April 17, 2008 -- 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.
Lilith also stated that there are "lots of different hairstyles. But I do it this way because it's fast. I have enough hair. It's fast to just braid it like that."
Layers of Undergarments Part of 'Dress Code'
Experts told ABC News that women in the cult, which is also known as FLDS, wear as many as three layers of clothing underneath their dresses, including an undergarment they consider holy, three pairs of stockings and sometimes pants. Patterns or bright colors are forbidden — especially red, a color allegedly reserved for God — and any hint of makeup or loose-hanging hair is reason for severe punishment by father or husband.
"They don't want anybody to lust after you," Irene Spencer, 71, a former polygamist wife who wrote a book about her experience and who has several sisters and nieces still living at the Yearning for Zion Ranch, told ABC News. "They used to tell us that if a man saw your elbow it would turn him on."
"We could never wear makeup," Spencer said. "You can't touch that wicked stuff to your face or your lips at all. You can't even have bangs. They're very, very strict."
Fears of breaking the group's code of appearance can apparently run deep.
In a call to a family violence shelter on March 30, which prompted Texas authorities to raid the 1,700 acre Yearning for Zion Ranch, a 16-year-old girl reported being abused by her 50-year-old husband but said church members threatened that if she left, outsiders would "hurt her, force her to cut her hair, to wear makeup and [modern] clothes and to have sex with lots of men."
Spencer said such intimidation is common within the FLDS group.
"These people are scared spitless," she said. "We were told all our lives that [outsiders] were wicked. These people are told that they are the only righteous people. It's no wonder that they live in the fear they live in."
Of all the different garments sown and worn by the women of the Yearning for Zion Ranch, former cult members told ABC News the underwear is the most important.
Covering the skin from neck to ankles and wrists, it is worn year-round underneath regular undergarments and said to be symbolic of the clothes that God provided for Adam and Eve to use in the Garden of Eden.
Seen as a kind of spiritual defense, some women don't remove the underwear even in the most intimate of situations.
"My grandmother and aunts and some of the people I knew wouldn't even take them off to bathe," said former polygamist Spencer. "They would leave them on one leg and bathe the rest of their body and put them back on."
She added that some women keep the garments on even while giving birth or having intercourse with their husbands.
"They were told that [the undergarments] were supposed to be a protection and nothing would happen to them if they wore them," Spencer said.
No Abatement to Attire, Not Even in Summer
Jessop said she remembers the sect's dress as hot and uncomfortable, especially during the Southern summers, when temperatures can often top 100 degrees.
"It's terribly impractical," she said. "You end up with layers and layers and layers of clothes. There's a health issue here, because it's like my body had lost the ability to heat and cool."
But a current member of the Yearning for Zion Ranch disagreed.
In her letter to The Salt Lake Tribune, the unidentified FLDS woman wrote, "Your body adjusts to the temeperature [sic] changes better with a covering of underwear and clothing. Clothing protects the skin from the heat of the sun. You are actually cooler being covered than being naked when it comes to sunshine. … Wearing long underwear is in preparation for our temple ordinances. And we see it as a privilege."
Of the women's hairstyle, she wrote, "Women need long hair. Our mothers in Heaven have long hair. This was revealed by the Prophets. … Hair left hanging is hot on the neck. … That is why most women braid their hair or put it up in a bun or twist."
But Jessop dismissed the woman's arguments for practicality out of hand.
"That is bogus," she said. "That is a bunch of baloney that we all got fed. … It's considered adulterous to have your hair down. It's considered like you're trying to entice a man to have sex with you."
"She is just reiterating what she was taught," Jessop continued, adding, "Think about how you would feel if you're weighed down with all that clothing. It affects your personality in a very literal way."