What does Mormon underwear look like and what is it for?
Flan: Mormons apparently wear some sort of magic underwear. I’ve asked a few about this, but they have been evasive. What does this underwear look like? Do men and women wear different kinds? What is the supposed benefit of wearing it? Is there anywhere non-Mormons can buy some? Love your column.
Dr Mike: Mormon underwear has long been a subject of fascination, both to curious non-believers, who seem intrigued at the very idea of holy lingerie, and to orthodox churchgoers, who argue that the Mormons’ firm belief in the ritual powers of their nether garments is proof that they have no claim to be a Christian sect.
The gear itself traditionally comprises a white cotton all-in-one called the ‘Garment of the Holy Priesthood and the New Name, which covers the whole body from the neck to the knees and is cut off at the arms like a T-shirt. It is notoriously hot and uncomfortable to wear, and in recent years more liberal Saints have substituted a more airy two-piece version of the Garment.
Anyway, the sacred undies are handed over at the Mormon equivalent of a confirmation service, which can only take place when the would-be initiate has reached the age of 19. After a series of ritual washings, which are believed to cleanse the new Mormon of sin, a temple worker holds the new Mormon’s Garment open wide at the neck, and the ‘patron’ steps into it (right leg first). It is then pulled up the sides, and first the right arm and then the left are slipped through the sleeves. After the initiate is presented with the Garment, they are required to wear it against the skin day and night, so the most devout female Mormons wear their bras over their Garment.
‘This garment,’ an official Church of the Later Day Saints website tells us, ‘serves three important purposes: it is a reminder of the sacred covenants made with the Lord in his holy house, a protective covering for the body, and a symbol of the modesty of dress and living that should characterize the lives of all the humble followers of Christ.’
It seems, however, that there is more to these ‘humble’ undies than meets the eye. Each undergarment has a number of ‘occult’ markings sewn into it; many commentators have suggested that these were created by early Mormons who were familiar with the rites of Freemasonry. The right breast features two adjoining buttons, rather like a backwards “L” which resemble the Masonic ‘square’, while the left breast is adorned with two more buttonholes in the shape of a ‘compass’ resembling a capital “V”. Sewn into the abdomen and knee area are further markings which look like ordinary button-holes.
Mormons believe their undergarments protect them from Satan, and that they are replicas of the garment given by God to Adam in the Garden of Eden. ‘Inasmuch as you do not defile [your Garment],’ they are assured, ‘but are true and faithful to your covenants, it will be a shield and a protection to you against the power of the Destroyer until you have finished your work here on Earth.’ Mormon folklore is full of stories of Saints’ miraculous escapes from danger, which are frequently attributed to the power of the holy threads. One well-known believer, Marriott hotels big noise Willard ‘Bill’ Marriott, often tells how his Garment prevented him from suffering hideous burns when he was caught in a boating accident. Given the stout quality of Mormon tailoring, this story is quite likely true.
The long-term future of the Garment seems to be uncertain. The underwear is so heavy and restrictive that many more liberal Mormons discard it at least on occasion; all-time great American Football quarterback Steve Young, of the San Francisco 49ers, has famously admitted to removing his Garment before he plays. He believes sweating on his sacred clothing would defile it.
That said, you’ll find it hard to lay your hands on a Garment. Each Mormon receives his or her own undies in a very sacred, very personal Temple ceremony, and, so far as we can tell, is very probably buried in them. You certainly can’t just pop down to your local Mormon outfitters and buy some.
[Afterword (11 June 2011). Nate Cregan writes:
Hi Mike, I'm a practicing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a Mormon), and was hoping that I could clarify and make some corrections to your page entitled "Mormon Underwear." I feel like you've been fair in your assessment, and I'm by no means offended, but either some of the information you list is old, or from a misinformed source. "It is notoriously hot and uncomfortable to wear, and in recent years more liberal Saints have substituted a more airy two-piece version of the Garment." To say that only "liberal" members of our church are switching to the two piece is not true. I'm not fully aware of when the two piece garment was introduced, but for some time now it has been the standard and an extremely small number of people still wear the one piece garment (which I don't understand, because as you rightly note it is uncomfortable and awkward when, for example, you need to use the restroom). As for them being hot, also not true. At least not any hotter then the typical boxers and undershirt that most men wear anyways.
Additionally, I have never heard any member of the church (besides in some sacred ceremonies in the temple) refer to the garment as anything other than "the garment" or "garments." The garment is given to members of their church before their first trip through the Temple for a ceremony we refer to as an Endowment. This ceremony is quite sacred to us, and only received when the church member is leaving on a mission, or right before they get married. Because of their sacred nature, Endowments and garments are only given to those who attest that they are living the standards of the Gospel and are willing to keep their word in upholding those standards.
People like to make a big deal about the fact that we feel our garments have some sort of magical protection about them. Although, as you mention, we are told they will act as a protective covering, that is not what is stressed to members of the church. Just as wedding rings are not a union of a couple, but merely a representation and reminder to the couple of the commitment they have made to one another, Garments are most importantly symbols to Latter-day saints that remind them of the promises they made in the Temple, and what the Lord expects of us. People not of our faith, I believe, focus more on the "shield and protection" clause because it sounds more sensational, but fail to finish the sentence ("against the power of the Destroyer" - meaning Satan, not injury). While there are accounts of people being protected physically, which I do not wish to discount, I believe that more frequently people are protected in a spiritual sense. If you are constantly wearing a reminder of promises you have made with God, you are more likely to honor those promises and thus be protected from the temptations of Satan.
The future of the garment is by no means uncertain. It will be around as long as the Church (which is not going anywhere any time soon) is around. Members are instructed to wear their garments whenever it can be reasonably worn under their clothing. I play a lot of soccer (football if you wish :D) and remove my garment while playing because I don't want them covered in grass stains, and they don't offer the support necessary to prevent injury. Also, members of the church frequently go swimming, which requires the removal of the garment. We just re-dress ourselves in the garment as soon as we can after said activity, and don't go looking for reasons to remove it.
Finally, we hope that non-members aren't out looking to get their hands on garments, they are sacred to us and too often people want them to make fun and defame. That said, garments actually ARE purchased at the local Mormon outfitters, but only members with a signed and validated recommend (pass into the temple) are allowed to purchase them. We don't just wear one pair of garments for our entire life, but just like you have many pairs of underclothes, we have many pairs of garments, members are encouraged to replace their garments before they get too old and ratty. You are right, we are buried in them, with clothes over the top. I didn't mean to turn this into a term paper, sorry for the long reading, but you seem like a reasonable individual trying to answer people's questions the best you can, and I thought I would do what I can to help you in that.
If my lengthy email has raised questions, please feel free to email me and ask; while we keep somethings sacred, there's no reason Mormons have to be obscure. Thanks for reading, Nate C]