The presidential campaign has placed a spotlight on the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “The Book of Mormon” musical is pushing the religion to the forefront of pop culture. And with Ann Romney’s recent appearance on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” semi-secret Mormon undergarments are no longer so secret.
Not that Mrs. Romney’s underwear was showing. But the fact that it didn’t show under her sleek, knee-grazing skirt stirred up debate among some members of the faithful about whether she was or wasn’t wearing the “temple garments” required for most adult Mormons. That debate spilled onto some mainstream fashion websites, and suddenly the topic of Mormon underwear — not secret exactly, but certainly somewhat arcane to those outside the faith — was out nationally.
Meanwhile a new website called MormonsSecret.com is also bringing the garments into the open and introducing them to the rest of the world.
The site, which features alternating pictures of Ann and Mitt Romney photo-shopped onto underwear-clad bodies, is attempting to sell the general public replicas of sacred Mormon temple garments. But it’s also treating them in something less than a sacred way, marketing them as kinky Halloween costumes or fetishwear — which is kind of a weird notion since the garments for sale are fairly standard-looking white cotton or mesh T-shirts and below-the-knee pants.
The spin comes from the site’s founder, who goes by the alias “Ann Jackson,” citing safety concerns. Jackson is an ex-Mormon who claims to have worked in the LDS church’s “temple clothing division.” (LDS church spokesman Eric Hawkins would neither deny nor confirm the existence of a special church division devoted to temple garments.) Jackson says that each new member of the church is given a set of the special underwear once found worthy by the church. The garments resemble long underwear and are made of specific cotton polyester blends. They feature special stitching and are embroidered with Masonic symbols.
And they aren’t really secret, so much as private, worn not to be seen but to remind the wearer of “promises made with God” — much in the way a Christian might more publicly wear a cross or a Jew a prayer shawl or yarmulke — according to the website MormonTopics.org. There is an entire section of the LDS church handbook, which is readily available on the LDS church website, devoted to temple garments. The handbook states that the garments “provide protection against temptation and evil.”
“Endowed members should wear the temple garment both day and night,” the book says, and “not remove it, either entirely or partially, to work in the yard or for other activities that can reasonably be done with the garment worn properly beneath the clothing.”
The book’s admonition to “not adjust the garment or wear it contrary to instructions in order to accommodate different styles of clothing” is what got some members of the faith talking in a chat room after Ann Romney’s appearance on the Leno show.
Mrs. Romney’s body hugging, knee-grazing leather skirt looked to those in the know as if it wouldn’t accommodate the prescribed undergarments. The ensemble sparked debate in an online Mormon forum called Mormondiscussions.com, where users participated in a forum called “Why didn’t Ann Romney wear her garments…?” — though no one other than Mrs. Romney knows for sure whether she did or didn’t.
In addition to being required to always wear the garments, members must buy them through the church or a church website open only to those who’ve completed the required membership rituals.
Jackson says that although the facilities used to make the Mormonssecret.com garments are different, the fabric blend and process used to make the site’s underwear is identical to the church’s. Jackson assembles the underwear in China, then has the stitching and Masonic symbols sewn on in the U.S.
The site sells four styles, labeled Magic Mormon Underwear. For men, there’s a cotton bottom and matching top made of lightweight cotton and the same style bottom and top made of a nylon mesh. For women, the site offers a cotton-spandex blend style called the Carnessa, which Jackson cites as the best-selling women’s style of Mormon underwear. It resembles a plain white shirt and fitted pajama pants that cut off below the knee.
“Women are told within the LDS church that they are not allowed to wear their bras underneath their garments, so this style, which has a little bunching along the bust, is meant to almost be a support,” Jackson said. “The material is silky and smooth so that if you’re wearing it and wearing your bra over it, it won’t chafe.”
The items are priced around $32 to $42 apiece. Jackson expects a spike in sales with the upcoming election and Halloween.
“I started the site because I was trying to figure out a way to utilize a lot of my background experience and have a very simple business that almost runs itself,” Jackson said. “For three years in a row, in three different states, when I’ve gone to Halloween parties, every single year for some reason individuals are dressed as Mormons in faux Mormon garments or as Ann or Mitt Romney.”
Although the business model may be simple, Jackson expected the politics surrounding the new business venture to be complicated. There’s already been plenty of criticism for taking the sacred garments and making them readily available.
“The intent behind a site like this should be obvious to anyone who sees it,” said church spokesman Hawkins. “There will always be those who want to ridicule and demean something meaningful to another. Hopefully, we might yet reach a point in society where that is not acceptable.”
Despite criticisms, Jackson is moving forward with the business.
“If I wanted to put on a kippah and go as a Jewish rabbi, no one would think twice about it, but magic Mormon underwear, it’s like they take themselves so seriously and they can’t see why it’s really funny,” Jackson said. “I kind of get something like people having collars or kippahs to signify something religious but that it’s in your underwear? It seems so amusingly incongruent.”
Bottom photo: Ann Romney wears outfit on “The Tonight Show” on Sept. 25 that touched off chat about whether she was wearing Mormon temple garments Credit: Paul Drinkwater / NBC