Standards of Dress and Grooming


Let’s face it—you are the exception if you have not had some discussion recently on current fashions, including short skirts, long hair, and beards.

And sometimes, in such discussions, emotions have been known to run away from good sense.

That’s why the New Era is pleased to print a long excerpt from an address President Dallin H. Oaks gave to the 25,000 students of Brigham Young University. It was his first address to the studentbody as the new BYU president. In it he talked about making the most of our schooling, about the influence of our environment on us, about our need for Church activity.

But a major portion of his talk was on standards of conduct—particularly on dress and grooming. When he was finished, the students gave him a tumultuous ovation. He had taken several very difficult and emotionally-charged issues and explained them so that nearly everyone could understand why the Church has taken the stand it has.

The first and most important thing to remember about our standards of dress and grooming is that they are specified by the Board of Trustees of this University. They are not the requirements of the President, the dean of students, the faculty, or the studentbody officers. These standards of dress and grooming were reviewed and reapproved as recently as last April. At that time the trustees provided the following statement, which is expressive of the reasons for these rules:

“Grooming should be in keeping with these guidelines, emphasizing cleanliness and avoidance of dress or manner which calls attention to itself and symbolizes either rebellion or nonconformity with the values of modesty, humility, decency and propriety.” (New Era, September 1971, p. 18.)

I think all will agree that dress and grooming standards are not the most important standards required of those who attend this University. But they are among the very most visible as we associate with one another and as we come under the eyes of those who visit this campus. Consequently, these matters have been emphasized, and will be emphasized, to an extent beyond their intrinsic importance. Those who take exception to this emphasis should remember that while most of these standards are not vital matters of personal morality, neither are they burdensome. Like the Word of Wisdom, the requirements are “adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints.” (D&C 89:3.)

Speaking of short skirts on the one hand and long hair and beards on the other, we should note that the reasons for these two requirements are different. Skirt lengths for women are a function of modesty. The ban on long hair and beards, on the other hand, is a question of symbolism and propriety. Let us examine these separately.

Slacks and Skirts

First, as to skirt lengths. After the trustees reviewed the standards of dress and grooming last spring, they made only two minor changes, both related to women’s clothing. First, they added “culottes, slacks or modest pant suits, not to include levis,” to the acceptable women’s wear for attendance at classes; and second, they specified “modest length” as the standard for women’s hemlines.

The inclusion of pant suits authorizes a style of dress that is clearly modest, however unfeminine some may think it to be. Standing by itself, the word slacks refers to a wide spectrum of attire covering the extremes between the dressy component of the pant suit on the one hand on down to the grubbiest trousers only suitable to slop the pigs. The authorization of slacks for general wear on this campus was meant to signify the kind of slacks that are as dressy as one portion of the pant suit. This new addition to the dress standards does not authorize the wearing of jeans, men’s trousers, or other slacks from the grubby end of the spectrum. Nor should it be understood to authorize the wearing of tee shirts, sweatshirts, or other such attire. These two modifications must not be the occasion for a general deterioration of women’s dress standards on this campus.

The subject of skirt lengths is such a vexing one that I hesitate to mention it, but I must do so. The standard is modesty.

“Modesty in dress is a quality of mind and heart, born of respect for oneself, one’s fellowmen, and the Creator of us all. Modesty reflects an attitude of humility, decency and propriety.” (Priesthood Bulletin, September 1970, p. 2.)

You will observe that this definition of modesty does not refer to what the girls are wearing in high schools or at colleges and universities generally. It makes no reference to what the czars of fashion dictate or to what you see in the glamour magazines. At Brigham Young University we have “a style of our own.”

Those words, “a style of our own,” were the title of an address given on this campus on February 13, 1951—the year I was a freshman here—by Elder Spencer W. Kimball, now Acting President of the Council of the Twelve. In that address Elder Kimball referred to immodesty as a contributing factor in the breakdown of moral values.

“I know I’m not going to be popular when I say this [he told us], but I am sure that the immodest dresses that are worn by our young women, and their mothers, contribute in some degree to the immorality of this age … I wonder if our young sisters realize the temptation they are flaunting before young men when they leave their bodies partly uncovered.”

I can vividly recall the furor that followed his criticism of strapless evening gowns on this campus. But I note that low-cut necklines and strapless evening gowns are still forbidden by our standards. And all that Elder Kimball said in criticism of excessive exposure and in support of modesty applies with equal force to short skirts. Young women, the principle of modesty—the commandment that you should avoid a tempting manner or appearance—is fixed and eternal and will not deviate. Don’t assume that anyone will be impressed with your experience, or your preferences, or your wisdom on this subject.

