In Defense of White Shirts and Shaving

One more from the top of the (David) Heap.

I am not the world’s snazziest dresser.

I did, however, win the “ugly shirt” contest in law school when I had not entered the contest (it was a shirt that had a pattern of printed shirts on it, I thought it was pretty cool, but I guess others did not). I even had a pair of electric blue bell bottom pants that went really well with the shirt. (Both the shirt and the pants found their way to Deseret Industries a couple of months after I married.) While serving a mission, my companion threw away one pair of my shoes because they were literally falling apart, and he was embarrassed to be seen with me and those shoes. After our law firm went to business casual a few years ago, my mother expressed concern about the polo shirts I was wearing, so I switched to dress shirts with the top button open (while I was a teenager a kind friend pointed out to me that buttoning the top button is not cool). When I was in high school in Illinois, I was “affectionately” known as “wing tips” among some of the boys in the neighborhood because I wore wing tips with white socks (I switched to colored socks after a while).

This extensive background in clothing assures that my opinions carry particular weight on the importance of appropriate dress in Church and in society at large.

The truth is, I don’t care much about clothing, as long as it does the job of protecting me from the elements and as long as I minimize my own embarrassment and the embarrassment of my loved ones.

I personally think it is kind of silly to worry about the color of the shirt of a man or whether or not he is clean shaven. I didn’t mind the dress code at BYU or the mission rules of dress, although I would have preferred to go longer between shaves and hair cuts. Fortunately, there were no rules against ugly shirts or electric blue pants, or I might have been a regular visitor to the standards office. If it keeps the primary funders of the university happy, then I would have been just as pleased to wear robes, to shave my head, or to wear cowboy boots.

I might add that if anyone questions the influence of women in the Church, I think the discouragement of male facial hair actually is the enforcement by the male hierarchy of a female preference. See this unbiased poll (by an aftershave company) showing that while 2/3 of males think they look better in a beard, 90% of women prefer a clean shaven man). I once had a beard for a few months; I shaved the beard not long after one of my daughters told me that, with the beard, I looked like Ted Kaczynski (I assumed that was not a compliment). (Note: I could not find a poll on whether women prefer their men to wear white shirts.)

“And so” you say, “it is easy for you, David, to defend the cultural, hierarchical preference for white shirts and being clean shaven, because you don’t care, and you look bad in a beard.” Well, that is a good point, to a certain extent. But I am still human, and I do not like (and I even resent) being told what to do—even when what I am told to do is good or right, and especially when it seems silly.

But in my mind, it is the lesser of two evils. I would rather that the unwritten boundary marker of an observant Mormon male be to be clean shaven (and nonpierced) wearing a white shirt on Sunday than that the marker be belonging to a particular political party or having a particular opinion about the allegorical or literal nature of scripture. Thus, to the extent BYU, our Church culture, or even our Church leaders focus on something I personally think is trivial—like dress standards—well, I would rather have my dress/grooming preferences abridged than my thoughts and opinions on other more important matters (like the location of the Garden of Eden).

“But,” you say, “Mormon culture does have implicit or explicit restrictive boundary markers for our political, moral, and religious thought and opinion, along with the objectionable boundary markers on dress and grooming.” I admit that. But thoughts and opinions can be held more private than dress. And more importantly, I would rather Church leaders and speakers spend lots of time pounding on the pulpit about wearing white shirts than I would a Church leader frequently proclaiming something like, “I was shocked to learn that almost 18% of you believe in evolution and, worse, 15% are democrats.”

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  1. I’m for banning all pulpit pounding.

  2. Cowboy boots are against the dress code?

  3. Every time I threaten to go clean-shaven again, my wife threatens to leave…

  4. I’d be perfectly happy to have a leader pound the pulpit expressing his shock that (only) 18% believe in evolution or that (only) 15% are democrats…

  5. Peter LLC says:

    I don’t care who you are; if a pair of Allen-Edmonds tasseled loafers are not the foundation of your Sunday wardrobe, you’re not going to heaven.

  6. I think of the white shirt issue as being an expression of “love others as yourself” (Matt 22:36-39).

    Stated another way, when making a judgment it is worth considering not just your own values, but the values of others and the values of society. (More than just “worth” considering. I think it is an obligation. An obligation with greater weight than almost all other obligations.*)

    I see this as no different than “obey laws of society”, the “common consent” obligation of the Church, or the traditional law of consecration.

    Of course, this raises the question — does a particular rule really reflect shared values?

    *This raises the personal question that each of us must answer — how do we make trade-offs between LDS values and the values of others? When is is appropriate to ignore our own values, whether drinking tea with a friend or encouraging an abortion? I don’t claim to have an answer.

