Modest is Hottest? – A Look at BYU Fashion

By: hawkgrrrl
April 19, 2011
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.

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34 Responses to Modest is Hottest? – A Look at BYU Fashion

  1. Reuben on April 19, 2011 at 7:58 AM

    t-shirts and shorts over swimming suits! That pretty much defines BYU fashion for me.

    A really fantastic dress worn on top of a t-shirt, is no longer a really fantastic dress.

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  2. jmb275 on April 19, 2011 at 8:06 AM

    That was a fun post! I’ll not comment much, but as a male, I completely support the wearing of leggings as pants. Free hot butts everywhere!!

    Oh, and one more thing. All the things that are being “dissed” on this “Bad Fashion Choices” chart are exceedingly popular here at my university (not in Utah obviously). Not that I track those kinds of things or anything…well, except the hot butts…just sayin’.

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  3. Jettboy on April 19, 2011 at 8:25 AM

    This might sound strange, but I think you should watch icarly, Witches of Waverly place, and even High School Musical. When I say watch I mean observe. Although these choices you are showing might not be as coordinated as the above entertainment, these looks are actually in fashion. Today’s look is layers, layers, layers – for girls and boys. I think it partly your age showing.

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  4. hawkgrrrl on April 19, 2011 at 8:27 AM

    Yeah, I agree the things on the chart are generally considered to be normal wear for university students. But the pics of the BYU students in their weird combos – not so I hope!

    jmb275 – just remember that leggings are a privilege and not a right. For example: Just sayin’.

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  5. Mike S on April 19, 2011 at 8:41 AM

    Great post.

    On a personal note, I grew up in the south. I went to BYU for 1 year (then repented and transferred). I went to take a test with dress slacks, an Oxford button down shirt, and Topsiders (remember those?). I ended up having to go to standards because I didn’t wear socks to take my test.

    Bizarre place.

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  6. Jettboy on April 19, 2011 at 9:05 AM
  7. Victoria on April 19, 2011 at 9:10 AM

    Mike–I love Topsiders! And I can’t believe you had to wear socks; everyone should know that shoes are better without socks. I go to university in the south, and basically everyone dresses the way you described (I am currently on the hunt for the perfect women’s oxford shirt). Also, modest and thrifty doesn’t have to look hideous; one of my friends shops exclusively at thrift shops and takes the extra money to make sure her clothes are tailored to fit her really well. Also, I take tips on how to look cute and modest from my Muslim friends (because if they can wear it, I’m definitely allowed to!), but again, we also wear a lot of oxford shirts here.

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  8. jks on April 19, 2011 at 9:16 AM

    I am not encouraged by the use of “slut” and “douchebag.” Both are evidence that in our society female sexuality or something to do with female genitalia are an acceptable way to insult someone.

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  9. Rebecca J on April 19, 2011 at 9:55 AM

    Now you just have me wondering about the connection between Uggs and sluttiness.

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  10. James on April 19, 2011 at 1:13 PM


    Many feminists argue that the use of the term “douchebag” is a perfectly acceptable form of insult. They feel this way because they view the douche not as something representative of femininity or female genitalia, but rather a representation of patriarchy due to the way douching has largely been repudiated by the medical community as a necessary cleaning method.

    I’m not sure if I’m convinced about the “douchebag” argument myself, since not everyone views the douche as something undesirable in itself (which is why it is argued to be a fine insult).

    I think I’m with you on the term “slut,” however. I think it is a detrimental term for which there is no male analogue (largely because of the way sexual mores have been correlated with gender over the years).

    As a rule, I would agree with you that insults based on genitalia are not progressive at all.

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  11. Martin on April 19, 2011 at 1:38 PM

    Hawkgrrrl, I really don’t have anything to offer other than you gave me a good laugh. I laugh at my teen daughters, too (though very quietly). Personally, I happen to be a balding engineer who wears jeans and worn-out polos to work, so there’s a lot of laughing to be done!

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  12. hawkgrrrl on April 19, 2011 at 4:59 PM

    Re the connex between uggs & sluttiness, usually it is because uggs are worn with so-called booty shorts. I’m sure those would be out at BYU due to dress code. Nevertheless, that’s the most common fashion use for uggs.

