Notes on the revised missionary dress standards for elders

Today the church newsroom announced new clothing standards for the missions. On an area-by-area basis missionaries may variously wear blue shirts, and go without the tie. As we are wont to do, let look at how some of this has changed over time.

Here is an advertisement in the February 1900 Young Woman’s Journal. It looks like they are trying to branch out, as missionaries buy less of them.


By the late nineteenth century, mission leaders had directed elders to wear a “Prince Albert coat” and top hat. The Prince Albert suit comprised a long coat, often double breasted. By the turn of the century, things had become a little more practical. According to Thomas Alexander, “some of the Twelve opposed such a ‘uniform’ as it singled out the missionaries for persecution and constituted a sizable financial burden. The majority disagreed” [n1]. On the ground however, things had largely shifted. In 1899, a correspondent from the German mission wrote that “a great many have an idea that a missionary is never seen on the street in anything but ministerial clothes, the solemn Prince Albert with its accompanying black or white tie.” He suggested that “This may be true, to a greater or less extent in a number of the fields.” In Berlin, however, “the majority of our work is done in business dress” [n2] By 1902 the short lived Middle States mission had abandoned the Prince Albert Suit.

Ardis shared the instructions sent out to new missionaries in 1916. This included the direction that “varied climates in the different missions make it advisable to have clothing suited to the particular locality in which the elder labors.” Elders were nevertheless to have “a good black suit or blue suit, a good overcoat and Derby Hat.” This was to be “not Prince Albert,” There appears to have been some flexibility on shirt color: “White, or light-colored shirts and black ties are preferable.”

My mom’s uncle served a mission in California from 1925 to 1928, and honestly this picture of him and one of his companions threw me for a loop. I’m guessing this outfit was not widespread:

I mean, I think it is cool.

From the mid 1930’s to the early 1950s The Missionary’s Hand Book was the primary rule book for mission life. It stated that “The Latter-day Saint ministry wears no distinguishing costume,” but that missionaries should be dignified. It gave the anecdote of a missionary in Europe who found better success when dressed “in a conservative manner”—dark suit, shoes, and “a quiet hat.” Moreover, “a gaudy tie may spoil the effect of an entire discourse” and clothing should be clean and pressed [n3]. In the mid-1950s my dad wore a fedora in the Hawaiian mission, and my father-in-law wore one in the Central States mission.

The 1973 “white handbook” includes guidance on what became the stereotypical Mormon missionary. “Wear white shirts and conservative ties. Suits should be worn at all times unless your mission president indicates otherwise.” Also, “no sideburns, moustaches, or beards are allowed” [n4].

Back in 2013, the missionary department indicated that missionaries could wear tan slacks and in some cases, sandals (though I wore a light brown suit on my mission in the mid 1990s, and no one seemed to care). Then in 2016 missionaries got sunglasses and wide brimmed hats, and sisters got pants (pants!) in 2016.

And now here we are. My two cents: if you are not going to wear a tie, have button down collars.

_______________________

  1. Thomas G. Alexander, Mormonism in Transition, 217.
  2. J. Lloyd Woodruff, “Thanksgiving in Berlin,” Deseret Evening News, December 30, 1899, 24.
  3. The Missionary’s Hand Book (1937) and rev. ed. (1946), 54-55.
  4. Missionary Handbook (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1973), 13.

Comments

  1. Blue shirts and no ties?!? I thought this was a belated April Fools prank until I read the press release myself. Since the forecast in the D.C. area tonight is for clear skies, I will be looking to see if the Moon takes on a reddish hue. (Thanks for the background info, by the way. Interesting as always.)

  2. –> “cents” [Editor: Thanks. Fixed]

  3. Kaxlshilgojo says:

    No way, button-down collars look worse without a tie.

  4. Any wagers on who will be the first GA to wear a blue shirt to general conference? I’ve got $20 on Elder Uchtdorf…..show me the money!

  5. I’m somewhat caught off guard by the flowery tie on the left. I remember rules about how the tie needed to be uniform (ie solid color or repeating pattern).
    As far as missionaries being distinguished by a uniform, I’m torn about that. Every example we have of good missionary-ing in scriptures is from someone who wasn’t wearing a uniform and blended in with the people first. Ammon going to be a servant of King Lamoni, Paul going from town to town setting up shop, and then preaching, etc. It’s probably the better way to preach, but it also could be something where God has always wanted His missionaries to have uniforms, but it just wasn’t realistic until the Industrial Revolution made it feasible for people to even have more than one or two outfits.
    It also could be something where wearing the style of dress of the locals is optimal, but one might need a certain level of commitment to your calling for that to work; but for a majority of missionaries having on a “uniform” helps them be mentally where they need to be.

