Hannah Murray, English and Religious Studies
Written for REL-C335: New Religious Movements in the United States
Instructor: Prof. M. Cooper Harriss
The Church of Latter-day Saints and the Nation of Islam garments are frequently noted for their modest dress codes in opposition to cultural trends. Often these dress codes are assumed to be material manifestations of an ideology rigidly “outside” of mainstream American culture. The danger in labeling a group as completely “outside” is to reduce their status as lesser through othering said group from the norm. Likewise, it is also problematic when groups assert otherness because they fail to actually undermine the system in place but instead fit within the inevitable binary the norm’s rules elicit: norm and the counter to the norm.
Yet, members of both the Nation of Islam and the Church of Latter-day Saints find ways to act as agent within their structural faiths—as neither completely conforming to culture nor completely alienating themselves as “other”— through situating their clothing as simultaneously trendy/conservative and visible/invisible. Through inhabiting spaces of both norm and counter norm, both the Nation of Islam and the Church of Latter-day Saints’ members can access an ability to interpret that is neither entirely determined by the rules of norms nor entirely free of norms.
In Edward Curtis’s “The Ethics of the Black Muslim Body,” Curtis discusses how the Nation of Islam’s modern dress code both rejected Westernization yet also adapted to it. According to Curtis, “by following the guidelines of their Messenger [Elijah Muhammad], [believers] were also expressing their true identity as God’s chosen people.” Muslim conservative dress and adornment was a “sign of their salvation,” through their respectability and “sure protection against the apocalyptic punishment that non-Muslims would face at the end of the times” (117-8). Clothes became signifiers of the saved when the Mothership would come as opposed to those of the West in “scantily clad garments,” which relinquish self-respect. Black sisters of the Nation of Islam claimed the Message from Allah to His people was “to clean up,” which manifests itself materially on the body and how it is seen. A number of writers in the black Muslim magazine Muhammad Speaks would criticize black women for donning the popular fashions of the day, associating this “artificial” dress with the decline of black civilization and the “coming of the apocalypse” (112). For Sister Beverly, “to wear the right clothes was to follow Elijah Muhammad faithfully into a heavenly state of being in the here and now” (114). One Muslim sister, Sister Geraldine believed, “Both poor middle-class and poor black sisters are locked in a vice which will doom them to be destroyed in the Divine chastisement and ultimate destruction of this modern Babylon” (112). While the members of the Nation of Islam considered themselves to be living in the “modern Babylon” of the US—rift with promiscuity and oppression—they still distinguished themselves outside the dominant culture. Sister Beverly claims that, “[Allah our Savior and our leader and teacher] give us backbone to be in this world but not of this world” (114). Though the members of the Nation of Islam acknowledged themselves as situated within America, their morals encoded within dress distinguished them from the majority of a “tainted” American culture.
Yet, not all of the Nation of Islam’s female members abstained from the fashion trends of the West, which were commonly considered vain and promiscuous. Curtis claims, “By the late 1960s, the clothing styles and hairdos of some of the Nation of Islam’s members began to reflect the influence of the black consciousness movement” (114). However, Elijah Muhammad largely denied men and women of the Nation of Islam to appropriate any of the African clothing trends, claiming many to be “uncivilized” and “non-modern” (116). These mandates, however, did not prevent a number of young Nation of Islam women from wearing the fashionable African-style kinte cloth, a long conservative dress with vibrant African colors. Younger women “still covered their hair and legs, but wore colorfully patterned dresses that decidedly looked different from the normal female dress code in the Nation of Islam” (116). Two women on a college campus who wore kinte-like clothes found that they received negative comments at first, but gradually men tended to respect them more. In the process of accommodating to the Nation of Islam conservative dress code while also incorporating a certain amount of Western flair, women on college campuses are able to maintain both a Nation of Islam modesty while also have a choice in how they can express that modesty. The fact that “they wore such styles in 1969, well after Elijah Muhammad had published his objections,” demonstrates that “local communities and members of the Nation of Islam ignored some directives of Elijah Muhammad while adhering to others” (117). In the process of situating themselves within the Nation of Islam structure, individuals can still find ways to obtain an agency through neither fitting in a clear binary of a non-Western Muslim nor a “self-degraded” American.
