Less is Mormon
December 13, 2011
Mormon fashion: not two words that you’d normally put together. But bizarrely, a style blog for the women of Salt Lake City is proving a surprising hit with a wide consituency of women who would rather not display their cleavages in low-cut tops.
Just Like Molly was started by Nate Zubal, 30, after his female friends complained about the lack of stylish clothing available to Mormon women. He had noticed that they wore halter tops with T-shirts underneath to avoid exposing their shoulders — a look he describes as “weird” — and wanted to show them how they could dress fashionably while respecting the dress rules of their religion.
A year on, Just Like Molly attracts more than 10,000 visitors a month — including women of other faiths, particularly Muslims and those who simply prefer to dress conservatively. A series of style guides are now planned: how to tie a scarf, belt a jacket, take one blazer and all the ways to wear it, all modestly, of course — and Zubal intends to open his first store in 2012, selling a “modesty fashion” range.
The brand’s emergence comes at a moment when Mormonism is entering the American mainstream. Two contenders for the Republican presidential nomination (indeed, the least extreme of the bunch), Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, are Mormon; The Book of Mormon, a warmly observed satire of the religion written by the creators of South Park, is wowing Broadway audiences; while Mormon-featured reality shows such as Sister Wives and comedy dramas such as Big Love have been television hits.
Ingrained suspicion of the religion remains, however. Only one American in five say they would vote for a Mormon as president. In August, Warren Jeffs, the leader of one of the Church’s polygamy-practising denominations, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was sentenced to life in prison for the aggravated sexual assault of a 12-year-old girl and the sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl — he considered both to be his “spiritual wives”. Jeffs is thought to have had 78 wives, 24 of them underage.
Zubal’s website takes its name from Molly Mormon, the personification of the ideal Mormon woman dedicated to her family and community. “The name has become a bit disparaging in recent times,” says Zubal. “When someone seems too perfect, Mormons will say ‘Oh, she’s such a Molly’. We’re trying to make it something to aspire to be.” Nowhere on Just Like Molly does it mention Mormonism, however: the idea is to attract as many soberly attired readers as possible.
The clothes featured on the site — upscale and designer rather than high street — must cover the “garments” Mormons wear under their clothes. For women, these are fitted undershirts worn next to the skin and pantaloons or waist slips that go down to just above the knee; for men, special white T-shirts and boxer-briefs that likewise descend to the knee. Just Like Molly features all kinds of looks, asking its readers to vote on “like it, love, or leave it”, or asking of a Diane von Furstenberg dress ending a few inches above the knee, “modest or not?”.
For Zubal, a “four fingers” rule exists: anything more than four fingers below the collarbone should remain covered; anywhere more than four fingers above the knee should be covered, and four fingers from the shoulder to the upper arm should be covered. “We don’t promote unnecessary sexuality or vulgarity,” he says. “We’re taking the over-sexualised out of fashion.”
The website includes cheery entries on, for example, modest skirts: “Just below the knee and mid-calf hemlines are popping up everywhere, and it’s time for all stylish ladies who desire a bit of modesty in a skirt to take part.” The featured swimsuits seem conventional (and therefore racy in Mormon terms), but Zubal says: “It’s fine to wear swimsuits because they’re associated with doing something active: swimming, waterskiing. A one-piece is a good idea because it keeps you covered. If you go for a two-piece, go for a high-waisted bikini bottom; it has a vintage feel, more fabric and will cover a small belly.”
Searching out modesty isn’t easy: Zubal’s colleagues Leah Mendes and Curtis McClain, styling our fashion shoot accompanying this article, found lots of items in Saks Fifth Avenue that seemed modest, but on closer examination were not. “Tops were either too plunging in the neckline, or too short in the sleeve,” said McClain. Too much modest clothing comes in black or muted colours, Mendes noted: “Print and colour are not as readily available as we’d like.”
“It’s hard for Mormon women because skirts are getting shorter and shorter and sleeveless tops are popular,” says Zubal, who oversees the website alongside his day job as a marketing manager of a mainstream fashion site. He grew up in a strict Mormon household and came out as gay in his teens “after seeing I was growing up into what Mormonism sees as a sin”. He left the Church, but claims he wasn’t persecuted or ostracised when he made his sexuality known to his bishop. “My parents were a little worried about what it meant in terms of my future, but are fantastically supportive now.”
Zubal was surprised at how quickly Just Like Molly’s readers began besieging him with questions about what was modest or not, asking for names of designers and offering up their own, sometimes vitriolic denunciations of some of the fashions he curated: “shows too much”.
But most wanted to reinvigorate their wardrobes. “They have to cover up, but want to participate in the fun side of fashion. There was some really bad layering going on and a lot of frustration about trying to fit into certain guidelines.
They loved summer dresses, but had to wear separates because of their ‘garments’. We found some they could wear.”
Many recent fashion collections have been modest in spirit, he notes: pencil skirts, sensible blouses, belted cardigans are all popular now; his favourite “modest” designers are Kate Spade and Carolina Herrera, although he adds that department stores and online retailers are good hunting grounds if you’re on a tighter budget.
Isn’t it regressive to encourage women to dress modestly? “I don’t think so, I think most women prefer to dress modestly,” says Zubal, who clearly has not spent a Friday night in a British town centre recently.
“If you’re going out on a date and you’re showing everything, what is that saying about you as an individual? I think a lot of women feel uncomfortable dressing immodestly.” And, he points out, for those women who don’t have “perfect little bodies”, modest fashion “really helps to cover up problem areas.”
Clever layering is key, Zubal says. Big prints and ruffles are fine. Slits in the backs of skirts should remain “demure”. Skirts should not expose too much when you sit down. Make-up should be “pure” and hair “beautiful, not ratted-up or crazy”. And shoes, hurrah: whether sky-high heels or patent pumps, when it comes to footwear “anything goes, so women can feel voluptuous”. His favourite look? “A clean blazer, button-up shirt, simple trouser, and a pop of a heel: a totally modern play on conservatism.”
Most of Just Like Molly’s readers are from Salt Lake City, followed by other cities with “significant” Mormon populations including New York, Phoenix, Denver, Boise (Idaho) and Sacramento, as well as women from the Deep South, “who want to look cute and covered-up”. His team are also preparing to do “big things around headscarves” for the site’s Muslim fans.
“The blog is a way for us to get our message out for when we open our first store (called Molly Mo), so we know what to stock and who we’re stocking it for.” The aim isn’t to make money — although the site attracts advertising and relationships with retailers are being built — but to “focus on seeing what the market is and what women want”. He hopes to open ten shops in all if the first Salt Lake City outlet proves successful.
The most criticism Zubal has faced has been from liberals complaining that the site is too conservative, “and I sometimes worry we are too”, he admits. But the diversity of his readership tells him that “modest fashion is bigger than Mormonism”.
Zubal knows that he’s in direct opposition to the prevailing reveal-all culture, “but I think of a woman meeting her fiancé’s parents for the first time or the woman going to a job interview or important business meeting, or those women who don’t like men looking at their breasts.”
Well, I say, that’s more an issue for perving men, rather than judging women for wearing what they like. “It comes down to choice,” he says diplomatically — but aesthetically and commercially, he’d be happier if we all became a little more buttoned-up.