In a historic move, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released a YouTube video describing the temple garments many of its faithful members wear, which had been treated as secret until now. Those include undergarments worn every day and robes worn solely in the temple during sacred ceremonies. The mystery has been removed not only for people outside the church, but also for many Mormons themselves.
“Before I had personally gone to the temple, I had never seen the temple robes and had no idea what to expect. Most of my LDS friends have also never seen the robes before going to the temple themselves. That was the portion of the video most exciting to this generation,” Blake Oakey, 22, a lifelong church member and co-founder of the blog Millennial Mormons, told International Business Times. While non-members may be more curious about the undergarments, the temple robes are treated with far more secrecy within Mormon culture.
The clothing depicted in the video has been a target of ridicule in pop culture, most notably during Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign, when the undergarments were dubbed “magic Mormon underwear.” In the new four-minute video, the LDS Church shows two kinds of garments: those worn underneath a person’s clothing every day and night, and the robes worn only inside a Mormon temple. Both are meant to represent covenants made by church members. They serve as reminders of these promises and are meant to offer protection from spiritual harm.
“I grew up thinking about much of what happens in the LDS temple as a very closed activity, and watching grown-ups speak very obliquely about LDS temple garments,” David Mason, a professor at Rhodes College in Memphis who is Mormon, told IBTimes. “So the LDS church’s very frank look at this element of its temple worship struck me as out of character with the very circumspect temple life of my younger days.”
Christopher Bigelow, a member of the church who co-wrote the book “Mormonism for Dummies,” remembers how his parents put their temple clothes in a suitcase in the closet. “Before this video, I was under the impression that members weren't ever allowed to show temple garments or clothes to non-Mormons, so this is really a big cultural change,” he said.
Both sets of garments are for Mormons who have been "endowed," a process that can begin when they turn 18 and involves getting recommendations from the local bishop and the president of a local church unit called a stake. During this process they are questioned about their faith and their moral conduct. They attend temple prep classes, and then can be invited to the temple to receive their endowment. Often endowment is the first time a member is permitted to venture into the private areas of a Mormon temple. The details of the ceremonies are not disclosed to anyone not cleared to attend them -- whether Mormons too young to receive their endowment, members who are not in good standing and therefore don't hold a "temple recommend," or of course non-church members. Temple garments were also kept secret-- until now.
“The transparency of this announcement means members of the upcoming generation will have more resources and will be better prepared than we were to attend the temple and make sacred covenants,” Oakey said.
But this newfound publicity does not mean that people can freely buy the garments.
Members can buy both the undergarments and temple robes from LDS Distribution Centers, which are usually found attached to larger Mormon temples and in areas with Mormon populations. They can also be bought online, but orders can be placed only by those who have a "membership record number."
The undergarments come in different styles. For men, it’s T-shirt and shorts. For women, bottoms come in shorts and capris. Tops are camisoles with different cuts at the neckline. Both come in different fabric choices. Typically they are white but can come in green for members of the military. For men, the garments cost around $3 or $4 each. They are made in the U.S., by Beehive Manufacturing Company, based in American Fork, Utah. According to a 2013 job posting, only members of the LDS Church who are “temple worthy” will be considered for hire by the company. (The beehive is a commonly used image in Mormon culture, and is also the symbol of the state of Utah, where the LDS Church is based.)
Members are expected to wear the garments at all times except while swimming, bathing, showering, sweating (at the gym) and during sex. Women wear their bras on top of the garments. During their period, some women choose to wear general underwear underneath to protect the garment.
“One thing that the video doesn't show or explain is that a few small, simple marks are sewn into the garments at various locations. In general, these sacred symbols serve as reminders of covenants made to live a righteous life and serve God,” Bigelow said. While he would not go into detail about those marks, Oakey explained they are on the chest, stomach and leg. For military members, the marks can be removed when the clothes are sent out to be laundered.
Since the garments are considered sacred, members are supposed to never let them fall on the ground, or wear them when they get discolored or ragged. The proper way of disposing of the garments involves removing the marks and destroying them along with the fabric. This process is explained in the LDS Church’s handbook.
Inside the Mormon community, temple garments come up in conversation from time to time.
“Members will often discuss the garment, but mostly in lighter terms. They talk about the various fabrics and fits, and how those affect our choices to dress modestly in order to keep them covered and respected,” Oakey said. While it is a choice for members to wear them, typically those who are married, went on a mission and make the temple part of their regular religious life wear the garments. Some Mormons use the garments as a way to identify fellow church members.
“I remember growing up in Nebraska, a place not heavily populated with LDS members, and being at the store with my mom,” Oakey said. “She would point someone out in the aisle and tell me they were Mormon just because my mother knew how to tell if someone was wearing garments.”
In the past, Mormons who were asked about garments and other practices often replied that such details are kept quiet not because they are secret but because they are sacred. Still, outsiders' curiosity was hard to slake. With the video’s release, the veil over this part of Mormon culture has been lifted.
“It's actually a big relief to be able to refer people to this video. It makes being a Mormon feel more mainstream, less weird and cultish,” Bigelow said.