With respect to lengths of skirts, there is a point—which need not and perhaps cannot be identified in inches above the knee—where the wearer is calling attention to herself, exposing too much of her body, and sending off signals and inviting responses that are not consistent with the standards of the gospel. Girls, especially those who have not previously studied on this campus, please examine your skirt lengths carefully. Where you have any doubts, seek the advice of more experienced persons who are familiar with and supportive of the standards of this campus. Wear a skirt length that will appear modest and proper at all times, not just when you look down on it as you stand before your mirror in the morning, but also a length that will appear modest when you are climbing stairs, stooping, bending, sitting, and walking across stages.

As to the reason for modesty in general and skirt lengths in particular, I cannot do better than to quote President Joseph Fielding Smith:

“As I walk along the streets on my way to or from the Church Office Building, I see both young and older women, many of them ‘daughters of Zion,’ who are immodestly dressed. … The wearing of immodest clothing, which may seem like a small matter, takes something away from our young women or young men in the Church. It simply makes it more difficult to keep those eternal principles by which we will have to live if we are to return to the presence of our Father in heaven.” (New Era, January 1971, p. 5.)

Beards and Long Hair

The rule against beards and long hair for men stands on a different footing. I am weary of having young people tell me how most of our Church leaders in earlier times wore beards and long hair, which shows that these are not inherently evil. Others argue that beards cannot be evil because they see bearded men enjoying the privileges of the temple. To me, this proposition seems so obvious that it is hardly worth mentioning. Unlike modesty, which is an eternal value in the sense of rightness or wrongness in the eyes of God, our rules against beards and long hair are contemporary and pragmatic. They are responsive to conditions and attitudes in our own society at this particular point in time. Historical precedents are worthless in this area. The rules are subject to change, and I would be surprised if they were not changed at some time in the future. But the rules are with us now, and it is therefore important to understand the reasoning behind them.

There is nothing inherently wrong about long hair or beards, any more than there is anything inherently wrong with possessing an empty liquor bottle. But a person with a beard or an empty liquor bottle is susceptible of being misunderstood. Either of these articles may reduce a person’s effectiveness and promote misunderstanding because of what people may reasonably conclude when they view them in proximity to what these articles stand for in our society today.

In the minds of most people at this time, the beard and long hair are associated with protest, revolution, and rebellion against authority. They are also symbols of the hippie and drug culture. Persons who wear beards or long hair, whether they desire it or not, may identify themselves with or emulate and honor the drug culture or the extreme practices of those who have made slovenly appearance a badge of protest and dissent. In addition, unkemptness—which is often (though not always) associated with beards and long hair—is a mark of indifference toward the best in life. As Elder Sterling W. Sill has observed:

“A let-down in personal appearance has far more than physical significance, for when ugliness gets its roots into one part of our lives it may soon spread to every other part.” (The Quest for Excellence, Bookcraft, p. 38.)

A young bishop of my acquaintance can testify to the impact of unkempt appearance on those around us and its relationship to the drug culture. One evening last June, Bishop E. Wayne Nelson of the South Shore Ward in Griffith, Indiana, received a telephone call from a jailer in an Indiana city, fifty miles from his home. The jailer was holding two Mormon boys who were charged with possession of narcotics. Bishop Nelson made several visits as these young men waited in jail for their cases to be heard. He learned that both were from Utah, the sons of active Latter-day Saint parents. Both had tampered with drugs in this state. Both had adopted an unkempt appearance, including shoulder-length hair. Soon after they arrived in Gary, Indiana, to look for work, and while they were walking down a street, a peddler of narcotics approached them and invited them to make a purchase. Faced with that temptation at that time in that place, the boys chose not to resist. Soon after this transaction they were arrested and charged with possession of the drugs they had purchased. After the bishop heard their story in jail, he asked them, “Why do you think the peddler approached you?” One boy responded, “I guess it was our appearance; we just looked like users.” These young men had taken upon themselves the badges of the drug culture, and they were easily identified and approached by those who sought to profit from their weakness.

Standards of Appearance in General

By the manner of our dress and personal grooming, we send off signals to the world around us. Our appearance identifies us with certain manners of behavior and creates expectations in those around us. Our appearance and their expectations may influence our own behavior. The standards of dress and grooming prescribed for this campus and for the entire Church Education System seek to identify us with high standards of personal conduct and to disassociate us from the currently popular symbols of immorality, drugs, and dissent. We should be identified with the manner of dress of persons whom we respect. I appeal to all students on this campus to place themselves squarely within our standards of appearance—not along the thin ice at the edge of the standard, but squarely within. I appeal especially to those of you who are leaders in any capacity in student government, student organizations, or campus wards. Be supportive and exemplary in accepting and living these standards. Set the proper example. Use your influence to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

[photos] Photos by Eldon Linschoten