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People routinely talk about the garment industry, and retailers have entire departments and stores that sell garments. To most people, the term garment is synonymous with clothing.
If you mention the word garment to your Mormon friend or neighbor, however, you'll often get an entirely different reaction. To millions of Mormons around the world, garments are a special piece of clothing worn as a symbolic gesture of the promises that they have made to God. The garment is always worn under other clothing, next to the skin. For most people who wear it, the garment takes the place of regular underwear. (For this reason, some people refer to the garment as Mormon undergarments or as Mormon underwear. Most LDS shy away from such terms, preferring the simpler garment term, instead.)
The garment is directly related to Mormon temples. It is here that faithful members first receive the garment after individual instruction on how it should be worn and cared for. The garment is worn as part of a special ceremony called the temple endowment. During the ceremony additional special clothing is worn for ceremonial purposes, but this ceremonial clothing is worn only inside a temple. The garment, on the other hand, is worn at all times (day and night) by members as a constant reminder of the promises they have made to God.
Mormons are not unique in the wearing of special clothing for religious purposes. Perhaps the most well-known example is the yarmulke, which is worn at special times by many Jewish men or at all times by devout orthodox Jews. Similarly, in some religions a minister or priest will wear a special collar that has religious significance, or nuns may wear special clothing that signifies the religious order to which they belong. In all cases the special clothing reflects the religious conviction of the wearer.
There is also a historical precedent for wearing religious clothing. In fact, Adam and Eve wore clothing that was made for them by God before they left the Garden of Eden. Genesis 3:21 states that "unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them." Mormons believe that such clothing was provided as part of the religious instruction provided to Adam and Eve by God. This is the same context in which Mormons receive the garment--as part of the religious instruction contained within the temple endowment.
Other religious figures throughout history have also worn special clothing as they performed their religious duties. For instance, Moses was commanded by the Lord (as recorded in Exodus 28:1-3) to place holy garments and priestly vestments upon Aaron and others in preparation for officiating in the tabernacle.
Meaning and Purpose
For temple-going Mormons, the garment serves much the same purpose as religious clothing throughout history--it privately sets them apart from the world and signifies a covenant between the wearer and God. There is no professional clergy in the LDS Church, so in some ways the garment serves as a symbol of the lay clergy, where both men and women share in the responsibilities and blessings of the priesthood, particularly in the temple.
If you look at a pair of garments, they look much like other, modestly cut underclothing. They are made from a variety of light-weight fabrics, and most garments are white. (There are some special colored garments that can be worn by members of the armed services, but for the vast majority of Mormons, garments are always white.) The white color symbolizes purity and the length and cut of the garment helps assure modesty in dress and appearance.
The meaning attached to the garment by devout Mormons transcends the fabric and design used to create the garment. It is sacred to the wearer not for what it is, but for what it represents. It reminds the wearer of the continuing need for repentance and obedience to God, the need to honor binding covenants voluntarily made in the temple, and the need to cherish and share truth and virtue in our daily living. By so doing, the garment helps the wearer to focus his or her life on Jesus Christ and to thereby lay claim on the blessings promised to those who do so.
See also Mormon undergarments