The Dancing and Dress
Dancing and Dress
Parties, music, glamour, alcohol. All of these aspects are characteristic of the 1920s in
America. Change happened all around. People were moving to the city and making more money,
women started gaining prominence in society, fashions, especially for women, also changed
dramatically and professional dancers invented new, crazy dance styles.While this is how the
1920s are characterized, we must consider if this was really the norm or not. A great place to
look for an answer to this question is the West, specifically Utah. Utah was an extremely
conservative state because large portions of its population were members of the Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter- day Saints. The members of the church have unique and specific guidelines on
behaviors and clothing. Because of this, it begs consideration of how the Mormons responded to
the evolving cultural elements such as dance and dress in the 1920s.Research shows that the
Mormons typically condoned the changing styles of dance and dress because they involved
extremes in movements and fit, however, the church realized that men will be men and want to
participate in them, so the church lovingly integrated compromises into society to help protect its
members from the influences of Satan.
Americans have always loved to dance and the Mormon people were no exception.
Dancing was part of their culture from the very beginning. In fact, historians claim that dancing
was extremely important in Utah because it was the most common amusement that people
participated in (Holbrook, 11). The Mormons considered not only to be a fun, leisurely activity,
but an activity that could promote health as well (Holbrook, 6). Because of this dual purpose,
leaders in the church endorsed dancing. Brigham Young, a prophet of thechurch, was one of
those promoters. While he was sometimes uneasy about dancing, on the whole he believed that
“there [was] no harm in dancing. The Lord said he wanted his saints to praise him in all things”
(Bitton, 18). Dancing seemed like a perfectly legitimate way to praise the Lord. Because of this
endorsement by church leaders, dances became a regular event. They were typically held on
Saturday afternoons in the church buildings, beginning and ending with a prayer (Mormonism,
150). These customs continue on today. This consistency shows that Mormons do, and always
have, loved dancing.They recognized that it was a healthy, praiseworthy activity that helped to
enliven the saints. When one is happy and healthy, he or she has much more control over their
body and it becomes a lot easier to resist the temptations of Satan. This was seen as a definite
plus for the Mormons.
Although many Mormons loved and supported dancing, there was a group that opposed
the activity. The opposition was concerned with affects that dances had on the people, especially
the youth. These concerns formed very early on. In 1843 President Spencer W. Kimball, another
prophet of the Church, voiced his fears about the “follies of the youth and their too frequent
attendance at balls.” These actions not only drew the mind away from innocent amusements, but
it led to other evil practices as well. For these reasons, President Kimball strongly opposed
dances that went to the extreme in movements, closeness, and other actions. Unfortunately this
was a usual occurrence (Holbrook, 5). Other people also saw the negative effects of dances. They
saw that dances could occasionally lead people into bad company. These bad influences caused
the people to stay up into the wee hours of the morning. Doing this weakened their bodily
systems and led them to participate in reckless, uncontrolled actions (Holbrook, 5). The
opposition realized that when people are participating in these activities, they are much more
susceptible to the enticements of Satan. If dancing had even the slightest chance of corrupting the
soul, then it should not be carried out.
A perfect example of dances that some people did not support was round dancing. These
were dances that required close embraces between couples, rather than the original group dances.
Dances like the waltz and the polka were particularly looked down upon (Mormonism, 151). The
introduction of these dances led to a Church-wide disapproval of round dancing. In order for all
of the members of the Church to truly grasp the antagonistic feelings towards these dances, the
First Presidency sent out an official statement declaring that dances that required close embraces
and suggestive movements should be avoided (Bitton, 17). Objection toward these dances
migrated into the newspapers. The prominent Women’s Exponent proclaimed their abhorrence
with vehemence. They asserted that round dances had originated in brothel houses and they
needed to stay there (Bitton, 19). The editors recognized the evil impacts of Satan in these
The First Presidency and the newspapers were not the only ones to pronounce their
dislike for round dancing. Other prominent people like George Q. Cannon, a member of the
Twelve Apostles, voiced his opinion as well. He stated that round dancing was not a healthy
activity and he believed that it was improper for servants of God to participate in them (Bitton,
19). As these examples show, views about round dancing were extremely looked down upon.
This was hard view though, because Mormons always enjoyed dancing. Dancing in a wholesome
manner was an excellent activity to participate in because it happiness and health. As the dances
got more risqué however, the Mormons became more and more adamant against them. Even if
people claimed that they were trying out these dances because they were new, not because of
their enticing sexuality and immorality, the majority opinion distrusted those ideas and
wereagainst the dances (Wesson, 47).They saw that round dances had the potential to distract
and confuse the minds of the saints.