  6. The floodgates have opened, and I see no meaningful way to stop the ensuing chaos. What’s the limiting principle that will prevent elders from sporting Chiquita banana headdresses now?

  7. Not a Cougar says:

    Wait, so won’t the elders need to pack a white shirt and tie in their backpacks in the event they have to give a blessing? I say this only half in jest as I can totally see some mission president coming to this exact conclusion.

  8. Was there a time when missionaries were prohibited from wearing sunglasses? I wore them on my mission in the US Northeast in 1994-1996. I seem to remember at least some of the elders wearing them too. I think at least a few of my companions did. If I wore them while tracting, I would take them off before knocking on a door.

  9. We always wore sunglasses (France, 79-81), but would take them off after we rang the doorbells. It helped cultivate the “CIA” look.

  10. Glen Henshaw says:

    In my mission the zone leaders would convene “fashion shows” where they would make elders stand up in front of the zone and get criticized for their dress.

    I hated it so much that I bought a neon blue suit with narrow lapels, a six inch wide bright red tie, and black shoes and I wore them religiously to every single zone conference. The ensemble satisfied every single letter or the law and violated the spirit with exuberance. They could write all the dress policies they wanted but they couldn’t legislate good taste.

  11. I feel like a lot of people are missing that for nearly any official missionary thing, sisters still have to wear dresses and men white shirt and tie. Church, baptisms, mission meetings. We aren’t quite at the precipice of doing something as worldly as allowing speakers to wear blue shirts at general conference.

  12. Dieter doesn’t ask permission.

  13. I think they’re trying to end the common misperception in many foreign countries that Mormon missionaries are CIA agents.

  14. Missionaries here in the Seattle area should probably not wear ties if they want to be taken seriously.

  15. nobody, really says:

    Wally, I served in a major US city where we found the FBI and DEA dressing as Mormon missionaries. Haircuts, suits, name tags, scripture bags, everything. Of course, we didn’t recognize them from zone conference, and they would tell us to go do immoral things to ourselves. Our only recourse was to start wearing basketball shoes instead of dress shoes. The other giveaway was they drove black SUVs, and we had bus passes.

  16. Here in the Mid West states of IA, NE, MN, WI, KS and SD there is a supermarket chain called Hy-Vee. There all the employees dress like Mormon missionaries or the missionaries dress like HyVee employees. https://www.hy-vee.com/careers/images/hy-vee-employee.jpg They even use the same black name tags. Now LDS missionaries will not be confused with CIA, FBI, but also HyVee employees.

  17. The exception often becomes the rule. On my mission, the missionary handbook instructed us to wear shirt and tie on p-day unless we did exercise or something that requires some other kind of clothing. Our mission presidency told us that cycling or a short jog counted as exercise on p-day. The implication was that we didn’t need to dress in shirt and tie but he wasn’t going to rewrite the handbook. How these new ‘exceptions’ roll out in practice is going to depend largely on the attitude of mission presidents, more than on culture or environment.

  18. In the mid-90s, many elders in my mission wore corduroy pants. I had all kinds of colors of pants and no conservative ties. I wore either a cowboy hat or a Nike hat most of the time. I had sandals I wore when it rained and hiking boots when it wasn’t raining. I honestly didn’t realize there were rules about any of those things.

  19. Button down collars are super gauche. Just need proper collar stays.

    Personally, I think this change is pretty monumental. How many men have been driven out of the church or at least out of leadership by stupid dress and grooming standards? How much has the white shirt nonsense reinforced the pharisaical pettiness we are already so prone to? I couldn’t walk by our last stake president without him making some “just joshing” passive aggressive comment about my facial hair, and that was just with a couple days of lazy weekend stubble. Made me hate being around him.

  20. here in the NE of the UK back in the mid 1960’s missionaries were still wearing dark overcoats and hats like a fedora. That made them stand out

  21. My husband served in Central America in the early 2000s. No hats or sunglasses were allowed because they didn’t fit the wholesome image the mission president had in mind. My husband’s eyes became permanently sun damaged. My husband loved his mission prez and loves the church, but this and other systematic abuse (his word) has him not wanting to send our boys on missions.

