On Culture

The Flamboyance of Simplicity

With simple frocks and elaborate hairstyles reflecting femininity carried as a burden, fundamentalist Mormon women face the media earlier this month.
With simple frocks and elaborate hairstyles reflecting femininity carried as a burden, fundamentalist Mormon women face the media earlier this month. (By Tony Gutierrez -- Associated Press)
Sunday, April 27, 2008

It's hard to look at the women from the polygamist compound in Texas and not be stopped by their studiously constructed appearance. Like a lot of people, they have used attire to identify themselves as part of a tribe -- in this case, one that has apparently rejected the art of made-to-measure tailoring.

It takes a great deal of thought to create a look that wholly distinguishes oneself from mainstream society. Our culture has absorbed virtually everything that was once viewed as extreme stylistic flourishes -- from tattoos and body piercings to micro-mini skirts. Indeed, Elizabeth Kucinich, one of the women vying for that most mainstream of jobs -- first lady -- had a pierced tongue. The French designer Jean Paul Gaultier transformed the dress of Hasidic Jews into high fashion and designer Yeohlee Teng sent models down her runway in quilted bonnets inspired by Shakers. Western designers have even dabbled in burqas and chadors.

Style is the most obvious way to create a public identity. Yet creating a style that is altogether unique and resists being absorbed by popular culture is a rare and difficult feat.

But the men and women of the recently raided fundamentalist Mormon sect have risen to the challenge. With modesty as the apparent goal, the women have selected ankle-length prairie dresses with puffy shoulders, bishop sleeves and neatly buttoned collars. They have chosen colors that could be described as calling to mind the region's wildflowers. But the effect is far less flattering. They look as though they are dressed in the washed-out hues of institutional garb, a bit like old-fashioned prison inmates. And as they have so often been photographed clustered together in shelters and under siege, that connotation is hard to shake off.

Where the clothes look amateurishly constructed, the hairstyle -- of which there is only one -- is elaborate. Any woman who has ever attempted to pin her own hair into a simple up do will recognize the level of difficulty in the rolled, braided and coiled sculpture that sits atop their heads like a crown. It may not be the most universally flattering hairstyle but that doesn't seem to be the point. To an outside observer, their hairstyle speaks of control, dignity, reserve and, of course, femininity -- the kind that is carried as a burden, rather than admired.

The men's style is not as distinctive nor as antiquated as the women's. Their shirts come in similar cellblock shades and they are buttoned to the neck. But in a crowd, the men could easily be mistaken for construction workers, which to some degree they are, as they built the dormitories and the grand temple that are part of their compound. The men also have the kind of efficient, nondescript haircuts that a fellow could get at virtually any neighborhood barber shop -- back in the 1950s.

The fashion industry regularly looks to history for inspiration. But no matter how much designers gaze backward, there is always a contemporary gloss to their clothes. Seventh Avenue doesn't function in a vacuum and so even folks who are flipping through the pages of Vogue circa 1892 or scouring flea market stalls are doing so with the assumptions and prejudices of someone who lives in 2008. The goal is to make the past relevant to the present. But the clothes worn by the men and women in this closed society are wholly of the past; they are not costume. They are not aspiring to authenticity but rather are nostalgic for a sensibility.

It is hard to know what to make of this old-fashioned garb; even though the sect members have rejected popular culture that's precisely what we rely on to make sense of their appearance.

It reminds us of the style of early-American settlers -- at least the way in which they have been portrayed in television and film. The sect members have a "Little House on the Prairie" aesthetic. And yet they took advantage of modern conveniences such as cellphones and ergonomically sound footwear.

Of all the things in modern society that could cause offense, it is curious that fashion ranks so high. Wouldn't the incessant ringing of cellphones be more obnoxious than, say, a dress with a zipper? It's easy to see what might be troublesome about the eclectic or revealing styles on runways and red carpets. But what about the basic fare: T-shirts, turtlenecks, cardigans, peasant skirts, jeans? It's possible to dress in a manner that's unassuming and reserved without reaching back to the 19th century and leg-of-mutton sleeves for inspiration.

The polygamists-of-the-prairie chose clothes that have the modest, pious aesthetic that defines one school of religious garb. The intended message is to declare one's life humble, even ascetic.

Ultimately, these self-consciously understated clothes with their high collars and ankle-shielding hemlines speak louder and more flamboyantly than anything on a runway ever could.

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