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Next page: Elissa Wall and Flora Jessop describe why they left the FLDS
Previous page: FLDS — Damned To Heaven, documentary
You can follow news about the FLDS via our Religion News Blog's FLDS news tracker.
Meanwhile, as news outlets are scrambling for angles to cover the story, various reporters have noted the odd way the sect's women -- in particular -- are dressed. See this video of an interview with three of the cult's women for a representative example.
Various reasons are given for the FLDS's unusual fasion:
When the women of a Texas polygamist cult emerged from self-imposed seclusion into the media spotlight this week, it looked to some outsiders as if they had stepped out of another century.
Wearing heavy pastel-colored dresses buttoned up to the neck and reaching down to the ground, their hair pinned up into tight, tall waves, the women congregated on the porches of the sprawling Yearning for Zion Ranch and pleaded for the return of their children, 314 of whom are in state custody while authorities investigate allegations of child abuse.
Their unusual appearance garnered nearly as much attention as their tears and meek manner.
“The compound fence isn’t the only cage for the women of polygamy,” Rebecca Walsh, a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune wrote in an article this week critical of the sect. “There is also a prison uniform: yards of pink and blue fabric, inches and inches of hair, and ugly orthopedic shoes.”
In a letter to the same paper, an unidentified female member of the sect responded to Walsh’s comments.
“I am free to dress as I like,” she wrote. “I think dresses are romantic. They bring out the feminine side in me. Our bodies are sacred. And they are not to display before the world. That is the reason we cover them. & Our motive is not isolation but simplicity.”
Like many other religious groups, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has a dress code, which in its case can be traced back to the late 19th century, a time when polygamy was still common in mainstream Mormonism. But those familiar with the cult say the women’s attire is not just a matter of tradition or preference. Rather, they say, fashions are dictated by very strict rules imposed and revised by sect elders to promote modesty and enforce religious devotion.
Controlling dress is a way of controlling behavior, experts say, and isolation from the outside world is precisely the point.
“They see the world as filled with the presence of Satan,” Stephen Kent, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, who has studied polygamy, told ABC News. “The conservative dress of the women sets them apart from the outside world. It fosters among them the attitude that the outside world is sensual and bad.”
Kent added that women in the polygamist sect are often proud of their appearance, seeing their attire as a reflection of their piety and proximity to God.
“These groups believe that they are the path to heaven,” Kent said. “And so they value their public statements about their elite exclusivity.”
Carolyn Jessop, a former member of the sect who was married to a 50-year-old man when she was 18 but later left the group, agreed. She told ABC News the distinctive style of dress was meant to make women feel not only separate from the outside world, but also more dependent on each other.
“It was just a way to control individuality,” Jessop said. “Everybody starts looking like everybody else. And then you control it to the point where people can’t be an individual.”
- Source: Polygamy Garb Born of Rules: Garment Rules Used to Control Women’s Individuality, Former Cult Members Say
ABC News, USA, Apr. 18, 2008
To outsiders, the women of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) trudging out of the courthouse each day look like a uniform pastel parade. But for the religious community members, modest, pioneer-like clothing is much more than a reflection of the lifestyle choices they've made.
For these women, fashion is a matter of life and death.
Carolyn Jessop, the ex-wife of current YFZ Ranch leader Merril Jessop, fled the FLDS community in Colorado City, Ariz., five years ago and is the author of the best-selling memoir "Escape." According to Jessop, fundamentalist doctrines preach that clothing will be the deciding factor God's armies use on Judgment Day to differentiate between the righteous and the evil.
"It was sobering - especially to a 6-year-old - to think that you could . . . end up dead if you didn't wear the right clothes," she writes of her first fashion epiphany.
Unacceptable clothing would incur a swift crackdown from within the community.
"If I were to wear a skirt that someone thought was too short, since we were all related, they'd have the right to correct that because everybody had the right to keep the family in line," says Jessop, speaking to The Post by phone from her home in Utah. "Right away, my father would get five phone calls."
Every day, FLDS women don between four and five under-layers - long prophet-mandated underwear, bra, leggings and slips, she says.
