Thursday, July 03, 2008

Pop Polygamy

I had a tough time deciding what to think about this article:

Polygamy's pop-culture moment now extends to the closet. FLDS women are offering their handmade, old-fashioned children's clothing for sale online - long underwear, slips and all.

At, pastel-pink dresses and denim overalls mirror the clothing that intrigued the nation when authorities raided the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas in April, taking children into custody while investigating charges of underage marriage and child abuse.

There are $65 "teen princess" dresses that stretch from ankle to wrist, long pajamas and matching robes, all sewn by the mothers themselves, even some in Arizona's own polygamist enclave of Colorado City.

Sales of the clothing will help the Texas FLDS women pay rent and support their families. Now displaced from their homes at the ranch, most of them are still in the midst of a child-abuse investigation, and lawyers have advised them to establish their own households.

Mothers originally created the site so Texas officials could get FLDS-approved clothing for the children while they were in state custody. Turns out other people were interested, too.

"We're used to our clothing not being popular," said Maggie Jessop, 44, an FLDS member who helps coordinate the sewing efforts. "(But) we've had many, many people say that they would like to have their children be more modest and have expressed interest in our modest lifestyle."

"There were a lot of people that asked, 'Where can I purchase those clothes?' " said Cynthia Martinez, spokeswoman for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which represents 48 of the mothers.

Paul Murphy, spokesman for the Utah Attorney General's Office, finds the FLDS women's fashion offerings quite smart.

"It's very clever," he said. "With all the issues that are going on, most of the media attention has been about the way they dress and the way they wear their hair.

"I give them credit for going where the interest is."

In some ways it's a prime example of how difficult it is for women in traditionally patriarchal systems to make a living on their own, because most of them are not allowed to learn marketable skills. That these women can make some money out of making clothing is certainly wonderful, though how much they actually get is unclear from the article. We all know that textile workers are not terribly well paid.

At least this business offers some women a chance to survive outside the church, should they wish to do so, right? However:

Carolyn Jessop applauds the women for finding a way to support themselves and tiptoe toward independence.

"When 100 percent of their (financial) support is coming from the (FLDS) church, that makes them 100 percent dependent on the church," she said. "If they realize they have a skill that is marketable ... they might realize they could do it outside of the church."

Familiar with FLDS financial practices, Carolyn is concerned that the funds the women earn with their clothing sales won't end up in the mothers' pockets.

According to an FLDS spokesman, the women are paid per item sewn, and if they draw in more revenue than is needed to cover expenses, it is shared with other families.

"If people who purchase (the clothing) would at least request that they make the check out to the woman who made the garment," Carolyn said, "then this could be a really positive thing."

Is all this a positive development or not? When did we start thinking about polygamous systems such as this one as part of the popular culture, as something that is fun to imitate? When did we let people like Warren Jeffs decide what "modesty" might be?

The FLDS wardrobe puzzled and captivated America as events unfolded in Texas. The poufed hairstyles, long dresses and buttoned-up shirts are mandated by jailed FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, who disallows patterned fabric and the color red. The FLDS members wear the clothing as a symbol of their faith.

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is part of a group that split from the Mormon Church in 1890 over the practice of polygamy. Those who have fled the polygamist sect have long accused it of conducting underage marriages and other abuse.

Jeffs was convicted in September of being an accomplice to rape, charges stemming from his role in marrying a girl to her first cousin.

Suddenly the idea of these outfits signifying "modesty" made me feel nauseous. It's Warren Jeffs who decides what these women and men wear. It's Warren Jeffs who bans the color red but not the forced marrying of little girls to old men as one of their multiple wives.