  7. One of my favourite quotes on this (honor code/dress code) comes from Hugh Nibley.

    “”[t]he worst sinners, according to Jesus, are not the harlots and publicans, but the religious leaders with their insistence on proper dress and grooming, their careful observance of all the rules, their precious concern for status-symbols, their strict legality, their pious patriotism. Longhairs, beards, and necklaces, LSD and and rock, Big Sur and Woodstock, come and go, but Babylon is always there: rich, respectable, immovable…….We want to be vindicated in our position and to know that the world is on our side as we all join in a chorus of righteous denunciation; the haircut becomes the test of virtue in a world where Satan deceives and rules by appearances.” (1)

    (1) Nibley, “What is Zion?,” in What Is Zion? Joseph Smith Lecture Series, 1972-73 (Provo, UT; Brigham Young University Press, 1973)

    I don’t need to even elaborate on it, it speaks for itself.

  8. John Mansfield says:

    Now remember, queuno (#3), correlation does not equal causation.

  9. As annoyed with the no-beard thing as I am in principle, I have to admit that in practice it serves me well. I think most men look better without facial hair. And I absolutely hate it on my husband.

  10. I see this the same way I see the just one earring command…

    Leaders see the need to draw a line. As is typical, they draw the line at a location that is super-safe…a location that is far away from the cliff so to speak. You may not fall off the cliff just by wearing a blue shirt, but you will be beyond the (somewhat arbitrary) line.

  11. Whether or not you realize it, I believe that your issues are actually a lot larger than white shirts and whether you shave or not. You have issues with authority in your life, basically you don’t like being told what to do or what to wear in general. The shirt and shaving are just an outward manifestation of other feelings you have about being part of a group that places conformity as important to fitting in.

  12. I will only say that after 34 years, I shaved my mustache for the same reason I grew it at age 19: It made me look older.

  13. L-d Sus,
    Why do leaders need to draw a line about facial hair and grooming?

    FWIW, I’ve never had anyone ask me to shave or to wear a white shirt, in the Church or out. And my wife likes me better with a beard. And, frankly, I’m at a point where I need to look older than I look. So the beard stays. Until, of course, I get bored with it.

  14. Sam B,

    The ban on facial hair currently apparently applies only to full time missionaries, Mission Presidents, Temple workers, CES employees, and I guess General Authorities. Bishops, Stake Presidents, and other local leaders are not restricted, though there are fewer of those with facial hair in our area than a decade ago, mostly due to changing styles and aging boomers. At one time, half the bishops in our stake sported mustaches. Now, three of them that had them at one point are in our current stake presidency, but abandoned their mustaches several years ago.

  15. Sam B:

    I have the same question.

    As David points out, maybe it is better to be told about grooming than politics.

    Although I don’t hear too much about either. The focus is on more important issues.

  16. kevinf,
    Sadly, it also (largely) applies to BYU students. But since I’m years and years beyond BYU, that is also not an issue for me.

    But beards are plentiful in my ward. CES employees, not so much.

  17. I am just fine with whatever people choose to wear to church. The fact that they are there is good enough for me.

    I do, however, have a strong preference that when performing p-hood responsibilities, appropriate dress and grooming helps set a nice tone for the congregation. So, yes, toss me in the strict-observant category as I think that a ym shows respect for others, themselves, and their p-hood duty when they pass the sacrament in a white shirt and tie. Missionaries too.

    Local adult leadership? Who really cares – as long as they are presentable, I’m good with that.

    I always hear the ‘follow the brethren’ comments, so it was quite amusing to see Monson sporting that khaki suit at conference recently. We must have lost a couple thousand faithful members just from that! /sarc

  18. Stirling says:

    Becky, thanks for the Nibley quote. That’s a keeper.

  19. David H, you will interested to know that I am currently sporting a goatee at the insistence of my wife, who really, really prefers me with facial hair. At first I hated it, but it’s growing on me (yuck, yuck). Anyway, yet another way that my wife is unusual and special.

  20. Natalie B. says:

    That quote by Nibley is quite funny.

    I like clothes. A lot. I see what I choose to wear as an extension of my identity, a playing out of my passions, moods, and ideals. So it does bother me when the church prescribes arbitrary notions of dress, such as no beards or sleeves for women, because I feel that it violates my self-identity. I’m not going to go out and wear something inappropriate, but I want the freedom to choose what I wear. I can almost gaurantee that if left to my own devices I would choose to dress more nicely than the standards I see in many Mormon churches, where it seems to be okay for women to wear flip flops and tight t-shirts and men to wear Dockers so long as women have sleeves and long skirts and men have white shirts. As someone who takes fashion seriously, this kind of dressing down bugs me a lot more than what we currently seem to look at askance.