Despite the scorching summer heat in Eldorado, Texas, where the current headquarters are, and Colorado City, where the Yearning for Zion sect was previously situated, the handmade dresses are constructed of synthetic polyester or rayon.
"Polyester fabrics last forever and don't stain easily," Jessop says.
"And when you're wearing layers of fabric, rayons hang really nicely if you get the right weave - they shape the body and are quite elegant."
On their feet? Skechers, the mall staple.
"They still wear Skechers," Jessop says.
"Skechers are a big thing down there - the lace-up ones can look pretty nice with those dresses. And they're a sports shoe. You're on your feet all day long - a lot of times you're working in the garden, cooking in the kitchen, cleaning the house. It's not a job where you're sitting down."
After a 1953 state raid on the polygamists' community in Short Creek, Ariz., dress regulations began to get stricter. A new crackdown began when Warren Jeffs, imprisoned last year for his complicity in the rape of a 14-year-old girl, took over after the death of his father, Rulon, in 2002.
"Warren tried to teach people to live in scarcity," Jessop says.
"I was married to a man who was more affluent, so I probably had about 20 or 30 outfits. But Warren mandated that if you had more than five dresses, that was too much. He nailed it down to where everything was so sparse.
"His thing was always about the spirit of God," she says.
Jeffs famously banned the word "fun" and the color red from the community.
"First you couldn't wear a solid red dress, then a dress with a red flower on it," Jessop says. "Then, not a pinstripe of red in a tie.
"It's like Warren just stayed at home dreaming up what to ban next," she says. "It was literally that crazy."
- Source: Latter-Day Restraints, New York Post, Apr. 22, 2008
Of all the news surrounding the capture of polygamous prophet Warren Steed Jeffs, one tidbit stood out for many of his current and former followers: What he was wearing.
Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was clad in shorts and a short-sleeve white T-shirt - a marked departure from the ankle to wrist dress code, worn over white religious undergarments, imposed on his followers.
“It is going to be a big deal in a lot of people’s minds because he has cut people off for doing the very same thing,” said Winston Blackmore, a Canadian polygamist and former FLDS member.
While some might justify the clothing as part of a necessary disguise, others said it seemed to violate the “perfection” Jeffs demanded, which he may have recognized.
Jeffs asked to be allowed to change into his “regular” clothes before he was taken from the FBI office to the Clark County Detention Center and photographed, according to David G. Nanz, an FBI special agent with the Las Vegas division.
Naomi Jessop Jeffs, one of his plural wives, also asked to be allowed to change from pants to a dress.- Source: Warren Jeffs’ attire raises questions, Brooke Adams, The Salt Lake Tribune, Sep. 1, 2006
Jeffs and his brother were wearing cargo shorts and white, short-sleeved cotton T-shirts. FLDS boys and men are never supposed to wear short-sleeved shirts or shorts. All members of the sect are supposed to have their bodies covered at all times and wear a ”temple garment” - religious underwear - that covers them from neck to wrist to ankle.
Naomi was wearing jeans and a pink T-shirt, a far cry from her usual long-sleeved, ankle-length dresses in pastel ginghams or floral prints.
The fact that the SUV was red has also been a subject of much interest on Internet blogs. Jeffs and previous prophets had banned red. Some said it was the colour of the devil, but Jeffs told his followers that red was off limits because that’s the colour of cloak Jesus will be wearing when he returns to Earth following the apocalypse.
Jeffs banned books, newspapers, television, radio and DVDs. He ordered all family photos destroyed. Some say he even banned laughing for a while.
His followers will likely not see or hear reports of their prophet being described as ”meek,” ”timid” and ”pale.” They probably won’t hear that when he was arrested, he had at least $54,000 in cash, 15 cellphones, four portable radios, four laptop computers, three wigs, a collection of sunglasses, a police scanner, a GPS device and a duffel bag believed to be stuffed with even more cash.
- Source: Warren Jeffs followers thought he’d never be caught, Daphne Bramham, AP/CanWest News Service, via the National Post, Sep. 1, 2006
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