What most (Latter-day Saints) call “garments” is, strictly speaking, the garment, the garment of the holy priesthood, received during the initiatory. When Latter-day Saints speak of “temple clothes” (or “robes”), they usually have in mind the additional ritual vestments that are donned in the course of the endowment proper: robe, apron, sash, cap, veil. By “temple clothes” they may also mean the white clothing–dress, shirt, pants, tie, slippers–worn under the ritual vestments.
While the other vestments are used only inside the temple, the garment is regularly worn outside the temple as underclothing. Wearing the garment is an important sign of one’s identity as an endowed Latter-day Saint. This article focuses mostly on the garment, followed by comments about the other temple vestments.
DESCRIPTION OF THE GARMENT
Traditionally, the temple garment was a white, one-piece undergarment not unlike a union suit. It originally extended to the wrists and the ankles, had a collar, and closed with strings. In the 1920s, Church leaders authorized a shorter garment that extended to the elbows and knees, had no collar, and closed with buttons. A two-piece garment was introduced in 1979, resembling a t-shirt and knee-length boxer briefs. A women’s garment has a somewhat lower neckline and shorter sleeves. (1)
The garment is manufactured and distributed by Church-owned Beehive Clothing, the same company authorized to make temple robes. Today garments are available in ten different fabrics, including cotton, cotton-polyster, nylon mesh, and corban. Latter-day Saints serving in the armed forces can obtain the garment in a military-approved shade of brown. Also, customized garments are available for individuals with special needs: bedfast Saints, for example, can obtain a garment designed like a hospital gown.
The most important defining feature of a temple garment is the four marks. The mark of the square, shaped like a reverse L, appears over the right breast. The mark of the compass, shaped like a V, appears over the left breast. The navel mark is a horizontal line about three-fourths inch long placed in the midsection; the knee mark is the same, placed just above the hem of the right leg. Originally, the four marks were cut into the garment during the initiatory. In the twentieth century, this custom gave way to stitching the marks into the garment at the time of its manufacture.
Church policy dictates that when a garment wears out, the marks should be cut out and destroyed, and then the garment cut into pieces so that it cannot be recognized. Latter-day Saints typically destroy the marks by burning or shredding them. Once the marks have been removed from the garment, the remaining fabric is not considered sacred and can be discarded or used as rags. (2)
FUNCTIONS OF THE GARMENT
In practical terms, the garment serves two functions: it sets the LDS standard for modesty, and it serves as a constant reminder of one’s temple covenants. (The garment is also understood to provide spiritual or physical protection to the wearer, but I will discuss that subject farther down.)
Standard for Modesty
The garment’s function as a standard for modesty grows out of the initiatory’s statement that the garment is “to cover your nakedness.” Though Latter-day Saints may remove the garment briefly for activities such as swimming, Church leaders have enjoined them not to remove it for purposes such as lounging around the house or working in the yard. Since the Saints are also instructed not to expose to the garment to view, this means they must regularly wear clothing that will keep the garment covered–that is, from shoulder to knee. These standards of modesty have become normative for Latter-day Saints generally, not just for those who are endowed.
Instructions that the garment is to be worn “both night and day” (3) have created some uncertainty among married couples about the propriety of removing the garment for the sake of physical intimacy. Qualitative research by Catholic scholar Colleen McDannell offers grounds to suspect that LDS couples typically take a common-sense attitude toward negotiating between their romantic needs and their commitment to regularly wear the garment. (4) However, as recently as 1968, the First Presidency had to rein in temple workers who were instructing couples to keep their garments on during sexual relations. (5) There appears to have been a notion among nineteenth-century Saints that one should never be entirely divested of the garment–that even when bathing or changing clothes, one should contrive to never be entirely naked.
Reminder of Covenants
According to the instructions at the veil, each of the four marks on the garment is meant to call to mind certain principles of faith or right living. Among other things, the mark of the square is to inspire exactness and honor in keeping one’s covenants, and the mark of the compass is a “constant reminder” to keep one’s passions within the bounds set by the Lord. These interpretations of specific marks on the garments have given rise to an oft-expressed understanding that the marks collectively remind Latter-day Saints of their temple covenants. Thus, it is believed, the garment can prevent transgression. This belief is nurtured by folklore about endowed Saints who are prevented from committing sexual transgression because, as they undress, the sight of the garment pricks their conscience.
Worn consciously as a reminder or sign of one’s temple covenants, the garment becomes an expression of a person’s commitment to LDS religiosity. In that regard, the garment serves a similar function for a Latter-day Saint as a crucifix or scapular serves for a Catholic, ritual fringes for a Jewish man, or the veil for a Muslim woman. The garment, however, unlike some of its analogues in other faith traditions, is an essentially private expression because it is worn under one’s street clothes. Thus, wearing the garment can symbolize “wearing” one’s faith–not to be “seen of men” (6) yet visibly affecting how one lives.
