For the last year or so, the last page of The Atlantic has been a column called “The Big Question,” where various notable people answer a question posed by the magazine. In September, it asked: “What is the most significant fashion innovation in history?” In Jennifer Barnett’s mind, the runner-up was buttons down the front of men’s pants in the 1830s. Which is how this question ties into Mormonism: Barnett says that this innovation “prompted Brigham Young to denounce them as ‘fornication pantaloons.'”
I had two reactions when I read this. The first was that those two words, put together, may be the greatest phrase in the history of clothing. The second, though, was skepticism. That sounds like too good a story to actually verify.
So I tried to verify it. And one of the first sites I came across was Greg Call’s exploration of this same question eight years ago, when the New York Times also attributed “fornication pantaloons” to Brigham Young. Neither he nor his commenters were able to verify the phrase; apparently, they discovered, it was popularized by a couple books on the history of jeans and of fashion. Though the former cited the latter, the latter didn’t cite anything. Their sleuthing ultimately decided that it was based on something Heber C. Kimball said, misattributed to Brigham Young.
Eight years later, the internet has lots of additional documents on it. And, it turns out, there’s a decent reason to attribute it to Brigham Young: the Mormon Expositor.
I don’t know much about the Mormon Expositor; it is surprisingly Google-proof. It only published a single issue in 1875. Wilfred H. Munro claims that it published discourses, the language of which was so coarse that they weren’t recorded in the Journal of Discourses.[fn1]
And, on its front page, it quotes Brigham Young, in an undated and unlocated sermon, as condemning Gentile fashion. In relevant part (for our purposes), he (allegedly) says:
There are those fornication pantaloons, made on purpose for whores to button up in front. My pantaloons button up here (showing how), where they belong, that my secrets, that God has given unto me, should not be exposed.
Did Brigham Young actually say this? I kind of hope so, because it is tremendously awesome. Of course, I’m not sure how credible a source the Mormon Expositor is, and the lack of specificity as to where and when it was delivered makes me at least a little skeptical. But, eight years after the first exploration, the internet (with a massive assist from the Library of Congress) has provided a real live 19th-century source for the best phrase ever, “fornication pantaloons.”[fn2]
Update: Over at Keepapitchinin, Ardis has posted the scan of the full “issue” of the Mormon Expositor, and some additional commentary/background. Did Brigham Young say “fornication pantaloons”? Maybe, but, it appears, the attestation is weak at best.
[fn1] p. 9
[fn2] In context, it’s almost certain that his objection was less sartorial, and even less a matter of public morals, than it was an objection to the Utah Saints adopting Eastern fashions and purchasing from the Gentiles (and thus draining money from Utah).