Polygamy Garb Born of Rules

When the women of a Texas polygamist cult emerged from self-imposed seclusion into the media spotlight this week, it looked to some outsiders as if they had stepped out of another century.

Wearing heavy pastel-colored dresses buttoned up to the neck and reaching down to the ground, their hair pinned up into tight, tall waves, the women congregated on the porches of the sprawling Yearning for Zion Ranch and pleaded for the return of their children, 314 of whom are in state custody while authorities investigate allegations of child abuse.

Their unusual appearance garnered nearly as much attention as their tears and meek manner.

"The compound fence isn't the only cage for the women of polygamy," Rebecca Walsh, a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune wrote in an article this week critical of the sect. "There is also a prison uniform: yards of pink and blue fabric, inches and inches of hair, and ugly orthopedic shoes."

In a letter to the same paper, an unidentified female member of the sect responded to Walsh's comments.

"I am free to dress as I like," she wrote. "I think dresses are romantic. They bring out the feminine side in me. Our bodies are sacred. And they are not to display before the world. That is the reason we cover them. … Our motive is not isolation but simplicity."

Free to Choose or Controlled?

Like many other religious groups, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has a dress code, which in its case can be traced back to the late 19th century, a time when polygamy was still common in mainstream Mormonism. But those familiar with the cult say the women's attire is not just a matter of tradition or preference. Rather, they say, fashions are dictated by very strict rules imposed and revised by sect elders to promote modesty and enforce religious devotion.

Controlling dress is a way of controlling behavior, experts say, and isolation from the outside world is precisely the point.

"They see the world as filled with the presence of Satan," Stephen Kent, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, who has studied polygamy, told ABC News. "The conservative dress of the women sets them apart from the outside world. It fosters among them the attitude that the outside world is sensual and bad."

Kent added that women in the polygamist sect are often proud of their appearance, seeing their attire as a reflection of their piety and proximity to God.

"These groups believe that they are the path to heaven," Kent said. "And so they value their public statements about their elite exclusivity."

Carolyn Jessop, a former member of the sect who was married to a 50-year-old man when she was 18 but later left the group, agreed. She told ABC News the distinctive style of dress was meant to make women feel not only separate from the outside world, but also more dependent on each other.

"It was just a way to control individuality," Jessop said. "Everybody starts looking like everybody else. And then you control it to the point where people can't be an individual."

ABC News' Jim Avila interviewed some of the women living in a polygamous sect in Colorado City, Ariz., including Lilith, a woman who says she is at peace with her lifestyle and rituals.

"It is definitely tradition. It is how I was raised. [It's] a modest way to stay covered so that we can keep our thoughts clean," she said.

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