Along these same lines, the garment becomes a tangible sign of a Latter-day Saint’s entrance into adulthood or full-fledged membership in the community of the Saints, with the privileges and obligations that brings. As a 19-year-old, looking at myself in a mirror wearing the garment for the first time, I had a vivid sensation that I had crossed a threshold–that from now on, this was going to be my life. Receiving the garment is a rite of passage. It may be loosely compared, perhaps, to societies where the passage to adulthood is marked by the receipt of a tattoo or scar: symbolically, at least, regular wearing of the garment “marks” the initiate’s body. (This symbolism might have been especially pronounced back in the days when the marks were actually cut into the garment in the washing room.)
SYMBOLISM OF THE GARMENT
The garment is a rich symbol that can work at multiple levels. In the context of the initatory’s sequence of washing, anointing, and clothing (derived from Exodous 28), the garment is one piece of the priestly vestments that initiates don in the course of the endowment, betokening their consecration to God’s service and their empowerment to enter God’s presence. At the same time, receipt of the garment, said to represent the coat of skins from Genesis 3, identifies initiates with Adam and Eve and thus forms part of the endowment’s reenactment of the creation and the fall. The coat of skins–and thus the garment–can be read as a type of Christ’s atonement, which covers sin in a way that feeble human efforts (the fig leaf aprons) cannot.
At another level, the ritual of clothing evokes the promise that those who “have not defiled their garments” shall be “clothed in white raiment” (Revelation 3:4-5). (7) Read in the light of Matthew 22:11-14, a parable about a man who is thrown into outer darkness when he attends the king’s feast without a wedding garment, the temple garment may be understood as a symbol of spiritual preparedness, akin to the parable of the ten virgins with their oil lamps (Matthew 25:1-13). The initiatory’s injunction to cover one’s nakedness can be taken as an exhortation to prepare for judgment, in light of scriptural passages that equate nakedness with the shame of sin (Revelation 3:18; 2 Nephi 9:14; Mormon 9:5; cf. the allusion to the final judgment in the explanation of the knee mark).
The garment yields yet another set of meanings when seen as an enactment of scriptural metaphors about being clothed: with salvation and righteousness (Isaiah 61:10), with purity (2 Nephi 9:14), with humility (1 Peter 5:5), with charity (D&C 88:125), with strength (Psalm 18:39). Pushing this symbolism farther, receiving the garment can be seen as a token of being encircled in the robe of God’s righteousness and in the arms of safety (2 Nephi 4:33; Alma 34:16). Understood in this way, the garment is a sign of grace. The garment can be a symbolic reminder that we depend upon God for all we have, “both food and raiment” (Mosiah 4:19, 21), and that the One who clothes the lilies in glory has promised to clothe us also–to give us all that we need (Matthew 6:28-32).
THE GARMENT AS PROTECTION
Initiates are told that the garment “will be a shield and a protection to you against the power of the destroyer until you have finished your work here on earth.” Today, official Church discourse treats this as a spiritual promise: as a reminder of one’s covenants and a token of obedience to God’s commandments, the garment serves “as a protection against temptation and evil.” (8)
However, the notion that the garment can provide not only spiritual but also physical protection from harm has a long history among the Saints. Just one year after the death of Joseph Smith, members of the Quorum of the Twelve opined that Willard Richards had survived the attack on Carthage Jail because he had been wearing his garment. (Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, and John Taylor had removed their garments “on account of the hot weather.”) (9)
To this day, stories abound of Saints who have been miraculously saved from harm by the temple garment. Perhaps the most famous example comes from a 1996 feature on Mormons for60 Minutes, in which hotel magnate Willard Marriott told Mike Wallace of a boat fire that had consumed his pants yet left him unscathed above the knee, where his garment was. As a missionary, I read a typescript account about an elder from that same mission who had been the victim of a drive-by shooting a year before (during the 1990 Gulf War): according to his mother’s account, bullets shredded his shirt without piercing his garments, while the only wound he received was from a bullet that hit him below the knee.
D. Michael Quinn observes that stories such as these attribute to the garment the kind of power associated with a magical object such as an amulet. (10) That the stories survive in contemporary Mormonism is an indication of how vividly many Latter-day Saints believe in divine intervention and in the power connected to temple rituals.
THE GARMENT AS SACRED OBJECT
Miracle stories about the garment help to illustrate how important the garment is for many Latter-day Saints, not only as a symbol of their covenants or as a marker of identity, but as a sacred material object. Sanctity physically adheres to the garment as long as it bears the four marks. Not only what it represents, but the garment itself–the fabric, according to the Church Handbook of Instructions–is held to be sacred.