Although the Mormons did not like round dances because of their effects on people, the
Church realized that the saints were still going to participate in them so their disapproval eased
up a bit. A little hesitation still remained however. The older generation was worried about the
sanctity of the youth, so as an extra precaution, they had people at dances that would walk
around making sure they could "see daylight" in-between each couple. This showed the strains
between religion and popular culture that the saints had (Bitton, 17). The Mormons wanted to
accept the new cultural changes, but due to their conservative nature and their concern for the
welfare of the saints, special actions and adaptations had to be made. This pattern continued into
the radical time of the 1920s.
Because the 1920s style of dancing was a lot higher paced and energetic compared to the
calm waltz of previous years, the pattern of disapproval and eventual approval began again. The
Foxtrot, the Charleston, the Tango and the Shimmie are examples of the types of jazz dances that
were becoming popular. Because of the nature of these dances, it is clear to see why at first,
Mormons rejected and resisted these dances. In fact, Elder Stephen L. Richards, a member of the
Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said of the Shimmie, that it "was one of the most fearful things
ever introduced." He concluded by saying that "the problems of dancing were never quite so
great" (Between Revivalism, 31). Because of these views, when the youth tried to participate in
these new styles, they were reprimanded and told that they were not allowed (Mormonism, 151).
These types of dances did not create the kind of atmosphere that the Church typically wanted at
social activities. The Church preferred to have a wholesome environment where the spirit abided.
In fact, in 1920 while these new dances were spreading like a wild fire, David O. McKay, a
prominent Church leader, stated that the “atmosphere of the dance should be such that if any
elder be called from the party to go administer to a sick person, he could leave with the same
spirit that he would go from his elder’s quorum meeting” (Oliphant, 103). Having a clean, moral
atmosphere during activities like dancing, was something the Mormons had always valued
because it helped to protect the mind from the temptations of Satan. They did not feel however,
that these new dances did this, so they tried their hardest to resist them. However, new
techniques are hard for people to fight against, sostruggles against the new styles did not last for
Soon the Mormons gave into the natural man and began to participate in thenew dancing
fads. At first, the Church's position was common sense and moderation when taking part in
dances (Bitton, 25). However, historian Gary Kunz commented that the Mormons in the 1920s
engaged in Jazz music just as much as any of the large cities that were fully participating in the
new Jazz culture (67). He commented that Provo had jazz music playing at local halls which
were filled with drunk, closely-dancing couples (Kunz, 67). The worst part of this whole
phenomenon was that the youth shared in these practices. At parties, girls as young as 14 or 15
would dance cheek to cheek with the boys and would often stop to kiss them and hold them in
close embraces (Kunz, 69). Because the actions at dances were getting so extreme, the
compliance of the 1920s dances lessened day by day. Adults began sending in complaint letters
about the inappropriateness of the dances. Some even went so far as to claim that the dances
should be prohibited (Kunz, 69). Since the Church wanted its members to be in the world not of
it, measures were soon taken.
Different steps were taken to start curbing the lack of discipline in the youth. The older
generation, as well as the Church, wanted to protect their young from the world of changing
values and morals. In 1916 Church representatives came together to discuss a plan of action.
They decided to form a program that required strict chaperoning of young girls at dances and
other parties to make sure they were not dressing in the new, extreme fashions or taking part in
the excessive dance styles (Between Revivalism, 25). Other actions were also implemented.
Various boards were set up to make standards and rules for all of the social activities (Wesson,
51). Some stakes hired dance teachers and different wards also published a pamphlet on proper
dance techniques (Between Revivalism, 26).Taking these kinds of steps not only helped to
control the types of dances that occurred, but they also showed the youth the seriousness of the
Church in watching over them and looking out for their welfare.
These various efforts taken by the Church exemplify the attitudes of Mormons during the
1920s on the changing cultural aspects. They wanted their members to be able to take part in the
enjoyments of the world, but under certain conditions. The high values that the Mormons had
needed to be upheld in all aspects. In doing so, individuals are in more control of their body thus
allowing them to more successfully resist the negative influences of the devil. So, while
Mormons loved dancing, with the styles becoming extreme, they had to take precautions to make
sure their morals were maintained.Overall, the Mormons did not like or accept the new forms of
dancing. But in order to curb the natural man, the Church lovingly created guidelines through
programs and proceduresto help direct the saints through this time of change.
