Pants: Creating a Mormon Icon

*An introductory essay.  For my latest book, click here for Black Mormon: The Story of Elijah Ables [a.k.a Elijah Abel]

Mormons love their Sunday best.  Go to church with them sometime.  Suits, ties, skirts, and heels–it’s religiosity visualized.

Whence comes Mormonism’s love of snappy decorum? They have an impulse for celebrating mud trails, oxen, bonnets, and dirty hands even as they resemble a horde of Wall Street investment bankers—alongside their attractively dressed administrative assistants.

During my childhood, I imagined early Mormon society to look something like this:

We should probably imagine this:

The early Utah Saints eschewed some of the labor divisions of Eastern society.  Though women might shed a couple layers while working on the dusty plains of Parowan, the thought of wearing pants was to give up all pretenses to whatever femininity endured.   The Saints were already aware of the toll the frontier was taking on their appearance: “Were all women to imitate the ‘beautiful’ specimens of female perfection held up to admiration,” the Deseret News opined in 1859,  shirt would be washed, no cabbage cooked, and the world would starve and rot in filth.”  The “perfect (?) models are nothing but brilliant do-nothings!” Men were likewise measured by their usefulness: “As a man, with powers and faculties, the true man is he whouses both for some beneficial purpose” (Deseret News, August 10, 1859).”

When the Transcontinental Railroad effectively integrated the Utah market into American society, it brought big business, American consumer culture and new gendered expectations in tow.  By infusing the territory with new wealth, it created an upper class with both the time and the financial resources to shed the toils of rural society in favor of the finer things. But what would they do with their time? While some became involved in political causes, women such as Romania Pratt and Martha Hughes Cannon entered medical school.

The new class of women were forced to reassess their work attire.  Along with the new wealth had come increasingly elaborate dresses with Eastern-made hoops and increasingly-extensive layers.  “There is no doubt,” one woman’s dress advocate said, that women that women who engaged in business are greatly hampered by the style of dress now in en vogue.” She suggested that women start wearing a “short skirt…that would reach to the tops of the shoes.” Underneath the skirt they could wear “Turkish trousers” to replace the layers.  This would keep the legs warm and would “leave the limbs free to move.”  The skirt’s primary purpose would be to cover the trousers” (Daily Enquirer, April 22, 1891).   According to one report available to Utah Saints, shortened skirt lengths were a sign of women’s increasing strength as businesswomen and equals.  As they increasingly found success in business, “her shoulders square off, theirs begin to slope. She dons the sweater and the blazer and wears her skirts shorter and shorter” (Salt Lake Tribune, July 11, 1903).

As women came to serve a more prominent role in the workforce outside the home, pants came to symbolize the battlefield of manhood.  Men were leery of “foppishness,” so they had generally tried to defer clothing purchases to women. Consequently, women had long defined the Mormon fashion without the men thinking twice.  In the new environment, men became increasingly conscious of how they presented themselves to the public.  By the end of the century, Eastern fashion promised to “soften [men’s] every defect and heighten each good feature.” Yet these clothing choices remained within the purview of the female sphere (Salt Lake Herald, August 5, 1894).

When a Salt Lake man had his pants stolen by a thief, the subject was so sensitive that the Deseret News omitted his name forthe crime report “owing to the delicate state of his feelings in this regard” (Deseret Evening News, May 29, 1893).  Pants-thievery came to be seen as a minor plague in late-nineteenth-century Utah.  The Ogden Standard printed the story of a Maine war veteran who donned petticoats and high heels by preference, observing that he did “not wear trousers, like ordinary masculinity.” (Ogden Standard, November 16, 1893).

Over the next two decades, pants had become the Next Big Thing in Mormon women’s fashion.  In 1917, pants had become the defining symbol of new womanhood. “Every students knows the truth about trousers, the Salt Lake Tribune quipped. “Man stole them from women…because he saw how practicable and comfortable they are.” The latest trouser styles had been developed in China and imported to the United States; “I doubt any one of the suffrage pickets would be bold enough to appear at the White House gates in a costume borrowed from the ‘enslaved womanhood’ of the Orient.” Firstwave feminists still “fettered [their] mind[s] with fears and forms.”  The Tribune concluded that they would be incapable of “cast[ing] them off sufficiently to recognize her restored birthright–the right to trousers.”

The “masculinization of women’s attire continued unabated for another generation. French fashion designers accused Americans of spreading masculine influence throughout the world of dressmaking (Ogden Standard, April 18, 1926). The Salt Lake Telegram openly asked: “Are American Women Becoming Too Hard and Masculine?”  The question spoke both to the changing fashion norms and men’s nascent fears of gender breakdown.  Reporter Booth Tarkington warned that in fifty years, women snickered that women would be wearing “tight belts, suspenders, buttons, tight collars, studs, [and] air-proof and sun-proof trousers.”   Feminist Theresa Helburn promised that women could preserve their masculinity, even as she chastised American men for not having the “courage to introduce the picturesque into their wardrobe” (Salt Lake Telegram, January 16, 1927). Ironically, women also began to adopt the fashions of French prostitutes as they began to use eyeshadow and lipstick (see Katherine Peiss, Hope in a Jar, 53).

With the brief interlude of World War II, the transition to a breakdown in the gender line separating male and female pants-wearing habits.  By the 1950s, men had embraced pants as the last holdout of masculinity. “The symbol of a man’s dignity has always been his trousers,” a trousers ad told its  student readership. “He may ‘lose his shirt’–but never his pants.” (Daily Chronicle, October 30, 1959).

The pants debate illustrates the groundwork that Mormon society had laid for the creation of new gendered identities in late-twentieth-century Mormonism.

Stay tuned for future posts on the origins of male Mormon hipsters and Mormonism’s doctrines regarding female-on-male lust.

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