  21. No beards for women? I guess I had better shave.

  22. Beards — I know plenty of men who look great with them, but they are not fun to kiss. My husband had a goatee for a few months, and it looked good, but it was like making out with a scouring pad. So the beard had to go.

    Shirts — I really don’t care what the church tells him to wear, white or color, nor do I care what he does wear to church when I’m not there. However, the one Sunday of the month when I attend church with him, Job #1 is to accessorize his hot non-member wife, so he’d better look his best. That usually means wearing color.

    Earrings — I think my husband would look hot with earrings, and he’s been tempted to get them pierced. Can you have a temple recommend if you’re not keeping the earrings rule though?

    I currently attend the most casual evangelical church in the world, and while I like their worship style and love the fellowship there, the casualness kind of bugs me because I love dressing up for church. I’m quite tempted to check out Church of God in Christ or another traditionally black denomination next time I’m church hunting because they still dress up.

  23. “I can almost gaurantee that if left to my own devices I would choose to dress more nicely than the standards I see in many Mormon churches”

    I don’t understand. Is there a standard that says you can’t dress dressier than the standard?

  24. kevinf: “Bishops, Stake Presidents, and other local leaders are not restricted, though there are fewer of those with facial hair in our area than a decade ago, mostly due to changing styles and aging boomers.”

    I’m not sure you’ve summarized all the reasons why bishoprics and stake presidencies don’t have much facial hair anymore by attributing it to changing styles. I know plenty of people who have been asked by their stake leaders (coming from area authorities or higher?) to not have any facial hair so they can be an example to the members, just like the GAs. I’m not making this up, and I’m sure others here can corroborate on this as well. To me it feel like a power play to test loyalty, mixed with looking beyond the mark, mixed with high school popular crowd bullying for conformity’s sake.

    Sorry for the strong language, exterior image considerations really are low on my priority list when it comes to leadership and spirituality. In principle, that should apply either way: you either choose to wear facial hair, or you don’t. Sadly, the LDS culture is a one-way street: facial hair calls into question one’s ability to lead or receive spiritual promptings. Weird. Especially since Christ didn’t seem to have a problem with either. He seemed particularly unconcerned with outward appearances of genuine, earnest, faithful disciples.

  25. Lulubelle says:


    I concur and you know what? Since I don’t wear garments, I wear sleeveless dresses to church in the summer all the time. My sleeveless dresses are far nicer than a LOT of what I see women wearing in church– dirty flip flops or brown clunky birkenstock-type sandals, denim skirts, wrinkled T-shirts that I wouldn’t wear to the grocery store past midnight, etc. As for men wearing white shirts… my husband almost always wears colored shirts with a nice tie, or even a sweater. Whatever. We just believe in dressing appropriately for the occassion and use our good judgement and if someone doesn’t like it, too bad. I mostly don’t like seeing dirty shoes either but that doesn’t mean that I’m vocal about it.

  26. SteveS, # 24, it may be more of an issue in Utah or Southern Idaho, but here in the Seattle area, it never came up until the requirement for temple workers was added a few years ago. And, unfortunately, I think it may be an issue of overreaching, and assuming that if missionaries can’t have facial hair, then no one else should either. But it is not in the handbook, and is a total non-issue here.

    Sam B, I guess I conflate facial hair with mustache, because that’s what I had. I tried the beard thing a couple of times, but didn’t much like it, so you are right, no goatees for BYU students.

  27. Our stake presidency always asks men who are called to priesthood leadership positions (bishopric, quorum presidencies, high council) to shave off all facial hair. Since beards are fairly common here in Montana, they often make the request. The men, as a rule, have no problem with shaving. It’s their wives who put up the fuss. I would too. I think many men look good in a beard, and it has nothing to do worthiness.

  28. I’m in Montana too. I’d guess that at least a third of the men who regularly attend my ward have facial hair of some sort. That includes yours truly. Not only do I much prefer having a beard, but my wife would be quite upset if I shaved it.

    Lately, it seems, probably a similar number don’t wear the “mandatory” white shirt with tie (some, like me, wear a colored shirt, and some wear white shirt with no tie). My philosophy is that I dress for church as if I were going to a job interview, because to me that’s what it means to be respectful, and I’d never wear a white shirt to an interview.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve been ward clerk before and Gospel Doctrine teacher, and no one has ever said anything about my beard or attire.

