The Mormon Underwear Monopoly
“When you go home, can I have your garments?” a local woman asked my senior companion.
It was common for American missionaries serving in my mission to throw away their garments and buy all new ones when they went home. Life in this tropical third world country was hard on garments—the hot, sticky climate invoked constant perspiration as we biked or walked for miles daily. (It would also be accurate to say that garments were hard on us, in all that heat.) There were no washing machines. We hired local women to clean the garments; their rigorous hand-washing methods were pretty effective at cleaning the soiled garments but also stretched them until they were even more shapeless than how they began.
This local woman knew that American missionaries liked to buy new garments when they went home. She was also a returned missionary. But she had not thrown her missionary garments away. A few years after her mission, she was still wearing them. Unlike the American missionaries, she would never leave this tropical land for a place with cooler weather and washing machines with gentle cycles.
And unlike the American missionaries, she could not afford to replace her garments.
She had considered sewing her own, she explained, but that was against Church rules. So she chose to wear my companion’s disgusting, used underwear. She was nowhere near my companion’s size, by the way, but what else could she do?
Wearing garments is mandatory among endowed church members and enforced through regular temple recommend interviews, which invoke additional rules for garment-wearing that go well beyond the scripted temple ceremonies. Reference 1 Until at least the 1940’s, a variety of entrepreneurs made and sold garments for the Mormon market. Reference 2 By 1977, however, the Church had forbidden the sale of garments by any retailer other than Beehive Clothing, the underwear-producing arm of the church itself. Back then, individuals were still allowed to make their own garments, but under current policy, this is also forbidden. Reference 3 Reference 4
These Church-made rules grant the Church a monopoly on Mormon undergarments.
By definition, monopoly is characterized by an absence of competition, which often results in high prices and inferior products. Reference 5
I do not believe that Beehive Clothing engages in price-fixing, a common sin of monopolistic firms. However, garments are more expensive than underwear bought in the competitive market, at least in part due to the fact that they are made from much more fabric. I do not consider the additional fabric to be added value, since most women I know, including me, would be much more comfortable if our underwear were less bulky.
One set of women’s 100% cotton, knee-length, two piece garments retails for $6.65, while a 10-pack of Fruit-of-the-Loom cotton women’s briefs from K-mart costs $12.99.
Garments are ineffective at accomplishing one of the most basic functions of modern female underwear—they do not hold a sanitary napkin in place, especially the kind with wings. As a result, most women who wear garments will need to buy that pack of Fruit-of-the-Looms in addition to their Beehive Clothing underwear purchase, increasing their personal cost.
During an online discussion of this issue, I brought up my Dominican friend’s plight and other commenters immediately dismissed it, confident that the church would provide free garments to such needy members. I am interested to know if this assumption is correct. There is no mention of any avenues to obtain free garments or reduced price garments at the Beehive Clothing website or in the section about garments in Church Handbook of Instruction Volume 2. Even if such assistance exists, how would a woman find out about it?
Poor Customer Service
As a monopoly, it is not necessary for the Church to maintain consumer-friendly business practices in order to retain its customers. At Beehive Clothing stores, customers are not allowed to try on or even handle the merchandise before they buy it. All garments are hidden in sealed plastic packaging. No sample merchandise is available for consumers to view before they buy. Rather, customers must make decisions based on small, square fabric samples and cartoonish line drawings.
Customers are instructed to purchase garments, sight unseen, and then open the packaging at home to try them on. Then, they may return unopened packages to the store, but are forced to retain the pair they opened even if it doesn’t fit. I have been pregnant four times in the past decade, so my size has fluctuated frequently. Likewise, Beehive Clothing makes frequent changes to the sizing of its garments. Reference 6 Almost every time I make a purchase at Beehive Clothing, my first blind guess is wrong and I am forced to buy at least one set of garments that does not fit.
The online Beehive Clothing Store Q and A offers this helpful tidbit:
Q. Where should I go with questions about garments and other sacred clothing?
A. All questions about wearing sacred clothing should be directed to your local priesthood leader or to a member of a temple presidency.
Did you catch that? If a woman has questions about underwear from Beehive Clothing, Beehive Clothing directs her to ask a male person who does not sell female underwear.
This is not the kind of company I would choose to do business with, if I had a choice.
Monopolies tend to offer inferior products because innovation is unnecessary; their customers have nowhere else to go. A recent poll of 250 endowed, believing Mormon women found that very few of them were happy with Beehive Clothing products—97% reported issues with the fit of their garments. The full article, and its comments, explains the problems many Mormon women experience with garment design:
Unlike increased costs and poor customer service, I suspect that inhibiting design innovation is actually an intended consequence of the Beehive Clothing sole supplier mandate. What if a private company offered garment tops with spaghetti straps instead of cap sleeves? Or bottoms shaped like panties instead of bike shorts? People like me would never buy the bulky Beehive Clothing models again!
Would that be a bad thing?
I do not believe it is ethical for the Church to mandate that members purchase underwear from a monopoly supplier, which happens to be the church itself. However, as a healthy, employed, American woman, I can afford the extra cost of monopoly-supplied underwear and I can tolerate the discomfort of wearing it. So I comply.
Still, I hope for a day when the Church will value the plight of the poor, the comfort of members in tropical lands and personal privacy over conformity and modesty enforcement. Maybe someday, the Church could not only end its ethically questionable underwear monopoly but get out of the underwear business altogether. Perhaps the Church could offer iron-ons for people to discretely place inside clothing of their own choice, like this innovative company:
Or maybe church members could be trusted to remember our temple covenants without actually wearing physical reminders on our bodies.
When I was a missionary, new to garment-wearing and suffering in tropical heat, one of my companions offered me reason to hope. “Garments aren’t eternal,” she said, reminding me that the resurrected Moroni wasn’t wearing garments when he appeared to Joseph Smith. (Joseph Smith History 1:31).
That same companion had to pick the lace off of her garment tops because they were irritating the boils on her body caused by layering garments under her clothing in tropical heat.