To be young, hip and Mormon
With its new "I'm a Mormon" ad campaign, the Mormon church is seeking a more fashionable face. But some of what's deemed cool these days — beards, scruffy clothes, tattoos — raises eyebrows.
The New York Times
With his manly stubble, flannel shirt and skinny black jeans, Brandon Flowers looks every bit the hipster frontman for his rock band, the Killers.
With songs about drowning one's sorrows in bourbon or exploring the seedy underbelly of his hometown, Las Vegas, Flowers has sold more than 15 million records worldwide. In the past, he has been candid about his drinking, smoking and taste for blackjack.
But in a gauzy four-minute video, an advertisement for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that was posted online this month, the singer stares at the camera and says, "I'm a father, I'm a husband, and I'm a Mormon."
For decades, the popular image of Mormon style has been shaped by clean-cut young missionaries on bicycles in dark suits, white shirts and skinny black ties — and more recently by the sculptured coif of the presidential candidate Mitt Romney or the sporty style of the motocross-bike-riding Jon Huntsman, another Republican presidential candidate.
But the boundaries of Mormon style are expanding. The highly visible "I'm a Mormon" ad campaign (the subject of a major push on television, billboards, the subway and the Internet) seeks to quash strait-laced stereotypes by showing off a cool, diverse set of Mormons, including, besides Flowers, a leather-clad Harley aficionado, knit-cap-wearing professional skateboarder and an R&B singer with a shaved head.
It's not just in ads sponsored by the church. On college campuses, city streets and countless style blogs, a young generation of Mormons has adopted a fashion-forward urban aesthetic (geek-chic glasses, designer labels and plenty of vintage) that wouldn't look out of place at a loft party in Brooklyn.
"There used to be a bias against being 'cool' in the Mormon world," said Kendra Smoot, 31, a prop stylist who does work for Lucky and Martha Stewart, and who can be seen sporting Sartorialist-inflected ensembles on Smoot, a blog she runs with her husband, Seth, a photographer. Ten years ago, when she was a student at Brigham Young University, "there was absolutely zero fashion sense, myself included," she said. "Now when I go back to visit, the kids there look really cool.
"I think there's an acceptance now that you can look current and interesting but still uphold the values of the Mormon religion," she added.
There are limits, however. According to guidelines on dress and grooming on the church's official website, Mormons are discouraged from wearing immodest clothing, including "short shorts and skirts," "tight clothing" and "shirts that do not cover the stomach." They should "avoid extremes in clothing, appearance and hairstyle" and not "disfigure" themselves "with tattoos or body piercings."
Those strictures can be a challenge for members of the creative class who feel the lure of scruffy, bohemian chic.
Facial hair in particular can be a complicated issue. Common on church leaders in the 19th century, beards are now deemed inappropriate for missionaries, as well as for students at BYU, according to the university's honor code (students are allowed trimmed mustaches).
Debate on whether beards are an appropriate look for church members in general persists in some corners, such as a recent online debate on the subject on LDS Living, a Mormon lifestyle website. One commenter invoked a 1971 address by Dallin H. Oaks, now a member of the church's leadership known as the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who wrote: "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."
When Britain Baker was at BYU, he had to go to considerable effort to secure a beard waiver, to go with his vintage T-shirts and rolled selvedge jeans. Generally, students need to prove a skin condition like razor bumps. "You have to shave every day for three days," he said, "and if you still have bumps on the third day, they will give you a special razor." A "beard card" is granted only after the razor also fails.
Since he didn't have a skin condition, Baker tried a novel approach: he applied for a part last year as an extra in a student film about Jesus. For four months before graduating, he was able to rock one of the rare beards on campus. "It was received with mixed reviews," said Baker, 24, who is now living in Los Angeles and applying to medical school. "I felt like people were constantly staring at me."
Long hair is also frowned upon. As a student there, Francesco Perri would put his chocolate-brown hair in a ponytail and wear a wool cap on campus. "I just didn't want to look like everybody else," said Perri, 31, who is now a hotel clerk in New York and rides his single-speed bike around Brooklyn.