  22. Geoff - Aus says:

    In Ireland 68 to 70 were required to wear a hat I had a broad brimmed fedora, brim down all round so the rain didn’t go down your neck, and a mohair coat so the rain ran off. Wore a scarf, so after not getting in a door for 3 months had no tie top button of shirt undone. Next time we got in the lady thought we were catholic priests.
    That we are still micromanaging young adults clothes?

  23. It’s one thing to say that General Authorities or bishoprics or stake presidencies should wear white shirts and ties. They are our leaders. It’s another thing to say that our missionaries (representatives to the world) who are trying to start conversations with non-members should do so. To me it comes down to this: which look with facilitate the most conversations?

    I am 99% sure that for most people, missionaries would be much more approachable were they to be in more casual clothes. My oldest daughter attended a university back East in which the missionaries would appear, talking to whoever would talk to them. But largely due to the fact they were dressed like the Geek Squad, most students just ignored them or laughed at them (my daughter saw this). They were seen as strange and weird. What my daughter tried to explain to her friends was that these guys (elders) were generally nice normal guys. Don’t judge a book by its cover so-to-speak. But the fact is most people could not see beyond the silly uniform. Result: fewer real world conversations.

  24. Jack Hughes says:

    It’s nice to see that missionaries now have alternatives to the tacky short-sleeve-dress-shirt-with-tie look that screams “McDonald’s manager”. Next step: replace traditional proselytizing missions with service/humanitarian missions.

  25. No discussion of white shirts is complete without a link to Scott B’s classic “Of Shirts, Signals, and Sacraments.”

    https://bycommonconsent.com/2011/01/20/of-shirts-signals-and-sacraments/

  26. east of the mississippi says:

    I have said forever that the missionaries would be more effective not wearing the geeky white shirts and ties. Anyone who comes to my door dressed like that looks like they’re either from the FBI, CIA or IRS… and I don’t wanna talk to any of those people.

  27. Late to the party . . .My initial reaction is ho hum, reads like institutionalizing current practice mission by mission. And appreciation for the history in the OP. Regarding the history, my impression is that there was an overhaul in mission practices, rules, and finances that I date to the early 50s (but could be a decade off). In a more developed history I would want to integrate that perspective.

    On reflection, I have two additional reactions:

    1. I am intrigued by the delegation of authority to the Area Presidencies. Rather than the First Presidency or Quorum, and rather than the mission presidents. I note that considerations of re-opening for meetings was also assigned or delegated to the Area Presidencies. That’s enough to suggest a pattern, an elevation of the Area Presidencies in the lives of individual members. (That’s the kind of thing you, J. Stapley, follow. I’m curious whether you have a reaction?)

    2. Way down the list, on a personal level, I realize that I have long enjoyed the signal of heterodoxy that comes with wearing a blue shirt to Church. If I ever get back to actual attendance (old as I am that won’t happen soon) I will in fact find myself testing whether a blue shirt does it for me?

  28. J. Stapley says:

    Christian, I think that you are absolutely right about the ecclesiology at play here. The transformation of the seventy over the last 20 years is pretty remarkable. My sense is that we will see more emphasis on the idea that presidents have keys, and area presidents are presidents. I mean stake presidents aren’t really “scriptural,” though there are arguments to be made. So there is some precedent for this sort of development.

    And the next thing you know, you will be showing up in a track suit.

  29. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Definitely welcome the changes. But implicit in all this is the codification of the white shirt as required/preferred for Church service.

  30. If they were going for the business casual approach, why not just a collared pullover polo type shirt? The dress shirt with no tie look, whether blue or white still looks like a McDonald’s employee or mechanic who just got off work. I assume We are trying to modernize To make our missionaries look more approachable, why not make it more culturally standard norm for business casual? I have always found it so hilarious to attend church and see all the men are dressed in their business suit attire while many of the women are wearing flip-flops a skirt and a T-shirt.

  31. Left Field says:

    I’m no fashion expert, but dress shirts are not the usual uniform for either mechanics or McDonald’s employees. And when I google “business casual,” I’m not seeing polo shirts. It looks like a lot of dress shirts with no ties.

  32. Wife is just hoping the Temple beard ban ends with Nelson ending a lot of this cultural baggage.

    @Left Field.

    Yup.

  33. Business casual on the West Coast is conservative jeans, button-up shirt and sport-coat for men. It’s important not to wear a suit or tie or you look like an old man. And youth is everything, even for the old men. Suits are for funerals or court.

  34. your food allergy is real says:

    “Button down collars are super gauche. Just need proper collar stays.”

    Wrong. Button down dollars are tasteful when applied in a “trad” or Ivy northeastern style, with a proper collar roll and longwings for example.

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