Not long ago, I found myself sitting on the stand in the sacrament meeting of a ward approximately an hour away from its stake center in the rural south. I was there to speak as a member of the stake high council. The first thing I noticed, to my right, was four men sitting in the front row, waiting to pass the sacrament. One of these men wore light-colored, cotton-twill, casual slacks and a light-colored, knitted polo shirt. My heart leaped into my throat, and my stomach tightened when I watched this man reach for a tray of bread and set out to pass it to the congregation. “What is he doing?” I thought. Then I wondered what the bishop was doing, sitting there, allowing this to happen. Everyone knows that a white shirt and tie are required for the sacrament.

clonesEven growing up in my family’s household of relaxed standards, I remember my parents, in addition to all my church leaders, drilling the white shirt and tie into my head. I then spent two years serving as a missionary in the south, where I wore the white shirt and tie coupled with dark dress slacks as my daily uniform. I served that mission near the end of the last millennium, and I have worn nothing but a white shirt and tie to church since. In fact, I sat in elder’s quorum meetings numerous times counting the number of men not wearing a white dress shirt. While I was disappointed in so many brethren who were on the early path to apostasy, these days I am far more disappointed in myself. See, the color of shirt (or pants) one wears to church is completely irrelevant, even if one expects to or is asked to pass the sacrament.

While I sat nervously in that sacrament meeting, I recognized that my role as a member of the high council meant that I must address the issue. I abhor all types of confrontation, so I frantically wondered how I was going to approach this matter with the bishop in order to reduce any possibility of contention. First, I wanted to make sure that I had the complete facts on my side, so I looked at my electronic edition of Handbook 2: Administering the Church and read the following:

Those who bless and pass the sacrament should dress modestly and be well groomed and clean. Clothing or jewelry should not call attention to itself or distract members during the sacrament. Ties and white shirts are recommended because they add to the dignity of the ordinance. However, they should not be required as a mandatory prerequisite for a priesthood holder to participate. Nor should it be required that all be alike in dress and appearance. Bishops should use discretion when giving such guidance to young men, taking into account their financial circumstances and maturity in the Church. (20.4.1 ¶ 5)

I immediately relaxed, but I also felt a little ashamed. Polo-shirt guy was not wearing a random polo shirt. When I looked more carefully, I realized it had a logo over the left of the chest. Either this man was just off work, or he had to run off to work immediately after the meeting. Here was a brother trying in his might to be faithful, and I realized in that moment that I needed to step down from the figurative stand of judgment.

Try as we might to overcome our culturally induced prejudices, people in the church will always judge others for and be judged by the clothes they wear. This makes the “tweak” in dress standards for missionaries especially interesting to me. I should begin with a caveat of sorts. I mean, I loved what I wore on my mission, and as I said earlier, I still sport the white shirt and tie every Sunday. However, I have always had a problem with what I feel is a double standard to some degree. As far as fashion and color, women are allowed to dress freely in the church (relatively) while men are required to conform more strictly to a uniform. And, no, I haven’t forgotten about the strict expectations that women wear only skirts or dresses (or their stringent standards of modesty), but others have addressed that far better than I could. Let me just say this, I know that much of it has to do with culture and not doctrine, but it is hard to refuse a priesthood leader’s suggestion to conform. Now sister missionaries have it even better: bright, vivid colors and fashionable pieces from head to toe, even outerwear. Thank goodness, sisters. Hopefully, this means no one will ever mistake you for Mennonites again. Elders, on the other hand, haven’t gained much color, and they certainly haven’t gained the opportunity to express their fashion sense. One major difference that stands out on the Church’s website is the list of shoe examples for women (there are 65!) vs the far fewer black and brown “variety” available for the men (there are 33). And they don’t even give examples for earrings that elders can wear.

Some have posited that it is a big deal (see above linked article) that elders are allowed to wear sweaters over their shirts now. Huh? When was that not an option? Did I serve in a rogue mission? I have seen hundreds of elders do that: before my mission, during my mission (as I did), and since my mission. I guess we all never got the memo. But even if we accept that this is a “change” please note that the elders are instructed to keep their sweaters to “solid, conservative colors”.

The linked Deseret News article also makes the following comment: “Recently returned LDS missionaries in the Deseret News newsroom pointed out several other changes from the policies of the missions in which they served, including: Brighter, more vivid colors for sisters[;] Blouses for sisters that are ‘more fun and feminine’[;] More colorful ties along with tie pins and tie bars for elders.” I have addressed the first two items. As to the ties, I question whether these really were “recently returned LDS missionaries.” I don’t remember a missionary from my mission that didn’t have that one fun or bright, colorful tie, even several. I did, and I have seen scores of missionaries since who sport similar ties. The fun tie (be it ugly or bright) has always been a tradition of sorts in the mission field.

As for the lighter colored slacks and suits, it’s about time. At least we have that.

Finally, I worry about the prohibition of the backpack, a missionary staple for decades. I spent 11 months on a bike in my mission, and a backpack would have saved me from a lot of pain and frustration. I carried the same shoulder bag my entire mission. In fact, when one of the clamps holding the strap to the bag broke, I reattached the strap with a leather shoe lace. The bag barely survived to the end of my mission. What I remember most about those days on the bike, aside from massive amounts of sweat stinging my eyes and soaking my shirt, was the need to readjust the darn bag every few seconds. Please, don’t take away the backpacks.

Truly, I am excited about the changes in dress and grooming standards, even if some of them don’t look like changes to me. But I still look forward to the day when any member of the church, including missionaries, will not be judged by the way he or she dresses other than what the church handbook says regarding dress for passing the sacrament. I want elders in blue shirts, red shirts, pink shirts, etc. Business shirts, yes, but why should the color matter? One day, missionaries will open their handbooks and read: “dress modestly and be well groomed and clean. Clothing or jewelry should not call attention to itself or distract from the work.” The end.

WJS is a professor of English Literature. He is the current vice president for Mormon Scholars in the Humanities. He is also a fitness fanatic who used to weigh over 400 pounds, but traded his addiction to eating for an addiction to working out and training for the next race. He loves to discuss literature, film, politics, and food. He is married, with three children.

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