- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2008

ASSOCIATED PRESS

For a society accustomed to the likes of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, images of the women from the polygamist compound in Texas are almost shocking in their understatement: Ankle-length dresses, makeup-less faces, hauntingly uniform hair.

And while no one would accuse the women of making a fashion statement, the pioneer-style outfits are a rare example of how in an age of overexposure, modesty, too, can give pause.

The puff-sleeved, pastel dresses worn by the women in the sect are a combination of original 19th-century wear and 1950s clothing that was adopted when the church took a conservative turn, said Janet Bennion, an anthropologist who studies polygamist women.

The dresses are meant to show modesty and conformity: They go down to the ankles and wrists and are often worn over garments or pants, making sure every possibly provocative inch of skin is covered.

John Llewellyn, a polygamy expert and retired Salt Lake County sheriff’s lieutenant, said the women cover themselves “so that they’re unattractive to the outside world or other men.”

The appearance of unity through uniform dress, however, can belie the jealousy that often arises when the women — who might all look alike to an outsider — find themselves in competition with one another over the affections of the same man, he said.

The clothing is also stitched with special markings “to protect the body and to remind you of your commitment,” Miss Bennion said. She declined to go into detail about the stitchings because she said it would be an infraction against the fundamentalist Mormon community to talk about their sacred symbols.

Pastel colors evoke femininity and don’t come across as bold or strong, said Miss Bennion, an associate professor at Lyndon State College in Vermont.

Then there’s the question of the elaborate hairdos.

The women never cut their hair because they believe they will use it to wash Christ’s feet during the Second Coming, Miss Bennion said. A biblical quote says a woman’s hair should be her crowning glory.

The bangs are grown out and rolled (but usually not using a curling iron, because that would be too modern). There are sausage curls on the sides and often braids down the back.

The exact history of the hairstyle is not clear, but it is reminiscent of the Gibson Girl image of the 1800s. It’s a pre-World War II look, exaggerated with the pompadour, Mr. Llewellyn said. Chloe Sevigny’s character in the HBO show “Big Love,” about modern polygamist Mormons, has mastered the ‘do.

Prairie skirts are in fashion this season, while dusty pastels and neutrals are being introduced to offset trendy bold colors and patterns.

Long hair is also on its way back in, preparing to replace the currently fashionable bobs, said Ted Gibson, celebrity stylist and salon owner. Buns never go completely out of style, said Mr. Gibson, who often gives celebrities a half-up-half-down ‘do.


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