s approaching post-menopausal herself, but I don’t know how she deals with the hot flashes + garment issue, personally. (Other than taking black cohosh, but that’s another thing again.)

    Comment by Kim K. — 1/8/2007 @ 6:24 pm

  21. I am trying so hard to get back in line with all the teachings of the Church. Garments have been the hardest thing for me.

    Anon, you are doing pretty well if wearing garments is the hardest. Given the tithing, WoW, and all the other stuff.

    Comment by jose — 1/8/2007 @ 6:38 pm

  22. Thought this would help:

    Colleen McDannell is the Sterling McMurrin Professor of Religious Studies and [Professor of History at the University of Utah. In 1984 she received her doctorate in Religious Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia. Her publications include three books: Material Christianity: Popular Culture and Religion in America (Yale University Press, 1995) that contains chapters on popular art, cemeteries, Lourdes water, Mormon garments, and Christian retailing; Heaven: A History with Bernhard Lang, (Yale University Press, 1988); and The Christian Home in Victorian America: 1840-1900 (Indiana University Press, 1986). Her articles range from examinations of nineteenth-century Irish-American masculinity to interpretations of evangelical home schooling.

    Comment by Tom — 1/11/2007 @ 7:36 pm

  23. WoW I find my long lost cousin! and he’s a fellow blogger…

    You have a new/long lost fan J.

    Comment by Ryan — 1/24/2007 @ 10:48 pm

  24. Respect for anothers religion and beliefs should be fundamental in any civilized society. Holy wars have started for insulting Mohammed. Yet in an alleged tolerant society Christ can be mocked and its called freedom of the press. Looking at such images I feel I have been partly undressed!
    ANON We are told we must wear the garment as instructed. There are those who interpret everything to the letter. I am not one of them. I believe any modification for medical reasons or to alleviate gross discomfort is acceptable. To alter for fashion is not.If we reverence the garment we will not make excuses to change it in any way or avoid wearing it just because we don’t like it that much. On the other hand it is , I think, appropriate to remove it altogether for some activities. In the end it is down to individual choice and your own feelings. We follow our leaders unless the spirit bears witness to do something different. Doesn’t happen often, but in the end it is the Lords church and we will be accountable in the end for how we followed the spirit of the Lord in our lives.

    Comment by peter — 2/26/2007 @ 11:53 am

  25. I am reading “The Real All-Americans“. I got to the part about the Ghost Dance and its connection to Wounded Knee, and in the back of my head I remembered an old Robbie Robertson song called Ghost Dance. So I looked up the lyrics to see if the song was indeed about this same incident. Then I had to check it all out on Wikipedia, and I was surprised to read this:

    Early in the religious movement many tribes sent members to investigate the self-proclaimed prophet, while other communities sent delegates only to be cordial. Regardless of their motivations, many left believers and returned to their homeland preaching his message. The Ghost Dance was also investigated by many Mormons from Utah, for whom the concepts of the Native American prophet were familiar and often accepted.
    While most followers of the Ghost Dance understood Wovoka’s role as being that of a teacher of pacifism and peace, others did not.

    An alternate interpretation of the Ghost Dance tradition may be seen in the so-called “Ghost Shirts”, which were special garments rumored to repel bullets through spiritual power. It is uncertain where this belief originated, although some observers such as James Mooney have argued that the most likely source is the Mormon endowment “garment” (which some Mormons believed would protect the pious wearer from danger). Despite the uncertainty of its origins, it is generally accepted that chief Kicking Bear brought the concept to his own people, the Lakota Sioux in 1890.

    Comment by C Jones — 6/5/2007 @ 9:22 pm

  26. Church priesthood leaders made it very clear that garments must never be altered and always worn as originally revealed by the Prophet Joseph Smith:
    “Each individual should be provided with the endowment clothing they need. The garments must be clean and white, and of the approved pattern; they must not be altered or mutilated, and are to be worn as intended, down to the wrist and ankles, and around the neck. These requirements are imperative; admission to the Temple will be refused to those who do not comply therewith.”
    – President Joseph F. Smith, “Instructions Concerning Temple Ordinance Work,” President of the Salt Lake Temple 1898-1911

    The holy prieshood garment should not be altered to fit our lifestyle. That is not what was intended. As we try and try to fit into the Gentile world we get further and further away from what was restored through the Prophet Joseph..Very sad!!

    Comment by Mike Jones — 7/27/2007 @ 11:36 pm

  27. Nevertheless, at the turn of the 20th Century, more LDS women were altering their garments for comfort. In response, temple president Joseph F. Smith declared:
    “The Lord has given unto us garments of the holy priesthood, and you know what that means. And yet there are those of us who mutilate them, in order that we may follow the foolish, vain and indecent practices of the world.”

    “In order that such people may imitate the fashions, they will not hesitate to mutilate that which should be held by them the most sacred of all things in the world, next to their own virtue, next to their own purity of life. They should hold these things that God has given unto them sacred, unchanged and unaltered from the very pattern in which God gave them. Let us have the moral courage to stand against the opinions of fashion, and especially where fashion compels us to break a covenant and so commit a grievous sin.”
    – President Joseph F. Smith, “Fashion and the Violation of Covenants and

    Comment by Mike Jones — 7/27/2007 @ 11:38 pm

  28. “My grandfather settled in Pittsfield, Pike County, Illinois, and in the fall of the same year moved to Commerce, which was called Nauvoo by the Saints. Here he was ordained a High Priest and became a member of the High Council and was chosen as one of the Prophet’s bodyguards in the Nauvoo Legion. He also held several other responsible positions, helping to build the Nauvoo Temple and assisting in giving endowments.

    It was while they were living in Nauvoo that the Prophet came to my grandmother, who was a seamstress by trade, and told her that he had seen the angel Moroni with the garments on, and asked her to assist him in cutting out the garments. They spread unbleached muslin out on the table and, he told her how to cut it out. She had to cut the third pair, however, before he said it was satisfactory. She told the Prophet that there would be sufficient cloth from the knee to the ankle to make a pair of sleeves, but he told her he wanted as few seams as possible and that there would be sufficient whole cloth to cut the sleeves without piecing.
    . . . The garment was to reach to the ankle and the sleeve to the wrist. The marks were always the same.”
    (Taken from “Early Pioneer History,” by Eliza M. A. Munson)

    If the style of the garment was that important that the Prophet had to have them cut three times to get it right the shouldn’t it also be important for us? Onviously this was something restored by God through the Prophet… what does it say for our garments today? (Especially when we take the other quotes in this thread ito account) It is all up to the individual I suppose.

    Comment by Scott (in Australia) — 9/29/2007 @ 1:07 am

  29. First, Scott, that account is hearsay, so the reliability of it is questionable; but, if you continue in the account it talks about how Joseph and Emma changed several aspects of the pattern after the fact.

    Comment by J. Stapley — 9/29/2007 @ 10:24 am

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