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Walsh: Costume is control in polygamy

Published April 13, 2008 1:33 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In elaborate polygamy fantasyland, the idea of a haircut can keep a sheltered wife in line.

When the elders of YFZ Ranch in Texas tried to quash a 16-year-old bride's rebellion, they warned that the outside world would force her to have sex with "lots of men." Apparently equally important, she would have to cut her hair and wear makeup.

As threats go for a young woman in polygamy, a bob or a bit of blush seems minor. But the girl's terror about changing her appearance is heartbreakingly naive and very real.

The compound fence isn't the only cage for the women of polygamy. There is also a prison uniform - yards of pink and blue fabric, inches and inches of hair and ugly orthopedic shoes.

Utah and Arizona television stations and newspapers have been photographing the polygamy costume worn by Warren Jeffs' followers for years. But for the rest of the country, the billowing dresses and poofy French braids must look like a cotton-candy variation on 19th-century fashion or the voluminous folds of a burka.

Clothing and hairstyle distinctions between individual polygamous families and sects could fill an anthropology notebook.

"You can modify people's behavior just by putting them in a certain kind of dress," says Carolyn Jessop, a former spiritual wife of Merrill Jessop, the bishop of the Texas FLDS enclave. "It is a uniform. You have nothing about you that's individual. You're just a part of a whole."

The homespun prairie styles - most can be traced to modest Mormon pioneer fashions - are intended to make polygamists stick out from the rest of us and band together.

"By dressing the same, you have this solidarity," says Janet Bennion, an anthropology professor at Lyndon State College in Vermont who has studied fundamentalist Mormon polygamists. "From their perspective, if you believe you're the people of God, that you're the chosen ones, the materialistic things of this world don't matter as much." Many independent fundamentalist Mormon families don't wear the polygamy uniform. The Salt Lake Tribune featured "Gary" and his three jeans and khaki-clad wives, the Salt Lake Valley model for the HBO series "Big Love." Clothing styles for the Apostolic United Brethren of Bluffdale run the gamut. Tom Green's wives wore a knee-length version of Jessica McClintock's Gunny Sack dress from the 1980s and their hair in curling waves down their backs. And the Kingston women are allowed to dress how they choose - including showing cleavage and wearing tight clothing.

"They're more overtly sexual than other women in polygamist groups," says Rowenna Erickson, a former wife in the Kingston clan. "For other groups, the clothing is all about control and power."

Women in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints - in British Columbia, at the Utah-Arizona border and on the Texas ranch - cloister themselves through clothing.

After the Short Creek raid in 1953, polygamists who had dressed, for the most part, like the rest of America launched a retrenchment campaign that included new rules for dress - long sleeves, no hanging hair, no bangs.

"For them, the motivation is isolation," says Paul Reeve, a Utah history professor at the University of Utah.

Dress codes in the resulting polygamous communities have evolved differently. Centennial Park split from Hildale and Colorado City in the 1980s in part because of a disagreement over dress. Centennial Park elders allow women to show their ankles, wear pants (without a dress on top) and buy makeup and jewelry.

When Jeffs took over the other two border towns, along with banning television, fishing and basketball, he made the dress code even more restrictive: Everyone in the communities wears long white underwear year-round (including toddlers) modeled after Joseph Smith's original temple garments.

Clothing is supposed to cover the neck-to-ankle undergarments. Women yank on three layers of nylons in 100-degree heat to disguise the underwear. Color choices are limited to pastels (the spirit of God cannot reside in anything colorful). No black, no prints and no red (that hue is reserved for Christ). No sandals or pumps.

"You don't want to stand out. You don't want to be beautiful," says Pam Black, whose polygamous family moved to southern Utah in 1963, when she was 11. "You want to be invisible and do what your husband wants."

In the resulting time warp, hairstyles develop and stick for generations. Jeffs' female followers only let their hair down for their husbands in the bedroom. Older women still wear the textured "wave" or "sausage curl" that sits high on the forehead - the higher the wave, the more righteous the woman. The younger women of YFZ have developed a "poof," a pompadour reminiscent of the Gibson Girl.

Guidelines for men are much simpler. Long-sleeved, button-down shirts and long pants are required. Plaid is OK, but absolutely no pink. And no facial hair.

"For women, it's a real nightmare," says Jessop, who loaded her eight kids into a van and left her husband one night in 2003. She sewed replicas of the FLDS undergarments for "Big Love" and has written a book about her experiences, Escape.

"When Warren took over, my laundry went from four batches a day to 12. It's just so impractical."

Jeffs, of course, made an exception for himself. When he was captured outside Las Vegas in 2006 after being on the lam for 15 months, his skinny legs were in shorts.

walsh@sltrib.com