Sunday, January 23, 2011

Uniforms and Authority

Gwylym posted the following quote by Matt Elgren the other day, concerning the implied Mormon church code of dress for men (conservative dark suits and ties) and women (modest dresses or jumpers, stockings, and sturdy shoes):
The uniform for men is an expression of their alignment with authority. The uniform for women is an expression of their submission to authority.
But what of the missionary dress code, where elders and sisters alike are presented as "aligned with authority"? Elgren's quote reminds me of the article "A Style of Our Own": Mormon Women and Modesty by Katie Clark Blakesley (Dialogue journal, Summer, 2009). Although the entire article is absolutely worth reading, the section I want to highlight discusses the decision to dress male and female missionaries in business attire:
In a time of professionalism for the Church in the early 1980s, the Church wanted its employees and sister missionaries to project a “business executive” image. Dowdy house dresses and funky florals, although modest, did not fit this professional image, and women employees and sisters missionaries were asked to alter their clothing according. (These guidelines are still in force.)

This new professional image for sister missionaries was for the benefit of those with whom the missionaries came in contact. These instructions blurred the lines between what a Mormon woman, at least as a missionary, was supposed to look like and represent, namely a professionally accomplished businesswoman, and women of the world who were professionals. Based on the earlier fears that dressing progressively (i.e., in pants) would encourage Mormon women to become part of the women’s movement, it is surprising that the dress and grooming standards for sister missionaries emphasized the business executive look.
The image that the LDS Church portrays to the world (i.e., that the typical Mormon woman is a conservative young professional) is different from the image it wants its female constituents to assume (i.e., that the typical Mormon woman is a happy homemaker, married to a righteous RM and with 3-5 children in tow).

Personally, I think that the dichotomy portrayed to female investigators is misleading. Although the young businesswoman would be tolerated within the LDS community, I would argue that she is not the intended goal. The "professional businesswoman" is not the role-model image that young Mormon women are provided in their Sunday School classes. Structures are not in place to help YW achieve the goal of becoming professionals. Structures are also not in place to help professional businesswomen successfully navigate the work/family life balance.

One image is given, and then exchanged for another, creating a bait-and-switch.


mohoguy said...

so true. Thanks for sharing this thought. I've seem missionaries do a lot of crazy things with ties as a form of rebellion.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the credit, Kate! This came-up in a Facebook discussion of Heather's pants post over at Doves & Serpents. Just seemed like this couplet was predestined. :P

You raise a fascinating point here. Seems to me the church may not have been thinking about the mixed message as much as the pragmatics of presenting a public image that aligns with trust and authority. I swear, the Mormon church is the most sharply multi-personality disordered church in history.

Emily said...

The sister missionaries dress professionally now? All the girls who are on missions from my high school still look like they are pretty dowdy...and drab. Though, I'm not familiar with what they were wearing before....

Dave♥Nicole said...

interesting! I guess I would need to know how the sister missionaries are supposed to dress? They do have to wear ankle-length skirts, I believe. Yet in 5+ years of corporate experience, I've never seen a professional businesswoman wearing an ankle-length skirt. Still, it is very interesting that apparently floral patterns are not allowed.

cc said...

Maybe I haven't seen any sister missionaries recently, but the image in my head is one that is so unique to them as to make them appear counter to every culture they are a part of. They stand out at church, and they would stand out in an office.

I do know that they just altered the length requirement for the skirts, which will be interesting to see in which ways this changes the game. I have a sister who is planning to go on a mission this year who consistently pushes the envelope with her sense of style (I can only describe it as an amalgam of the last 5 decades) and that her sense of individuality will insist that she carries her fashions into her missionary wardrobe. And as much as I don't understand why she likes one thing and not another, I hope she is successful.