Clothing was first fashioned by God himself: “Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them.” (Gen. 3:21.) The Lord knew that the Fall had opened Adam’s and Eve’s eyes to their nakedness, as well as unleashing powerful new appetites and desires. Out of love for his children, he dressed them in coats of skins.
Clothing Adam and Eve was one of the first acts of mercy the Lord extended to mortals. A richly symbolic gesture, clothing humanity foreshadowed the final mercy God will grant his children when he shall clothe them in the “robe of righteousness” and “garments of salvation.” (Isa. 61:10.) Clothing the naked also exemplifies the godlike mercy we are to manifest toward each other. (See, for example, Matt. 25:36; Mosiah 4:26.)
From the first to the last, then, clothing is more than a superficial matter. Clothes were provided by God to shield and protect us against not only the harsh elements of nature but also the temptations of our fallen natures, which the adversary seeks to exploit. Clothing allows us to express our individuality and to develop one of the most gracious of all virtues—modesty.
The word modesty ultimately stems from the Latin term modus, meaning “measure.” Hence modesty connotes balance, proportion, restraint, and (from the same root) moderation. Its opposites would be excess, extremity, lack of restraint, outlandishness, intemperateness, immoderation, and so forth. Thus modest dress is measured, as are modest speech and conduct. Like charity, modesty “vaunteth not itself, … doth not behave itself unseemly.” (1 Cor. 13:4–5.) It does not seek undue attention, does not flaunt itself, but shows respect for the feelings of others. Though it means much more than merely good manners, modesty belongs among the social virtues because it requires sensitivity and tact.
Modest people are aware of prevailing standards of taste and decency. They know that within the bounds the Lord has established, norms of modesty may vary from culture to culture, from generation to generation, from youth to age, and even from one activity to another. For example, the athletic shorts that are appropriate at a Church basketball game would be inappropriate at sacrament meeting. Similarly, the knee-covering skirt that might have been considered immodest a century ago is generally acceptable today, except in some countries where it still might be regarded as highly provocative and immodest. Modesty requires sensitivity about what our dress communicates to others.
For clothing clearly does communicate. What we wear serves more than the practical functions of keeping us warm in the winter and shaded in the summer. Dress is a language that we employ to express who we are—to make statements—and dress that is modest in what it covers may still be immodest in what it communicates.
Since that time in the beginning when the Lord fashioned coats of skins for Adam and Eve, humans have concocted countless ways to drape the human body, each style conveying certain messages in its own time. The Lord’s Church does not take a position on the innumerable fashions the world invents in its endless retailoring. In this, as in so many other things, we must learn to govern ourselves based on correct principles.
Two divine principles may help guide us in our choices: clothes should (1) cover our nakedness and (2) communicate who we truly are as children of God and, by covenant, disciples of Christ.
Guided by these principles, we might answer for ourselves specific questions such as these:
—Does my attire call improper attention to me? Do my clothes cause people to focus on my outward appearance in such a way that they might either misunderstand me or misjudge my character?
—Is my attire revealing? Does it properly cover my nakedness? (Here, the temple garments might serve as a guide to the Lord’s standards.)
—Does my clothing suit the occasion? Does it fit the environment in which I am wearing it? For example, we are asked to wear our best clothing (whatever this may be) to the temple and to Church meetings in order to lend reverence, restraint, and dignity to the atmosphere where sacred ordinances are performed.
—Do I feel comfortable with my grooming and dress in the presence of those I most respect and admire? Does my dress set a good example for those I love—my children, siblings, co-workers, fellow Saints? (We might choose different swimming, jogging, or car-washing attire if we knew we’d meet the prophet while we were wearing it.)
—And finally, does my attire and grooming require so much of my time, attention, and means that I neglect more important, weightier matters? A sonnet by Shakespeare vividly raises this issue. The poet laments the attention he lavishes on his outside while letting his soul “pine within and suffer dearth.” He asks himself:
“Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion [body] spend?”
Rather than starve the soul, he resolves:
“Within be fed, without be rich no more.” (Sonnet 146.)
If we conscientiously asked ourselves the preceding questions, basing our responses on correct principles, we could become a more modest people. Perhaps we would resemble the Nephites in Alma’s day, who “did impart of their substance … to the poor, and the needy, and the sick, and the afflicted; and they did not wear costly apparel, yet they were neat and comely.” (Alma 1:27.)
In addition to these guidelines, which apply to all Latter-day Saints, each age group faces unique challenges in practicing modesty. Let us briefly consider modesty as it pertains to children, youth, and adults (especially temple-endowed adults).