    The reason I considered the use of soft swears like ‘slut’ and ‘douchebag’ on a public blog clearly associated with BYU as progress is due to the censorship and student-to-student policing that the school is known for. Clearly at least one student feels she can speak freely without repercussion. However, I agree that the terms in and of themselves are not progressive (or even that original). The use of the word ‘slut’ on a fashion blog reveals part of the seedy underbelly of fashion: female envy and jockeying for position on the sexual food chain. The term ‘douchebag’ is one that I think most women don’t consider as related to women at all. Honestly, I don’t think the term is used much since the 1970s to denote an actual female cleansing apparatus.

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  13. Mike S on April 19, 2011 at 5:23 PM

    #10: I think it is a detrimental term for which there is no male analogue

    Males can be sluts too. In fact, I know a few.

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  14. LuluBelle on April 19, 2011 at 5:35 PM

    I love Uggs and think they are quite fashionable.

    I love leggings and do not “get” for a second how anyone thinks they are immodest.

    I think Mormons, by and large, are cringeworthy when it comes to fashion.

    Worst fashion mistake? So many! But I agree with putting a t-shirt under a dress (that is so horribly awful that I can’t even look), denim jumpers, dirty flip flops, and mom jeans

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  15. James on April 19, 2011 at 9:01 PM

    Re: #13

    “Males can be sluts too. In fact, I know a few.”

    I’m not so sure you do. You may know some promiscuous males, but a “slut” is not simply a designation of promiscuity, but a mark of social stigma associated with promiscuity. Often men are termed “studs” when they are promiscuous, which is viewed as a desirable status, while women who are equally promiscuous are termed “sluts,” which is viewed as something repugnant.

    Even in the church a version of this idea of “studs and sluts” creeps in when there is a continued narrative of girls “guarding their virtue,” which carries the subtext that boys are naturally aggressive and that girls must balance that sexual fervor by refusing the boys. When pressed, I would guess that many church leaders would reject this antiquated view of male/female, but the opinion still pervades that a girl having sex is a more deplorable act (because she failed to protect her chastity) than a boy (who gave in to natural desires).

    I hope this explains why I made that assertion. Please let me know if I misunderstood your comment or anything.

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  16. jmb275 on April 19, 2011 at 9:24 PM

    Re Hawkgrrrl

    jmb275 – just remember that leggings are a privilege and not a right. For example: Just sayin’.

    Oh goodness! You’re absolutely right.

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  17. kuri on April 19, 2011 at 9:36 PM

    “I love leggings and do not “get” for a second how anyone thinks they are immodest.”

    Really? So you would consider this, for example, “modest”? (I don’t care much about modesty, I’m just curious about your opinion.)

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  18. LuluBelle on April 20, 2011 at 11:02 AM

    #17: Eeew! Those aren’t leggings– those are tights! Wow– Ok, if those are the legging that is creating such an uproar, I agree- that’s gross. My leggings (nor my daughters’) look anything like those!

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  19. kuri on April 20, 2011 at 11:12 AM

    Yeah, that’s what we’re talking about. It’s a common sight on college campuses (though not at BYU, I suppose?).

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  20. EmilyCC on April 20, 2011 at 11:15 AM

    Great post with great links! I so appreciate the Mormon women with fashion blogs/magazines that show that one can be fashionable and modest without saying, “Look, I’m modest AND fashionable” (those ladies doth protest too much). I’ve seen a few blogs that do this really well:

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  21. shenpa warrior on April 20, 2011 at 11:39 AM

    Maybe I haven’t looked closely enough, or maybe it’s because I’m a little near-sighted and don’t often wear my glasses, but I can’t really tell the difference between leggings/”tights”/etc.

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  22. LuluBelle on April 20, 2011 at 12:21 PM

    Leggings (at least the kind I wear and my girls’ too) are much thicker and not quite so tight. Maybe they’re just a higher quality? I usually get mine at Ann Taylor. I have a pair and wear them all the time with Uggs and long sweaters. And, trust me, they are tasteful and nothing like those in the photo! I do wear those types of “tights”, though, under skirts in the winter.

