Quite recently, Levi Peterson wrote a post entitled “Don’t Come to my House in a Shirt and Tie.” This provocative post and the fascinating comments about it clearly signaled how standards for dress remain one of the most contested spaces as we attempt to negotiate our identities as church members. Struggles over what constitutes respectful and modest clothing, and the related struggles over whether the paradigm of “modesty” dis-empowers more than empowers women and is culturally relative or not, continually surface as sites for everything from adolescent rebelliousness, to deep explorations of our spirituality, to humanitarian causes.
What each person who cares about dress and considers the choices they make (or evaluates those others make) about where they shop and what they wear seems to clearly understand is that dress constitutes one of our simultaneously most visible and understated ways of communicating our identities, our values, and our affiliations. I suspect it is this fact that makes the rigid rules for dress that Peterson diagnosis often so frustrating. Or, in an alternative situation, what made the schoolgirl in me rejoice that I had a uniform that freed me from having to make fashion statements.
Rather than prescribing rules for dress or bemoaning those we do not like, perhaps we should begin focusing more on what people communicate through their fashion statements and how people perceive our own. In other words, we need to focus more on the principles and consequences of our fashion choices so that we can better understand which messages we wish to send and which messages others send us.
For example, in the specific case of whether or not to home teach in a white shirt and tie, we need to pay attention to the consequences that follow from wearing a suit. On the one hand, the suit does show respect, but it also creates a distance between people that blocks intimacy from developing. In another example, the fact that missionaries always wear suits most likely contributes to one New York Times writer’s recent claim that people perceive the LDS church as having the soul of a corporation. Or, finally, when we consider what constitutes appropriate dress for Sunday worship, we probably should consider whether our goals include creating a uniform for expressing reverence or encouraging people to attend church – and if this is indeed an either/or choice. Recently, I asked the mother of one of my young women what we could do to help her come to church, and I learned that this young women would not attend, despite the fact that she enjoyed church, because she was anxious about her body and did not feel comfortable in a dress.
The decisions we make about how to dress will inevitably impact what type of conversations we can have, to whom we can speak, and the power dynamics of any given situation. If we better understood the messages people communicate through their dress we would undoubtedly learn quite a bit more about the needs and hopes of members within the church. And, if we began focusing on what we wish to communicate through dress – a task that would require defining precisely what we hoped to accomplish in situations like home teaching – we would be better able to decide what specifically would constitute being well-dressed for a given situation. I would love to hear more about precisely what principles, commitments, and goals underwrite the fashion statements that we make as church members.