Somewhere between the time a toddler answers the door when he is straight from the bathtub and towelless and the time a pubescent teenager locks the door merely to brush her teeth, children become, like Adam and Eve, conscious of their nakedness. As parents, we can use the child’s earliest years to instill principles of modesty and to form correct habits.
My wife, for example, remembers the time during her childhood when she enthusiastically brought her mother a picture of a woman in a strapless gown. “Look how pretty this dress is, Mommy,” she said. Her wise mother quietly replied, “Oh, no, Susie, we don’t wear dresses like that,” and then explained why. Thus she prepared her daughter as a child to dress in a modest way after she grew to womanhood.
My wife, in turn, taught her daughters from their infancy not to go without shirts and not to wear bikinis and other immodest types of swimwear. Likewise, we gave our son a coat and tie when he was baptized so he could begin to dress like the priesthood holders he saw passing the sacrament. Our conviction was that children needed to begin early to form habits that will help them be modest adolescents and adults. Even more important, they should come to know and to feel that the body truly is a temple. (See 1 Cor. 3:16; D&C 93:35.)
To an adolescent, the body may feel less like a temple than a tempest as it surges with new emotions and lurches from childhood to adulthood. Adolescence is a particularly difficult but crucial time for practicing modesty, with many pressures conspiring against modest dress and behavior during the teenage years.
Not the least is peer pressure. Teenagers need to learn to balance the sometimes competing demands of what’s in vogue and what’s virtuous. Practicing modesty need not make them misfits; this is not what the Lord means when he says he would have us be a “peculiar” people. Peculiar literally means we are his special treasure, purchased with his blood. Latter-day Saint teenagers show themselves peculiar in the true sense when their dress and demeanor reflect their spiritual identity as covenant citizens of “an holy nation.” (See 1 Pet. 2:9; see also “Peculiar,” Bible Dictionary.)
Many teenagers feel the need to dress like others in their peer group or to wear styles that enhance their sense of themselves as individuals, as attractive, and as different from adults. This is not wrong, so long as their fashion also sets them apart from the crude and vulgar and unworthy, and so long as their dress is conducive to the Spirit.
Like children, adolescents also need to be explicitly taught principles of modesty. Adults sometimes forget that the adolescent who suddenly looks so grown-up may not comprehend the changes in his or her body. Teenagers are sometimes still children in big bodies who do not fully understand their own new emotions, much less the effects their physical development may have on the emotions of others. A teenage girl, for example, may not have any idea how her appearance in a swimming suit might affect the boy with whom she often goes to the beach. She needs to be taught by her parents—gently and delicately—about adult emotions.
Similarly, most teenagers need to learn new sensitivities about how to sit and walk and carry themselves, as well as learning what various fabrics and cuts of clothing do on their particular bodies. Parents and church leaders can tactfully help.
Yet for teenagers as for children, modesty is finally much more than a matter of tight pants or spandex swimming suits, of hemlines or necklines. Rather, it’s a line drawn in the heart; it’s the result of truly believing that the body is the temple of the spirit.
The same holds true for adults, who may be the worst offenders against the principle of modesty. Certainly their guilt is greater to the degree that they are more knowledgeable. Further, adults who have received their endowments wear a reminder from the temple that the body is a temple, too, for both are sacred sanctuaries of the spirit. The Lord has provided the Saints a powerful shield and protection against immodest dress.
Many, however, seem to be lax and casual about wearing temple garments. Yet strict observance of this obligation still remains a precondition of temple worthiness, just as necessary as observing the laws of tithing, chastity, honesty, and the Word of Wisdom. Though the Church has not developed pharisaically detailed rules regulating our manner of dress, we are asked to declare our obedience in this matter. If we must err, we should do so on the side of caution.
The paramount principle for all age groups—from toddlers to teens, from young adults to the aged—is to treat the body as a temple. “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” asks Paul. (1 Cor. 3:16.)
I reflected on these words when I worked for a season as a gardener and, later, as a watchman at the Oakland Temple. Our temples are profoundly sacred places. They are private, closed to the eyes of the world, reserved for those who have made solemn covenants; they are treated with respect and talked about with reverence. The Lord expects us to treat our bodies in the same way.
Likewise, our temples are kept beautiful on the outside. I spent many, many hours grooming the temple grounds—weeding, watering, planting flowers, doing all I could to make the exterior reflect the sacred spirit inside the Lord’s holy house. Surely the Lord expects us to groom and care for our physical tabernacles also—not as the world does, but in order that the Spirit of the Lord may find a fit sanctuary to dwell with our own spirits. This is the ultimate aim of modesty.