Dancing styles were not the only cultural element that shifted to the extreme end during
the 1920s, fashion also evolved. During the first part of the settlement in Utah, Mormons wore
the trends of the time. This was due to the fact that they had just come to Utah and they were not
fully able to manufacture their own clothes quite yet. Thus, clothing was imported into Utah
(Clayton, 93). Because the clothes were from outside sources, they were more likely to be the
modern fashions rather than clothes tailored to Mormon standards. Due to this fact, around 1856
the Church leaders felt like there needed to be a cleansing of the society because the members
were getting too involved in the worldly pleasures. These pleasures were distracting the saints
from the more important ideals that the Church upheld. These concerns started the Mormon
Reformation. During this time the saints were encouraged to start becoming self-sufficient in all
things, including making their own clothes. Because of this, it was a lot more difficult to make
the latest fashions (Clayton, 267). This resulted in the saints wearing simplified versions of them.
Although this was the case for the majority, many people, including the wealthy, still continued
to wear the modern styles (Clayton, 118). This resistance to the principles taught during the
Reformation demonstrated to the Church leaders that the saints needed even more loving
direction in order to protect them from the ideas of the world. Around the 1870s Brigham Young
organized a retrenchment society for the women. This institution encouraged women to create
their own fashions. The Church wanted to be rid of "Babylon's" fashions and the negative effects
they had on the members, so the leaders took efforts to make this happen (Clayton, 268). Relief
Society women took this job seriously and began raising silk worms so that they could produce
their own fine clothing (Clayton, 188). These actions had the potential to be effective. Making
their own clothes would likely lead to less participation in worldly fashions. However, the
Mormonsare not perfect, so even after all of the attempts by the Church to get rid of “Babylon’s”
fashions, members were still enticed with these fashions, so,their clothes ended up being
simplified versions of them.
The simplicity of the Mormon fashions was challenged when the 1920s came along and
the styles started becoming extreme. The 1920s was the era when women started gaining more
freedom. This newfound freedom expressed itself in dress. The scandalously clad flapper
appeared. These fashions were dramatically different from what previous eras had claimed were
acceptable for women to wear. Dresses were not tight and voluminous anymore, they hung
straight from the shoulder and free from the body. The arms were bare and as the years
progressed, the hemlines got higher and higher. Women also preferred to seem "boyish" so they
would wear a flatting bra. Although this was the case, it was crucial to keep the feminine touch
by wearing gaudy jewelry (Jailer-Chamberlain). These newly formed fashions epitomized just
what the Mormons had been trying to avoid. The extremes of the new flapper fashion were going
to start distracting the minds of the saints and make them more susceptible to the influences of
Satan. Because of this, the Church's view towards the styles was less than positive.
The Church openly voiced its opinion to the members about being cautious with the new
fashions. With the radical flapper as the example for the new women's fashion, people could
easily start forgetting their morals, thus becoming vulnerable to the enticements of the devil.
Because of this, extra care was taken to help guide Mormon women in their clothing choices.
Leaders strongly encouraged and emphasized that the women wear plain dresses. Plainness and
modesty were traditionally associated with public virtue, so in order to maintain a virtuous
society, the women needed to continue exemplifying those characteristics (Mormonism, 152).
How to have a virtuous society is taught in school, so if the teachers and students are not
dressing in a way to promote public virtue, then the lessons in school are all for naught. This is
why modesty and plainness in clothing was necessary for teachers and students to adhere to.
Joseph F. Smith spoke very strongly about women dressing in high fashion when teaching
children (Mormonism, 151). Likewise, the students were not only pushed to wear plain dresses in
school, but in school activities as well. An excerpt was posted in the Utah Daily Chronicle which
discussed prom clothing. It states that it is very easy, with the extreme fashions of the time, to
wear the wrong thing which "robs them of their modesty.” It continues that the people that wear
the fads do not really realize what image they are giving off. "Evening gowns that expose
thearms and shoulders too extensivelyare not becoming, not artistic andmost certainly not
modest. A girlwho loses the least part of her modesty has lost part of her greatest charm"
(1919).The Church truly condemned the new styles and the immodesty that they created because
they taught all the wrong morals.
Men and women alike despised these new fashions. One of Brigham Young's daughters,
Susa Young Gates printed a brief poem in the Improvement Era that clearly stated her thoughts
on the latest styles. She wrote, "Be the parcel, not the wrapper; be a woman, not a flapper"
(1929). Clearly, she could see through the facade of the flapper style. She encouraged the women
of the Church to have more substance to them than just clothes. Dressing modestly, unlike a
flapper, would help the women to become better, smarter and more well-rounded, rather than just
being a beautifully dressed girl that knows nothing. All Mormons recognized the unfavorable
aspects about the new styles. They saw that this style of dress, or rather undress, was shamelessly
exhibiting the human form (Bitton, 17). Mormons recognize that the body is a temple, so
displaying it for the world to see is a sacrilege. The women were strongly encouraged to cover
their "temples" and wear modest clothing.
