Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood

Mormon Women Who Wear Pants to Church: A Manifesto

bloomers-picture-mrs-bloomer-3.jpgA few weeks ago at church, a visitor from another ward stayed after Relief Society to chat with me. After talking for several minutes about important things like suffering, prayer, and healing, she threw me for a loop with a completely different topic of conversation.

“Can I ask you a random question?” she said.


“Why do you wear pants to church?”

I stared and stammered a little — an unusually inchoate response from me. I was completely thrown by the question, which I considered a fairly shallow inquiry coming hard on the heels of a meaningful theological discussion. But it was obviously important to the woman standing in front of me, who seemed like a very kind person who somehow couldn’t reconcile the fact that a member of the Relief Society presidency could unapologetically wear slacks to church almost every week.


I did not give her a satisfying answer. In the weeks since then, I’ve thought of several responses I could or should have provided, including my favorite: “Well, in all those dreams I’ve had where I showed up to church having forgotten my pants, nothing ever ends well.”

  • I could have tried the practical route and pointed out that it was fifteen degrees outside and I deserved to stay warm in winter.
  • I could have tried the service route and noted that I am sometimes on standby as a substitute nursery leader, and pants gave me the flexibility to play on the floor with two-year-olds. 
  • I could have played the modesty card and observed that pants cover up far more of my body than skirts and run less risk of unintentional garment peekage.
  • I could also have made a legitimate case that since most of the first-timers who show up in Relief Society are wearing pants, someone in the leadership should wear pants to let them know that they’re absolutely welcome in church even if they don’t dress like Molly Mormon.

cyclistsx20.jpgThere were lots of ways I could have played it, but the real reason — “Because I am in charge of my own life, and I prefer pants” — would only have prolonged the conversation. So I basically stared, and wondered.  Why in the world is this insignificant cultural issue even a topic of discussion? 


I’m not aware of any official pronouncements on this subject, which is an appropriate lacuna because the whole question is silly. I don’t require a pat on the head from a guy in pants in Salt Lake City giving me permission to wear pants. It’s hardly a gospel question; it’s a cultural one that is steeped in Mormon ideas of class, gender, and respectability. 

I’d rather focus on the actual needs in my ward, the task of healing my little corner of the world. So I will roll up my shirtsleeves — and my pantlegs, if it comes to that — and get to work. 

  • Course Correction

    “Well, in all those dreams I’ve had where I showed up to church having forgotten my pants, nothing ever ends well.”
    Great retort–at least you’re prepared if anyone else asks you.

  • Janet Oberholtzer

    Hi my name is Janet and I like pants :)
    Some Mennonites and Mormons must be alike. Sounds like a question someone would ask in the strict traditional Mennonite church I grew up in. I used to look at women in pants and wonder if there was any way I could wear pants and not go to hell.

  • Ebenezer Robinson

    I’m not aware of official pronouncements, but for most of my (fairly-long) life in the church, most bishops/SPs have maintained a strong dress standard that, in brief, consisted of “no sister may wear pants in the chapel.” Including inviting visitors wearing pants to sit in the foyer. Somehow the presence of women in pants was supposed to interfere with the reverence of the chapel. Or the sacredness. Or something. I never figured it out.
    Luckily this seems to have essentially disappeared in the last 10 or 15 years. But clearly there are generations of members who have been socialized in the old ways, and who find that question more important than that of the effect of the Atonement in their lives. It’s good when they can meet faithful women in leadership positions who aren’t bound by old, meaningless traditions.
    Now if our RS pres would just wear her motorcycle leathers to church…

  • smb

    It’s a pretty ancient worldview, isn’t it, this notion that men and women must maintain their physical and metaphysical distinctions in every respect? I suspect you could use the world “liminal” productively in this conversation. I’d be curious whether anyone has compared the fate of the man who refuses to wear a tie or suit to church with the woman who refuses to wear a skirt/dress. Are they equivalent rejections of dressing standards, or is the woman in pants a bigger risk to categories of identity? (The other comparison of course is the man wearing a skirt, who would be still more transgressive at least partly because in that old worldview the man has a greater responsibility to be manly than the woman womanly.)
    In the spirit of your esprit d’escalier, I wonder about “because dresses always get caught on my navel ring” as a possible explanation.

  • KLS

    or “I hate riding sidesaddle”

  • Linda

    Our family visited a remote town in Hawaii one year and went to their branch on Sunday. I noticed with a sigh that all the men behind the sacrament table were wearing white shirts and ties. Somehow I thought things might be a little bolder in this tropical paradise. Then when they stood up I noticed that all of them were wearing the traditional Hawaiian men’s skirt (lava lava?). I felt much better.