Tattoo fans face tougher obstacles. Those who have tattoos tend to keep them hidden, especially after 2000, when Gordon B. Hinckley, then the president of the church, spoke out against tattoos as "graffiti on the temple of the body" at the church's general conference.
Still, tattooed Mormons have managed to find one another and form a kind of subculture. "I was blown away by the amount of tattoos I viewed in the showers," said James Peterson, 32, about his missionary training in Provo, Utah, in the late 1990s. When he went off on his mission to Spain, he and other missionaries would trade issues of tattoo magazines, taking care to cut out images of topless women or devils.
Not only has Peterson kept up his magazine subscriptions, but he has also opened Rogue Parlour, a tattoo studio in Tucson, Ariz. While he still faces condemnation of his profession from family members, last year he added a tattoo on his left arm: a beehive, a Mormon symbol of working together for the common good. "It's a complicated way of saying I still love the church," he said.
It's little wonder that Mormons express strong and varying opinions about what is stylish and acceptable. The rapidly growing religion counts more than 6 million members in the U.S. (30 percent of them in Utah), and individuals have long had to balance tradition with a desire to fit in with the culture at large. Members still battle a perception of otherness, as in the recent flare-up between Romney and Robert Jeffress, a Southern Baptist pastor and Rick Perry supporter who derided the religion as a "cult."
Countless Mormons work in fashion, design, art, music and film, and they generally dress and act just like anybody else.
But when it comes to dressing young and hip, some Mormons said they face unique challenges. Among other things, many adult Mormons wear a type of underwear known as the temple garment, meant as a symbolic reminder of an individual's promises to God. Both men and women have their own style of garment, but each consists of two pieces, a chaste knee-length bottom reminiscent of a boxer-brief and a white undershirt.
Jeggings and maxi dresses aren't an issue, but tank tops and short skirts are, said Elna Baker, Britain Baker's sister who detailed her struggles with the faith in a 2009 memoir, "The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance." To cover up the undergarment, some style-conscious Mormons in places like Brooklyn adopt a retro-ironic look from thrift stores, including "Mad Men"-style dresses, or a kind of '80s secretary look: ruffled blouses, bow collars and high-waisted pencil skirts.
"It's very much a Zooey Deschanel look," said Elna Baker, who left the church after her book was published.
As a writer living in Brooklyn and veteran of the Moth storytelling gatherings, Baker, 29, found herself in the center of a growing Mormon subculture, populated by creative types who dress like they stepped out of "a modest American Apparel ad," she said. Striped shirts, cardigans and horn-rimmed glasses are part of the uniform.
For some Mormons navigating the Brooklyn waters, the struggle is less about what to wear to the loft party, and more about what to do once you get there. Drinking alcohol is prohibited, according to the Word of Wisdom, which members consider a revelation from God concerning health.
Steven Puente, another Moth storyteller, often felt awkward being the one person in a room sipping sparkling water. "The constant question in the back of your mind is, 'If I get past the initial hello and small talk, are they going to understand how I live my life?"' said Puente, who works as a drug counselor at a methadone clinic in the Bronx.
Sometimes, his sobriety was perceived as its own form of hipster pose. "It was always assumed, 'OK, he's mysterious and cool, he must be in recovery,"' Puente, 36, added with a laugh. But as the liquor flowed for everyone else, he eventually would feel restless. He would ask himself, "How long can I last before the conversations become inane?"
This is why many Brooklyn Mormons tended to host house parties of their own, Elna Baker said. She recalled one party where someone brought a six-pack of O'Doul's, which advertises itself as a non-alcoholic beer, "for shock value." But typically, the only vice on display was sugar, in the form of a large dessert spread, the focal point of many a Mormon party, she added.
But even a table full of pies and pastries can pose a challenge, her brother, Britain, joked. "Because of all the dessert parties," he said, "skinny jeans can be a bitch."
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