That being said, Mormons were still human, so participating in the latest fashion was
bound to happen. Sure enough, the Mormons did end up somewhat giving in. Pictures taken of
women in the 1920s showed that a lot oftheir dresses were fairly similar to the new styles, but
with a few adjustments for modesty's sake. The dresses typically went about to the knee. The
sleeves were either long or elbow length. They were a looser fit and had a dropped waistline.
There was a variety of colors, but perhaps not quite as vibrant as the flapper dresses. These types
of styles were commonly promoted in the newspapers. The Utah Daily Chronicle was constantly
advertising for Siegel Clothing Co.This store had "the newest models of fabrics and colors" and
"everything that fashion favors” (1919).The Manti Messengeralso took part in this promotion. In
1925 it displayed an article that discussed the success of the new tunic blouses. It declared that,
"When the tunic-blouse arrived it made an immediate success for two very good reasons, first
because it is a becoming garment and next because it simplifies the problem of a varied
wardrobe" (3).This newspaper was trying to show some of the benefits of the new fashions.
These were modest dresses that made women look lovely while also adding variety to their
wardrobes. The various newspaper advertisements helped to encourage the participation of the
saints in the new fashions.
Although the new fashions were looked down upon, the Mormons continued their pattern
of taking part in the styles but in a simplified, modest way. Most Mormons were not just going to
throw their values out the window and start wearing extreme fashions like the flapper style. They
had high standards and those were going to be met by every good saint. The Church recognized
that participating in the fashions might leave members more vulnerable to the influences of Satan
because those extreme fashions would distract the mind from more virtuous thoughts. That being
said, the Church also realized that man would be man, so they sympathetically made
compromises. Women, especially, were allowed to wear the new fashions but with the conditions
of modesty. All in all, the Mormons despised the extreme fashions because of the position of
vulnerability it left the saints in, but accepted them as long as the standards were kept.
"Let not the brilliant prospects of a glorious millennium be clouded with such shadows as
are threatened by customs and costumes and diversions of these licentious days" (Bitton, 17).
This quote truly epitomizes the stance of the Church on the changing cultural aspects of dance
and dress in the 1920s. The Church did not like the changes because they did not uphold the
standards and morals that the Church encourages. The new styles of dance and dress were full of
extremes. Extremes are never a good thing. However, there is always a way around them. Rules
and regulations are methods of compromise. This is exactly what the Mormons did. They
realized that everyone is human and will long for the new styles.In order to prevent a complete
uprising from the members the Church allowed for participation in the new styles, but only
following the rules set in place. The clothes had to be modest and the dances had to be approved
by special boards. So although places in Utah, like Provo, had the same behaviors that
characterized other places in the nation, through rules and regulations, the Utah Mormons were
able to keep their uniqueness.
Alexander, Thomas G.,1935, author. Mormonism in Transition: A History of the Latter-Day
Saints, 1890-1930. Eds. Stein, Stephen J., 1940, writer of added text., Thomas G.
Alexander, and foreword by Stephen J. Stein. Third edition ed. Salt Lake City: Greg
Kofford Books, 2012. Print.
Alexander, Thomas G., 1935. Between Revivalism and the Social Gospel: The Latter-day Saint
Social Advisory Committee, 1916-1922. . ., 1983. Print.
Bitton, Davis, 1930-2007. "These Licentious Days": Dancing among the Mormons ..., 1977.
Clayton, Ruth Vickers, 1926. "Clothing and the Temporal Kingdom: Mormon Clothing
Practices, 1847 to 1887." Thesis (Ph.D)--Purdue University., 1987. Print.
Holbrook, Leona. Dancing as an Aspect of Early Mormon and Utah Culture. Ed. Leona
Holbrook., 1978. Print.
“It Does Not Pay!” Improvement Era, 1929. Utah Digital Newspapers. Web. 11 December 2013.
Jailer - Chamberlain, Mildred. "Flappers in Fashion the 1920s." Antiques & Collecting Magazine
2003: 24. Print.
Kunz, Gary C. Provo in the Jazz Age: A Case Study. Ed. by Gary C. Kunz. Thesis (M.A.)--
Brigham Young University. Dept. of History., 1983. Print.
Manti Messenger, Jan. 2, 1925. Utah Digital Newspapers. Web. 11 December 2013.
Oliphant, Bob. Dance: A Style of our Own. Ed. by Bob Oliphant. Utah: Bob Oliphant, 1990.
Utah Daily Chronicle, Mar. 27, 1919. Utah Digital Newspapers. Web. 11 December 2013.
Wesson, Karl E. "Dance in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints 1830-1940." Thesis
(M.A.)--B.Y.U. Dept. of Recreation Education., 1975. Print.