  • Jana H

    My husband wears multi-colored shirts (sometimes tie-less!) to church, and has fairly long curly hair with facial hair.
    I wear skirts on Sunday, though there are several sisters who do wear pants (usually in a sort of boho fashion under a wrap-skirt or long tunic). Sunday is the only day I can break out my skirts (a vast collection of quirky vintage looks collected before I had children), and so I do.
    I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable wearing pants to church, and often did wear stretch pants under tunics while pregnant.
    I did once have a seminary teacher who claimed pants on women weren’t allowed in the chapel, but it’s been at least 15 years since I heard anything of the sort.

  • Maggie Powell

    I understand dress codes but surely going to church and having the right spirit is better than worrying about clothes.

  • Whitney

    I am certain a nice pair of slacks is more appropriate for church than some of the less formal “beach attire” I sometimes encounter. I believe dressing modestly and formally shows my respect for God, whether that takes the form of pants, dresses, or skirts. Unfortunately, my family currently thinks I am on the brink of apostasy because I refuse to do my future husband’s laundry, so I’m laying off the pants issue for now to break them in gently. I am grateful to hear people share my opinions, though.

  • Kris

    It’s difficult for me to respond positively to articles asking for more open attitudes from others when they themselves seem to have disdain for how others have chosen to behave. Quotes such as “dress like Molly Mormon” and “a guy in Salt Lake wearing pants” seems to reveal a negative attitude to others. Let the respect go both ways. Would you look down on me because I do choose to wear a dress, and because I wear sometimes frumpy older styles due to a lack of new clothes, that I would fall in the Molly Mormon category. I hope you’d accept me for the way I dress.

  • Kevin

    Jana –
    When I was teach Seminary last year, from time to time I used the example of LDS men wearing white shirts and ties as an example of how easily we can slip into pride on either side of a seemingly inconsequential issue. I hope it’s close enough to the skirt/pants issue to be relevant here.
    I see things this way:
    On the one hand, “the faithful” (i.e., those in white shirts and ties — and yes, my tongue is firmly planted in my cheek) can get pretty darn worked up over our unofficial dress code. How, may I ask, is it increasing one’s spirituality to point out the gray pinstripe in the shirt the bishop is wearing while presiding over Sacrament Meeting? Is a priesthood blessing any less effective if the giver is wearing a blue shirt with an open collar?
    On the other hand, when we choose not to follow any societal norm, what does that say about our desire to be “one”? Or about our humility before God, which includes respect for His servants, no matter how “misguided” we have so objectively found them to be? The emotion with which we respond when asked about our nonconforming attire or hairstyle suggests that we ourselves are not actually as OK with our choices as we might like to think we are.
    I wonder if perhaps issues like this exist specifically to be a stumbling block for a great number of us who desire a closer relationship with the Lord? I suspect that “passing” the test here might look like the following:
    *Conformers’ being able to withhold judgment of other’s appearances, including the silent kind
    *Non-conformers’ being able to hear the critical comments of others as a reflection of that individual’s discomfort rather than experiencing it as an attack on their faith
    For myself, I generally “toe the line” with regard to hair and dress for one specific, reasonably well thought-out-reason: I don’t want my appearance to get in the way of my ability to serve the Lord. Am I a “better” person for it? Nah. But at least the people who are hurting themselves by judging me have to work a little harder at it. :)

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Back in 1972, I was newly married an living in an apartment in the same stake (diocese) as my grandfather. We went to a stake priesthood meeting, and the stake president read a letter from the First Presidency (of the LDS Church), which he introduced by saying he was going to read it loud and clear so no one would misunderstand it. The letter said that NO young man should be barred from participation in the administration of the Sacrament (of the Lord’s Supper) in our Sunday worship services, due to his length of hair or hair style. At the time it was clear that, in my ward at least, the bishop (who happened to be a barber) would not let a teenager with hair over his ears do the usual service of blessing the sacrament as a Priest (age 16-18), of preparing it as a Teacher (age 14-15), or carrying a tray to the congregation as a Deacon (age 12-13). Afterward, my grandfather, rather hard of hearing, turned to me and said “It’s good to know the Brethren have put their foot down and won’t let boys with long hair participate in the sacrament”–the opposite of what had been said from the pulpit. Our cultural assumptions are so strong that we cling to them in the face of direct evidence to the contrary.
    When I was in high school in the 1960s, school dress codes in Utah allowed knee length skirts, but condemned girls wearing pants OR wearing floor length skirts. Both the prohibited options were far more modest than the permitted short skirts. And then there were cheerleader uniforms and the short shorts worn by girls in gym class. The code seemed to exist more as an exercise of sheer power than to enforce any standard of modesty or restraint.
    An associate at my former law firm told my wife and daughter that, as an undergrad at BYU, she one day was going to take a test at the exam center, where all tests are proctored en masse, but was told that she could not enter because her bra strap was showing outside the coverage of her dress. She then went to the restroom and removed her bra, and so was allowed to enter and take her test.
    In Tonga, a young man in Sacrament Meeting may administer the Sacrament while wearing a Lavalava wrap, a kind of skirt. In the Philippines, a typical dress shirt has no tie and is worn without a jacket.
    Now, it is still clear that the Church leaders expect bishops and stake leaders to adopt a pretty strict appearance code, including removal of mustaches that are so identified with male pride in Latin cultures. And obviously missionaries have a strict appearance standard. But given the extremes to which people in the modern world go (tattoos, piercings, barely there clothes), the simplicity of dress guidelines for ordinary LDS is enough to make us stand out.

