Around the world, religious people of different faiths wear special clothing in accordance with scriptural commandments, or to represent a life of service. Observant Jews and Muslims cover their heads with skullcaps or hijabs. A Buddhist monk might wear a special robe, while a nun may wear a habit. A Christian might wear a cross around their neck as a reminder of their faith.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, colloquially known as Mormons, have their own set of special clothing that reminds them of promises and covenants made with God. Officially called the "temple garment," the two-piece undergarment is often dismissively referred to as "Mormon underwear" or even "magic Mormon underwear" by people outside the faith.
For Latter-day Saints like Jim Harmer, an attorney and father of three from St. George, Utah, the temple garment isn't "magical" at all, but special and sacred.
"The garment is just a piece of cloth; we're under no illusions that the thread itself has some kind of special powers," says Harmer, who blogs at the website Purpose in Christ. "It's the promises and covenants that I make with Heavenly Father that have power, and the garment is a reminder of those things to me."
For most of its nearly 200-year history, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints kept the temple garment under wraps. But that changed in 2014, when the Church produced a video displaying the garment to a curious public and explaining its purpose.
In the old days, the temple garment was a one-piece, full-length number and identical for men and women. Today, temple garments are two separate pieces, a top and a bottom. Both tops and bottoms are white and come in a variety of materials (cotton, poly blend, thermal, nylon mesh) and styles (V-neck, crew neck, maternity, mid-calf, etc.).
For LDS men, temple garments aren't a significant departure from standard men's underwear, but that's not the case for women. The bottom portion of women's garments are quite long for standard women's underwear — the shortest garments end at mid-thigh. And then there's the top portion of the women's garment, which has a scooped neck and capped sleeves, making sleeveless shirts or tank tops impossible to wear with temple garments, which are not supposed to show.
Modesty is an important principle for Latter-day Saints, and while the purpose of garments isn't to enforce a "dress code," the length of temple garments means that both men and women wearing garments steer clear of short shorts, backless dresses, tank tops or other revealing fashion choices. Harmer admits that LDS women have it harder.
"For guys, we're kind of cheating," says Harmer. "Men have it much easier by today's standards [of fashion]."
Do All Mormons Wear Temple Garments?
Wearing temple garments is only required for Church members who have been "endowed" (i.e., made eternal covenants with God) in a Latter-day Saint temple. There are 168 temples worldwide, with dozens more under construction. These large and ornate buildings are different from the smaller and plainer LDS chapels where Mormons worship on Sundays. Temples are reserved for sacred ceremonies like marriages.
To enter a temple, members need a "temple recommend" from their bishop confirming that they are living in accordance with the Church's teachings, including its well-known prohibitions against drinking and smoking, and the requirement to donate 10 percent of all income as tithing. Members are given a temple recommend after an interview with their local bishop (a lay, unpaid position).
Members of the Church can enter the temple for the first time after they're 18 years old and have graduated from high school, so no Latter-day Saint children or teenagers wear temple garments. Also, not all adult Church members choose to attend the temple (although it's strongly encouraged), so not all adult Mormons wear temple garments.
For those who attend the temple regularly, like Harmer, the garment is meant to be a reminder of the sacred covenants made in the temple. The garment is even stitched with small symbols that pertain to principles and promises taught in the temple endowment.
"All of those covenants give me spiritual protection from Heavenly Father," says Harmer. "Wearing the garment reminds me that I've made promises to Heavenly Father to dedicate my time and talents to God, to obey the law of chastity — which is to not have sexual relations outside of marriage — and the covenants that I make in the temple to keep the law of sacrifice, which means that I'm willing to go through hard things in Heavenly Father's name."
Are Mormons Allowed to Take Off Their Garments?
Yes, Latter-day Saints who wear garments take them off to bathe, to go swimming, to exercise and play sports that are too sweaty for extra layers, and for, ya know, "intimacy." For all other activities that "can reasonably be done" without removing the garment, the garments are supposed to stay on. (Church members own many pairs of garments and wash them with other white laundry.)
But something interesting happened in 2019. The president and current prophet of the Church, Russell M. Nelson, announced changes to the temple recommend interview, including the question about garment wearing. Now, instead of asking members if they wear the garment "both day and night" (i.e. 24/7), there are instructions that the garment should be worn properly "throughout life."
"That's a big improvement," says April Young Bennett, a Latter-day Saint author and activist who believes that underwear choices, specifically women's underwear choices, shouldn't bar members from entering the temple. "Now it's possible for people to interpret 'throughout life' for themselves, and not necessarily feel like they can't go to the temple if they aren't wearing the garment 24/7."
A small but growing number of young Mormon women have gone public with health and comfort issues related to the garment, including yeast infections, urinary tract infections, difficulties nursing (even with special nursing garments) and being on their period with garments.
"The garment has legs," says Bennett. "There's simply no way to attach a pantyliner with wings onto a garment. We haven't used menstrual belts for at least half a century. That's the most obvious issue right there."
When asked about Latter-day Saint women who no longer want to wear the garment, Harmer calls it "a pretty fringe position" and that he's never heard those types of complaints from women in the Church. "My wife loves wearing the garment and what it represents," he says.
Bennet recognizes that there are many Latter-day Saint women who find it spiritually fulfilling to wear garments, and she certainly doesn't want to prevent those women from having their own experience.
"But I also know many, many women who do not find garments spiritually fulfilling," says Bennett. "For them, it's more of a rule that they feel coerced into abiding by [in order to attend the temple]. I feel like it should be an optional practice and not an enforced practice."
Now That's Interesting
Younger Latter-day Saint women feel less attached to garments than previous generations, but according to a 2016 survey of millennial-age Church members, only 14 percent agreed that it was OK to remove temple garments if they're uncomfortable.
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