Melissa McNamara

BYU fashion was an oxymoron during my tenure there during the late 80s and early 90s.  Perhaps it was just an era unkind to fashion in general.  Moving to Provo from my hometown in the outskirts of Philadelphia in pre-internet times, the fashion disconnect between east and west was another aspect of my culture shock.

I was accustomed to people wearing a lot of black with geometric cuts and straighter hair styles that had harsh angles.  I was not prepared to see people wearing pink pumps with jeans, floral patterned blazers with huge shoulder pads, and enormous pouffy country-singer hairdos.  And that was just the men.  (Kidding – partly).  While straight leg jeans were the fashion, I was confused by the Utah trend of men “pegging” their jeans into folded cuffs which looked like Dexy’s Midnight Runners trying to look like Sid & Nancy.


’80s fashion (more or less) where I grew up:  straight lines, leather jackets, short geometric hair, parachute pants, ankle boots, lots of black and, yes, acid wash.  Grody to the max, indeed!


What Utah looked like (to me at least) by contrast in the late ’80s.  By then these “big hairdos” were long gone in the east, and I never understood the lace doily collars that make it look like your severed head is stuck on an ugly accent table.

Clearly the times they are a-changin’!  For one thing, with the internet, fashions are more global than they once were; what’s popular in the east may even be simultaneously popular in the west and vice-versa, with some obvious allowances for weather and lifestyle differences.  So, how much of the fashion at BYU is driven by aspects of Mormon culture:  1) provident living / lack of materialism / looking like one’s mother made one’s clothes, 2) Utah cultural isolation, and 3) modesty restricting some fashion choices.  When I attended BYU, I would have chalked most of the fashion faux pas (my opinion as an outsider) on #2 – cultural isolation.  Subsequent to that, I have seen a few things that seem driven by #1 or #3 as well.  A perfect example of a fashion trend driven by #3:

the spaghetti strap dress worn over a tee shirt.  Somehow this kind of caught on, even among the immodest people outside of Utah, although only in Utah was it a staple of daily summer wear.

Being a peculiar people is fine, but dressing like an oddball doesn’t have to be part of the package deal, Napolean Dynamite’s popularity notwithstanding.  I am encouraged by some of the fashionistas at BYU that seem to have come out of the woodwork in support of modesty while also not wishing to look homeschooled.

A site run by BYUSA gives me hope for the youth of the church and their fashion sense, although I am left wondering why so many of the students in the pictures on this site have unusually large heads.  Is it the photographer, using some sort of “big head” lens, or does the photographer have a large head and discriminately finds big-headed people more attractive and worthwhile subjects?  Is this just some freak of puberty – their heads have temporarily grown larger than their tiny bodies?

A site dedicated to bringing fashion crimes to light that seems as if a couple of the BYUSA site guys split off to show the bad pics – or else they think these are good fashion, in which case, all I can say is – really?  The descriptions that accompany the photos are very neutral, yet the outfits described are just crazy.  I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt and assume these outfits are being called out as fashion faux pas, not lauded as fashion forward.


Site description:  grey schoolboy blazer over ruffled creme top, burgundy jeans, off-white striped socks, brown cowboy boots, pearl strands.  Looks fine from the hips up, but then . . . what the what??  The boots and socks have to go, but the combo??  Adorable girl, though.


Site description:  striped turtleneck, blue velvet jumper dress, grey tights, yellow rainboots, flower brooch.  Another very cute girl, but where to start on this one?  The boots have it, hands down (leaving me to wonder if BYU housing has a full-length mirror shortage).  But honestly, there isn’t a single piece in this outfit that should be worn, much less all together.  Any one of the items would land in the What Not to Wear bin (the TV show where they throw out people’s ugly clothes).

Site description:  pink dress, metallic vest, sheer grey tights, bronze heels, woven brown belt.  This outfit is my absolute favorite fugly combo.  I don’t even know where to start.  It doesn’t go at all (pink + brown + gray + metallics), and is unflattering on this otherwise nice looking girl, making her look chunky, stumpy and weird.

And finally, I found a Gossip Girl themed site for BYU students called BYUSt’le that is very well done!  I particularly enjoyed blogger Katie’s “Poorly Dressed Chart.”

For some reason, I find it encouraging that a BYU student would use the words “slut” (in reference to an article of clothing that is not in itself immodest, but probably does connote sluttiness) and “douchebag.”  It feels like progress somehow.

Reading through these BYU blogs made me realize a few things:

  • Mormons are (on the whole) way better looking than average.  Seriously.
  • Mormons like to dress for comfort in addition to modesty.
  • Layers are the secret to modesty, especially in the frozen tundra of Provo.
  • I am getting really old because these college-age adults look like children to me.
  • BYU is a way cooler place now than when I went there.  *sigh*

So, back to you readers – what fashion faux pas have you seen amongst the Mormons and/or at BYU?  What fashion faux pas have you committed in the name of modesty?  Do you think Mormons are more or less fashionable than “the world”?  Does modesty plus thriftiness equal fashion disaster?  Discuss.