  29. I agree with the 90% of women who prefer men without facial hair. Most men I know look much better without it. However, I do not mind if men wear a colored shirt to church, especially if they are not passing the sacrament or involved in some other ordinance. It would get boring wearing white shirts all the time, I would think.

    My biggest pet peeve is the flip flops and tight clothing I see girls (and women) wear. I have heard many parents say they are not willing to fight the clothing battle with their daughters when there are other issues they feel are more important. Ultimately high standards should have be started very young and continuously encouraged through youth. {Please let’s not resurrect the permanent marker on the Barbie doll thread again.}

  30. When I was in Montana a short few years ago there were no such requests made of quorum presidents. Not sure about bishoprics, but at least one member of the bishopric had facial hair. So don’t paint all of Montana with the same conformist brush.

  31. Duke of Earl Grey says:

    I’m in a Salt Lake Institute choir that sang at a CES fireside a few weeks ago. About a week before the fireside, we were instructed that in order to participate in a Church broadcast, we would need to follow missionary grooming standards. A few guys had to shave their beards, and everyone was happy, no big deal. But it’s not just BYU students.

  32. I see this as nothing more than the first presidency placing their personal preference on the church. I think moving toward the law of Moses which this clearly is keeps us distracted and talking about things that are a waste of time.

    To make personal preference and customs that are not shared world wide the rule for the church seems a little foolish. A few years ago I gave a neighbor a ride to her church. There was a guy in a suit with white shirt and tie and another guy in shorts and a pull over shirt. They were happy to see other (they hugged and acted like long lost brothers) they were not concerned about how anyone dressed. I don’t advocate shorts but it would be nice if I got to church and felt somebody was glad to see me rather than worrying about my kids hair or if their shirts needed a little more ironing.

  33. Just an aside to those who are annoyed with those who wear (somewhat) chunky sandals, t-shirts, and denim* shirts to church — please stop to think about who is wearing those clothes and why they might be wearing them before you are so quick to judge. I have two toddlers (one of whom has autism) and an infant who I bring to church every week. I often spend sacrament meeting running (quite literally) through the halls of the church. I generally spend the other two hours in nursery — either crawling around on the floor or standing up rocking a fussy baby (and likely holding another child some of the time as well).

    When I think about shoes for church, I need something that I can run in and that I can stand in for a couple of hours while holding children. Aren’t you glad that I compromised and wore sandals rather than tennis shoes?

    When I think about clothing for church the most important requirement is that it is easily washable (because I will end up wearing crumbs, snot, formula, and who knows what else before the three hours are up). Isn’t it nice that I chose a tasteful plain-colored t-shirt instead of one with a tacky logo on it? The second consideration is that it’s something that mostly stays in place and keeps my garments covered when crawling on the floor. Aren’t you glad I tried to conform and wore a denim* skirt instead of jeans (which would actually be a lot more practical in the situation)?

    Anyway, as someone who likes to dress up, but really does consider these things before dressing for church on Sunday, I felt the need to defend my clothing choices and those of others like me. Please try to remember that there are considerations other than looking nice.

    *I don’t actually own a denim skirt, but my khaki and corduroy skirts serve the same function.

  34. I have been under the impression that Bishops are also expected to be clean-shaven, although his counselors are not. (My father-in-law has frequently stated that he will never be called as a Bishop because he will never shave his beard. He also states that he believes the naked chin is obscene.) I did have the Stake President suggest not too long ago that I shave (my wife had asked me to try growing facial hair… Doesn’t really work, but I was able to get a chin-beard of some sort going on). I have a Stake leadership calling.

    As far as white shirts go, I know the the General Handbook of Instructions is quite clear on the fact that there is no requirement for Priesthood holders to wear white when administering the Sacrament, or other general ordinances. (Obviously, different rules exist for ordinances such as baptism and those performed in the Temple.) I’ve never been told that I need to be wearing a white shirt, even when on Stake business.

  35. I agree that dress standards ( and facial hair ones as well) are silly, with this one exception for dress standards: the temple. I attended a wedding in the Salt Lake Temple a few years ago and there were guys in there wearing golf shirts and khaki pants. Seriously! If there are no dress standards for this most sacred of LDS structures, how can anyone take them seriously anywhere else?