The Church of Latter-day Saints, also traditionally known for being “outside” the religious and cultural mainstream, finds ways to maintain both an insider and outsider status in the US through their garments. The discussion of temple garments themselves rarely occurs among church leaders of the Latter-day Saints today because of the nature of the garments’ “set-apartness” from the everyday. To speak of the garments’ significance in everyday conversation is to “profane sacred subjects” (199). The 1840s endowment ceremonies of the garments included the Latter-day members standing before a curtain to symbolize a veil that separated humanity from the divine. Behind the curtain, Latter-day Saints members would find a room representative of the celestial realm where they would make their covenants with God (200). The covenant, embodied by the garment, demonstrates a clear sacredness through its division between the world and divine, the inside and the outside. Like Elijah Muhammad and other sisters of the Nation of Islam, the church leaders of the Latter-day Saints set aside the garments worn by members as distinctly “outside” the norm and therefore outside culture. Both Elijah Muhammad and leaders of the Latter-day Saints during the early 19th century maintained rigid directives for how their members should and should not dress in order to uphold the boundaries in place between their conservative religious identity and “other” (i.e., US mainstream). To be faithful meant to adhere to faithful dress. During the early 19th century, Mormon President Joseph F. Smith noted the conflict between the rise of desire for stylish clothing and the desire to be faithful garment wearers (214). Here the rhetoric of original sin, or a divide between what the flesh wants (i.e., vanity) versus what the spirit wants (i.e., God’s covenant), is transposed onto how the body was dressed. Smith condemned the “foolish, vain, and indecent practices” of fashion and “warned against any mutilation” of the sacred garments (214). The problem with blending both the sacred and the profane is that it would result in a mutilation of the garments and, therefore, body of a Latter-day Saint. According to Smith, the clothing that had once provided a clear identity “outside” the taint of “vain” mainstream culture now threatened to become profane in its blending. Yet, eventually the clash between “a changing Utah society” and “church authorities” trying to maintain modesty became a consolidation. After ruling design changes as not lessening the holiness of the garment, members and manufacturers were free to try out new fabric and style trends. Though interestingly, the choice to accept changes in the garment became not so much one of accepting an “insider” status but rather a further reifying of boundaries between Mormons and polygamist orthodox Mormons.
Though, through the “silence” that Latter-day Saint leaders maintain on the dress-code of the garments today, the Latter-Day Saint leaders assume this to reflect an uniformity of opinion (i.e., the garments as “sacred” through their “outside” status) (199). Yet, what this silence can actually provide is an environment for various interpretations by members. Members can find themselves as agent in wearing their garments because of the lack of fixity in its meaning. In addition to being both outside/inside culture, the garments also provide a source of agency through their fluctuating visibility/invisibility. The temple garments themselves are typically viewed as “unseen.” One member claims that the garments are “an inward thing” since “theoretically only God can see in” (206). Yet there are ways that garments are simultaneously seen and unseen in order to demonstrate the wearers’ ability to construct the meaning of their clothes. One member today, who is considered “more liberal” and a “challenge” to conservative Mormons, proudly wears her garments “in the hopes of breaking down the stereotypes about Mormons” such as being “kind of stupid [and] conservative” (207). Though the member does not make any clear indication that her garment is visible, this can be affirmed in how she wears her garment with the intent of its visibility for other students to comment on. Wearing the garment in order to disprove notions of “conservative Mormons” forms an interesting puncturing of insider/outsider notions through the visibility of the garments. She claims that through her visibility, she diminishes the ability for others to place her in a “weird category” since she is both a Latter-day Saint and at odds with Latter-day Saint members. The Latter-day Saint member’s choice to wear the garments proudly and discuss them in everyday conversation among her peers provides a dissonance at odds with the leaders’ previously mentioned notion of the garments functioning as distinctly separate and, hence, sacred. Yet what becomes sacred for her is the ability to challenge the stereotypes Mormons have accrued because of their secretiveness that self-alienates them as “other.”
At a glance, both the Nation of Islam and the Church of Latter-day Saints maintain theologies “other” from mainstream theologies of the US. Likewise, the ways that leaders of Nation of Islam and the Church of Latter-day Saints map their deviating theologies onto their conservative dress also “others” them from cultural fashion trends. Yet, the heads of these religious groups remain a fraction of the entire faith. In the case of the Nation of Islam, female members’ dress embodied the dynamic between mainstream and counterculture rather than rigidly aligning under one category. For female members, dressing in trendy African kinte did not have to become counter doctrine per se nor counter culture but a reconciliation of doctrinal and cultural categories as simultaneously influential for the believer. Through the use of the members’ interpretation, the garb fulfills the Nation of Islam’s request for modesty and assimilates to trends of American society. For the Church of Latter-day Saints, visibility appears to collapse a necessary binary between the sacred and profane, yet what one modern Mormon believer demonstrates is the distinction between proximal and heretical.
To makes the garbs visible does not desecrate them but instead allows for critique of what exactly constitutes the categories of sacred and profane. For the Modern Mormon woman, to profane the garments is to keep them in a category of complete invisibility, which further cements the status of Mormons as complete outsider. Instead, visibility unveils the dynamic Mormon garbs have always already had between the sacred and profane, the flesh and the spirit, through their doctrine of wearing the garments and the recognition of how culture influences the garbs themselves yet still retaining the conception of sacred garments. In both cases, it is the interpretation of the believers which allows for the reconciliation of contradictions, the simultaneity of distinction from and unity with norms, and ultimately encapsulating the same dynamic of what it means to be American: to believe in a doctrine of individuality, of distinction, of freedom, that simultaneously unites individuals under a nationalistic collective that is American.