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  23. LuluBelle on April 20, 2011 at 1:14 PM

    This is how to wear leggings:

    Totally modest, cute, trendy, and tasteful.

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  24. Jen on April 20, 2011 at 5:15 PM

    Living in the heart of Utah County where money abounds, Mormons here are staying up with the fashion trends just fine (breast implants and tummy tucks included). It is definitely in style to not match and to layer all sorts of interesting items of clothing, especially for teenagers. The girls in my area tend to be modest and trendy, it is the moms that seem to struggle more with covering their cleavage and not wearing such tight pants.

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  25. hawkgrrrl on April 20, 2011 at 7:47 PM

    I don’t have any issue with layering. I’m even okay with ecclectic matching. But I stand by my indictment of the above 3 outfits, especially the bottom one. Clothing should be flattering to body type.

    “The girls in my area tend to be modest and trendy, it is the moms that seem to struggle more with covering their cleavage and not wearing such tight pants.” Poor moms. They’ve probably just put on a few pounds and breastfed a few kids and can’t face the new sizes they should be wearing. :(

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  26. Alice (alliegator) on April 20, 2011 at 8:52 PM

    I don’t think the t-shirt under the dress looks bad if it’s a tight t-shirt with cap sleeves. (but what do I know- I’m not super fashionable generally) :)

    As for leggings, I think that they are glorified tights, and while I like them, especially under dresses in the winter at church, I don’t think they should be worn as pants like in Kuri’s link. Leggings need a dress or long shirt of some sort to cover the bum, otherwise it just looks like your forgot to finish getting dressed.

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  27. LuluBelle on April 21, 2011 at 11:27 AM

    Alliegator: Agree with you on leggings 100%; do not agree with you on the t-shirt under a dress. I can’t say I’ve ever seen an intstance where it looked normal or fashionable. If anything, it calls to attention that the dress’ short-comings. There are so many great clothes that sticking a T under a cute dress is just totally unnecessary.

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  28. Alice (alliegator) on April 21, 2011 at 11:37 AM

    For me, in the summer, it’s necessary. I have a hard time finding dresses where the sleeves don’t bother me. I like maxi dresses, and they need something under them to be “modest”. :) (I don’t mind being unfashionable though)

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  29. Douglas on April 21, 2011 at 10:00 PM

    Young “Lady-Hawk” back in the day?? OMFG!!!

    Seriously, considering the demographics of BYU versus some snotty “back East” big-name school, the trendiness of the typical coed may lack a tad.
    Still, as the late SWK said, we can adopt a style all our own. We can look hip and trendy and yet be modest.
    However, as a proud “Red Waver” (Fresno State, go Bulldogs!), I recall fondly the styles of OUR coeds about this time of year, especially in hanging out at the student union and watching the traffic go by. There is beauty all around….

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  30. rob on April 24, 2011 at 8:42 AM

    BYU in the 70′s: full 3 piece suit to church services with my beautiful handmade italian loafers(picked up while on my mission for a very low price)no socks, slip off loafers during sacrament meeting…priceless. Tried this in the 90′s while at church, my wife turned 3 shades of white but my 3 yr old duaghter loved it!

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  31. [...] and the CoJCoL-dS — will they ever get along? Melyngoch wrote a great response to the old chestnut [...]

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  32. [...] it, she feels magically more moral.  (Magic underwear, anyone?)  Does this mean that the slogan “modest is hottest” reduces or eliminates the symbolic benefit (the cognition) of modest clothing?  Does enclothed [...]

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  33. Anonymous on October 4, 2012 at 11:44 AM

    I am late to this discussion, but 18 months after the posting, I am here to report that in my Southern USA ward, full of BYU grads, there are numerous women, aged 30-50 who wear spaghetti strap sundresses over white T-shirts to church every week. And the latest trend with the YW is a strapless tube top or dress over the aforementioned ubiquitous T-shirt. Ugly.

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  34. hawkgrrrl on October 7, 2012 at 1:20 AM

    Tube top over a tee?? Quelle horreur!

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