  • Jana Riess

    Great points, Raymond. Thank you for sharing these stories.

  • lizzie

    When I was an investigator I went to a chapel in rural Scotland and found almost all the women wore pants. I suspect cultural norms come into all of this. Scottish women rarely wear skirts or dresses , especially in rural areas. Many wouldn’t have a skirt or dress in their wardrobe.
    The Sunday Best dress code seems to be about American interpretation of what constitutes respectful attire for chapel.. I suspect in Scotland may women would find the sort of clothes suggested in the USA as fancy dress if they wore them here.
    People should surely wear what is culturally respectful where they are living not a code that doesn’t belong.
    We have such high winds in Scotland, it would feel far more immodest to wear skirts and dresses I can assure you.

  • CH

    I agree with Jana. The expectation/requirement that women wear dresses to Church is a cultural and generational leftover that has no spiritual significance — other than perhaps being a measure of obedience to Church leadership. Personally, I don’t obey things I don’t believe and therefore see no reason to follow an antiquated dress code in order worship or be spiritual.
    I think also it takes people challenging old modes of thought for change to happen. The changes regarding blacks and the priesthood were in response to the questioning of a small but open minded minority. And while I wouldn’t dare of comparing myself to Jesus I think his MO was as one who challenged the status quo and un-necessary laws and regulations. Hell, Joseph Smith did as well for that matter.
    Does it really matter what someone wears when worshipping? I don’t think so. Not for those who are spiritually and emotionally mature— and hopefully we’ve moved beyond that idea.
    Personally I wish more LDS men and women lived more honestly based on their own beliefs rather than accepting things w/o question. Doing so would likely allow the Church to clear out some of the excess cultural baggage. Instead people like Jana are dismissed as merely liberal or rebellious— and that’s too bad.

  • Steve

    Mormons are unfortunately very judgmental people who appearances are overly important too. This is why Utah leads the nation in per capita plastic surgery for instance. They claim to worship Jesus but wouldn’t let him into one of their meetings. Most are so bent on conformity they forget what is really important. Conform or Die Mormons!

  • Kara

    I might be able to become active again, since (and I’m only being partly facetious) the prospect of doing battle with a dress and nylons (see how I also simply assume everyone is expected to wear nylons?) is a major factor influencing my rolling over in bed and mumbling, “Not this week,” every week, rather than leaping out of bed and trotting happily off to church!
    I realize you say that this question shouldn’t even merit discussion, but honestly, the idea that it’s OKAY to wear pants to church because it’s only a cultural consideration never would’ve occurred to me. I’ve *wished* I could wear pants to church. I know that if I *did* wear pants to church, I’d shortly thereafter be accused of murder for embarrassing my grandmother to death. We live in a small-ish Utah town and my wearing pants to church would actually probably be more embarrassin for her than my being inactive. For reals.
    Anyway, I don’t know where I’m going with this, but I feel so freeeeeeEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!
    In related news: Must investigate the possibility that I am literally, biologically, part sheep.

  • Stubbycat

    What people wear to church is a minimal,superficial false human concern. What people bring to church in love and healing power is the issue according to Christ Jesus, who mastered matter with divine consciousness.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment becca

    Thank you for this Jana! I was approached by a rather overbearing woman one Sunday who told me “We have standards for our young women.” I wanted to say so badly “Those standards include modesty, are my pants immodest?” I held my tongue though, and now everyone seems to just accept my slacks (after the bishop stepped in without my asking, though)…which is fine, cause I’m gonna keep on wearing them no matter what.

    • Jana Riess

      Good for you, sister!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Abram

    interesting. I became a non-mormon several years, ago. When I left , women and girls always only wore skirts to Sunday meetings. I was kind of surprised to learn, recently, that Mormon females wear Pants to church, now. Huh…. I no longer doubt that women will be given the priesthood, in my lifetime, in the Mormon church. That Sister Smith has been called to be the new bishop of the ward. heh… that will be fun..

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