As with the temple ceremony in general, the sanctity of the garment is expressed in a mystique of “sacred secrecy” (to use theologian Douglas Davies’s term). Just as the endowment does not actually restrict initiates from discussing most aspects of the ceremony, neither does it enjoin secrecy about the garment. Yet in LDS lore and practice, public display of the garment is seen to be, at best, inadvisable and, at worst, a kind of taboo. Church leaders instruct the Saints not to “display [the garment] or expose it to the view of those who do not understand its significance.” (11) Anxieties about publicly displaying the garment have led to discussions about how LDS athletes should cope with public locker rooms or how soldiers should cope with open barracks. (In such situations, the Saints are advised to be as discreet as possible, to use questions about the garment as a teaching opportunity, and to bear ridicule with patience.)
Displays of the garment by non-Mormons–as in Tony Kushner’s drama Angels in America, in which Mormon characters are shown wearing the garment–are deeply offensive to many Saints. An indication of how strong Latter-day Saints’ feelings about the garment can run is a 2003 incident in which an anti-Mormon demonstrator at the Church’s General Conference blew his nose into a temple garment he was wearing around his neck; an incensed LDS observer was arrested for battery after trying to wrest the garment away from the protestor. LDS convictions about the garment’s significance as a sacred object are also conveyed in a widely circulating piece of folkore which narrates the divine destruction (usually by fire) of a laundromat whose owners hang temple garments in the window for public ridicule.
OTHER TEMPLE VESTMENTS
The sacred secrecy attached to the garment is even more pronounced for the other temple vestments: distressing as it is for Latter-day Saints to see the garment on public display, a display of the full temple regalia is worse. No doubt this is because the other temple vestments are worn only in the temple, never outside it, making a public display a greater transgression of boundaries.
The temple vestments seem to be loosely patterned after the priestly vestments described in Exodus 28. As the high priest wore a robe, an ephod, a girdle, and a mitre, so initiates don a robe, an apron, a sash, and, for men, a cap that looks vaguely like a turban. In place of a cap, women wear a veil, which they use to cover their faces during prayer, a practice no doubt inspired by 1 Corinthians 11:5. Men and women alike wear slippers in the temple instead of shoes, recalling God’s command that Moses remove his shoes on holy ground (Exodus 3:5). For the endowment, women wear white dresses, while men wear white shirts, white pants, and white ties; the temple vestments are placed over this basic clothing.
Except for the apron, which is green and stitched to resemble nine fig leaves, the temple vestments are white and unembroidered (though the robe may be pleated). The robe is designed such that it hangs from one shoulder; just before entering the Terrestrial Room, initiates remove the robe and turn it around to change it from the left shoulder to the right.
Like the temple garment, temple vestments are manufactured and sold by Church-owned Beehive Clothing. Initiates must purchase the garment, but in many temples vestments can be rented for a very low fee. The new, smaller temples now preferred by the Church typically are not large enough to have their own laundry facilities and therefore do not rent vestments, which means temple-goers have to purchase and bring their own.
The sale of temple vestments is controlled by requiring presentation of a current temple recommend. The sale of temple garments has not been so tightly controlled, since a person who has lost his or her temple recommend because of church discipline but who has not been excommunicated is encouraged to keep wearing the garment. However, as of August 2004, the presentation of a temple recommend or driver’s license is required to purchase the garment. This may be an attempt to prevent the desecration of garments by anti-Mormon protestors or the sale of garments on E-Bay.
Endowed Latter-day Saints who die in good church standing are usually buried in their temple clothing (the garment as well as the vestments).
- Information about the historical development of the garment is drawn from David John Buerger, The Mysteries of Godliness (San Francisco: Smith Research Associates, 1994).
- Church Handbook of Instructions, vol. 1 of 2 (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), 70.
- Instructions to wear the garment “both night and day” can be found in a First Presidency letter of November 5, 1996, quoted in David E. Sorensen, “The Doctrine of Temple Work,”Ensign (October 2003), 56.
- Colleen McDannell, Material Christianity: Religion and Popular Culture in America (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1995, chapter 7.
- The First Presidency ordered an end to such teaching. Letter to all temple presidents from the First Presidency, May 22, 1968; archived in “Research Notes on LDS Temples: Temple Clothes,” New Mormon Studies CD-ROM: A Comprehensive Resource Library (San Francisco, Smith Research Associates, 1998).
- Matthew 6:1-5.
- Several passages in the first chapters of Revelation have echoes in the initiatory: Revelation 1:5-6; 2:17; 3:4-5, 12, 18.
- First Presidency letter of November 5, 1996, quoted in Sorensen, 56. The same phrasing is used in a First presidency letter of October 10, 1988, quoted in Asay, 19. Similarly, Boyd K. Packer writes, “For many Church members the garment has formed a barrier of protection when the wearer has been faced with temptation” (The Holy Temple [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980], 79).
- Buerger, 147-148.
- D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, rev. ed. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998), 276.
- Church Handbook of Instructions, 69.