RAIDING THE CLOSET FOR LATEST CULT FASHIONS
By DANICA LO
April 22, 2008 -- PUFFY polyester dresses, sporty Skechers sneakers, sky-high bangs (circa the late '80s) and a unibrow might just be your ticket to heaven. Who knew?
Fashion and grooming certainly aren't the biggest concerns to emerge from the Yearning for Zion (YFZ) Ranch since federal officials began their raid of the Texas compound in early April.
But it's become just about impossible to ignore the superficial.
Cult members' elaborate hairstyles, voluminous tailored gowns and gentle, pastoral demeanor have riveted the nation.
To outsiders, the women of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) trudging out of the courthouse each day look like a uniform pastel parade. But for the religious community members, modest, pioneer-like clothing is much more than a reflection of the lifestyle choices they've made.
For these women, fashion is a matter of life and death.
Carolyn Jessop, the ex-wife of current YFZ Ranch leader Merril Jessop, fled the FLDS community in Colorado City, Ariz., five years ago and is the author of the best-selling memoir "Escape." According to Jessop, fundamentalist doctrines preach that clothing will be the deciding factor God's armies use on Judgment Day to differentiate between the righteous and the evil.
"It was sobering - especially to a 6-year-old - to think that you could . . . end up dead if you didn't wear the right clothes," she writes of her first fashion epiphany.
Unacceptable clothing would incur a swift crackdown from within the community.
"If I were to wear a skirt that someone thought was too short, since we were all related, they'd have the right to correct that because everybody had the right to keep the family in line," says Jessop, speaking to The Post by phone from her home in Utah. "Right away, my father would get five phone calls."
Every day, FLDS women don between four and five under-layers - long prophet-mandated underwear, bra, leggings and slips, she says.
Despite the scorching summer heat in Eldorado, Texas, where the current headquarters are, and Colorado City, where the Yearning for Zion sect was previously situated, the handmade dresses are constructed of synthetic polyester or rayon.
"Polyester fabrics last forever and don't stain easily," Jessop says.
"And when you're wearing layers of fabric, rayons hang really nicely if you get the right weave - they shape the body and are quite elegant."
On their feet? Skechers, the mall staple.
"They still wear Skechers," Jessop says. "Skechers are a big thing down there - the lace-up ones can look pretty nice with those dresses. And they're a sports shoe. You're on your feet all day long - a lot of times you're working in the garden, cooking in the kitchen, cleaning the house. It's not a job where you're sitting down."
After a 1953 state raid on the polygamists' community in Short Creek, Ariz., dress regulations began to get stricter. A new crackdown began when Warren Jeffs, imprisoned last year for his complicity in the rape of a 14-year-old girl, took over after the death of his father, Rulon, in 2002.
"Warren tried to teach people to live in scarcity," Jessop says. "I was married to a man who was more affluent, so I probably had about 20 or 30 outfits. But Warren mandated that if you had more than five dresses, that was too much. He nailed it down to where everything was so sparse.
"His thing was always about the spirit of God," she says.
Jeffs famously banned the word "fun" and the color red from the community.
"First you couldn't wear a solid red dress, then a dress with a red flower on it," Jessop says. "Then, not a pinstripe of red in a tie.
"It's like Warren just stayed at home dreaming up what to ban next," she says. "It was literally that crazy."
Still, just like any community, there are the trendsetters and It-girls. Case in point: The "Nusses" (short for "righteousnesses") - Merril Jessop's daughters - in high school.
"Their sleeves, bodices and necklines were trimmed with yards of lace and frills," Jessop writes. "They looked like those crocheted pastel dolls that cover up Kleenex boxes, except that they all wore big blue boys' sports shoes and made it clear that they would vaporize anyone who tried to cross them."
These days, since it's Carolyn's ex, Merril Jessop, who runs the ranch - his daughters and wives still set the sect trends.
The outside world, with all its makeup and haircuts, provocative clothing and spiked heels, is seen as evil. For those who might dream of breaking away from the community, there's this: The threat of being "forced" to wear makeup. Despite this, there's still a booming underground cosmetics home-sale enterprise.
In her last years before fleeing, Jessop secretly sold NuSkin cosmetics to other women in the community.
"A lot of my customers were [then leader] Rulon Jeffs' wives," she says. "They were incredibly competitive - they weren't allowed to do makeup, but I sold a lot of nutritional products, like vitamin shakes and hair vitamins."
Beautiful, long hair is a prized asset in the FLDS community - even outgrown eyebrows. While tweezing is allowed, "They just don't do it because they think it's more righteous not to," Jessop says. "Primping is being vain."
As for luscious long hair, Jessop says, "It was one of the only indulgences these women are allowed. They can't put on lipstick, they can't cut their hair into a convenient haircut, so they create these elaborate hairdos."
While dying, chemical treatments such as perms, and cutting hair are not allowed, expensive shampoos, conditioning treatments and hair spray are.
Shannon Price is the director of the Diversity Foundation, in Utah, which rescues escapees from the FLDS community. She grew up visiting her cousin Laurie in the polygamists' community.
"My cousin Laurie had long, long hair that went down to the floor," Price says. "It was one of those things - like playing with Barbie - it was so exquisitely beautiful.
"Now it's the high bangs," she says. "Some of the girls have a competition over how big they can make that wave. It's their thing, the hair is their thing. There's a lot of competition about their hair. It's the one thing that can set them apart in that monoculture."