  36. Nameless says:

    I think it is good to teach why we should dress up rather than enforce what we have to wear when we dress up. Many years ago there was a young man who came to church in our ward on a regular basis. One day he came with a mohawk and was told he could not pass the sacrament with that hair style. He never came again. Not sure enforcing the letter of the law was worth that price.`

  37. The no-beard thing has been interpreted differently by area it seems. In my stake every priesthood holder has been asked to be clean shaven but only those that are in any stake position and any ward leadership positions are pulled aside and asked to shave if they let their facial hair grow. The same for white shirts and suit jackets. They want as many people as possible to look like missionaries so the young men will dress this way as well. Not a bad idea but not necessarily a draw to the masses. On my mission one of the big concerns we heard often was that they would have to dress as a missionary. While there is some positives that come from dressing this way I really wonder if making people feel the like hiding in a corner is really worth it. Years ago we had woman who would stand up and look right at someone and say some people need to start dressing better. She got away with it because her husband was the Bishop. My son was openly ridiculed by adults (young men leaders) and the other boys for wearing a blue shirt instead of white. He couldn’t honor his priesthood in a blue shirt and they needed him to be there in a white shirt. He was so upset that he never wore a white to church again and within a year found a number of reasons to stop going. There is always unintended consequences when rules are put in and enforced. Making people feel unwelcome or unwanted is exactly how this rule is enforced even if it is only rarely. There always seems to be one person that goes to far.

  38. Re: #18

    Your welcome.

  39. I just wear bowties to church (white shirt some of the time, but not usually).

  40. Eveningsun says:

    Say what you want, the Church is simply too hung up on appearances. It makes the Church look superficial. No, wait–on matters like this one the Church IS superficial. The young man who left because of his mohawk did the right thing.

    Can anyone imagine JS or BY caring one way or another about facial hair? They had important things to worry about.

  41. Can anyone imagine JS or BY caring one way or another about facial hair?

    Yes. I can.

    If you view facial hair as a “community value”, then becoming someone who takes such values into consideration is very important.

    Interestingly, in this model the “community” should also take into consideration the individual value. Still, I would argue that there is value even if the community is not so enlightened.

    So the young man with the mohawk is not someone able to work on these values yet. Speaking for myself, I’m convinced that God has a plan for him — it is just not the same path you and I are taking. And not necessarily worse than our path.

  42. Perhaps this is law school coming out, but I would like to hear the best reasons we can come up with for why conformity might actually be a good thing. Even if you don’t believe the reasons you list, it would be helpful to me to think of some counter-arguments.

    I too have been in areas where leaders have emphasized the importance of white shirts and no facial hair. My own sympathies lead me to the position where I do not think it is a big deal to have a beard or wear a blue shirt to church, yet I am always clean shaven and wear white shirts (my genetics don’t leave me much choice on the facial hair if I want to look even somewhat decent). While I don’t believe that leaders are inspired in everything they do, I like to give them the benefit of the doubt. So is there any reason God would prefer a people to wear white shirts? Seems hard to fathom, but God has asked for strange things in the past. This couldn’t be similar to bathing seven times in the Jordan River could it?

  43. why conformity might actually be a good thing

    Conformity may reflect consideration for the values of others or a group.
    Conformity may reflect a non-engorged ego.
    Conformity may reflect good judgment that considers trade-offs between multiple, conflicting values.
    Conformity may reflect your having learned a lesson associated with this existence.
    Conformity may be asked for the sake of a specific person.
    Conformity may be asked to evoke particular emotions.

    I could go on for a long time.

    I think most people confuse worldly conformity — which has negative connotations (appropriately) — and conformity that is desired by God. My impression is that conformity with God’s will may be completely unreasonable from a worldly perspective. In fact, from the list above, you’ll see that unreasonableness is often an essential attribute of useful requests for conformity.

  44. jjohnsen says:

    Three years into my marriage I shaved my mustache and goatee, after which my wife told me I looked like a child molester. Never again.

  45. I looked like a child molester.

    Child molesters have a particular look?

    One benefit of conformity is that it also contributes to the sense of belonging to a group–identity.

    I return to my earlier comment though that if we teach people why we dress the way we do then it will be less of an issue for them to dress that way. For example, I tell my kids that when we go to the temple we go prepared to meet the Lord and you would want to look your best. For us that means no flipflops, etc. however for a Guatemalan villager that might be their best flipflops! I can’t help but think that if a thoughtful YM leader or Bishop had taken the young man in my ward aside and explained to him the sacredness of the ordinance in which he was about to participate, he may have chosen to comb his hair down into a more acceptable style.

    I myself sported multiple earrings. It was my fist in the air at my parents when I went to college. It really chaffed when President Hinckley suggested one one pair. I refused for a while and justified myself by saying surely I fell under some sort of grandfather clause. Then one day it occurred to me that the real issue was not my earrings but my pride and rebelliousness. I was teaching YW at the time and took the extras out during a lesson.

  46. “I looked like a child molester.

    Child molesters have a particular look?”

    I think it was her way of saying I looked creepy.

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