October 19, 2022

EP. 287 — How Do Cults Fashion Themselves? with Sarah C. Byrd

Let’s say you pass a group of people dressed identically. Are they a) following a trend, b) wearing uniforms, or c)  in a cult? And who’s to say the answer can’t be all of the above? This week, we’re diving fabric first into the world of American cults, communes, and alternative communities with fashion historian and archivist Sarah C. Byrd. Listen in as she and Jonathan discuss how these groups have historically expressed themselves through style—and why the definition of “cult fashion” might be more expansive than we think.

Sarah C. Byrd is a fashion historian, archivist, & educator based in New York. Her independent research focuses on the history of clothing within American “cults” and alternative communities, as well as the role of museums in fashion design education. She is also passionate about creating space to engage in learning outside of institutional programs. You can connect with Sarah via her website: sarahcbyrd.com.

Still curious after listening to this episode? Sarah has suggested a handful of resources, and places to learn and visit, for each of the communities featured in the episode:

The Shakers:

Shaker Museum Collection (New Lebanon, NY)

Hancock Shaker Village (Hancock, MA)

Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community (Sabbathday Lake, ME)


The Oneida Community:

Oneida Community Archive Collection (Syracuse University Library)

Oneida Community Mansion House (Oneida, NY)


A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870 (Book by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich)

Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey (Netflix)

Prophet’s Prey (Showtime)

The Source Family:

The Source Family (Documentary)

The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, YaHoWha 13, and The Source Family (Book by Isis Aquarian & Electricity Aquarian)

Heaven’s Gate:

Heaven’s Gate: The Cult of Cults (HBO)

Heaven’s Gate (Witness Docs podcast, hosted by Glynn Washington)


America and the Utopian Dream (Yale University Beinecke Library)

American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation (Book by Adam Morris)


Follow us on Instagram and Twitter @CuriousWithJVN to join the conversation.


Jonathan is on Instagram and Twitter @JVN and @Jonathan.Vanness on Facebook.


Transcripts for each episode are available at JonathanVanNess.com.


Our executive producer is Erica Getto. Our associate producer is Zahra Crim. Our editor is Andrew Carson.


Our theme music is “Freak” by QUIÑ; for more, head to TheQuinCat.com.


Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness & Sarah C. Byrd JVN [00:00:00] Welcome to Getting Curious. I am Jonathan Van Ness and every week, you guessed it, I sit down for a gorgeous conversation with a brilliant expert to learn all about something that makes me curious. On today’s episode I’m joined by Sarah C. Byrd, where I ask her: what’s the history of the fashion of cults?! Welcome to Getting Curious. This is Jonathan Van Ness and my oh my, do we have quite the show for you. So you may remember in 2018, we recorded an episode with Dr. Natalie Feinblatt about the psychology of cults. Today, we’re going to talk about the fashion and style within American cults, communes, utopian societies, religious sects, and spiritual communities. And to talk to us about that, we have no one better in the world, than Sarah C. Byrd, who is a fashion archivist, historian, and educator. One of her areas of expertise is fashion within “alternative communities.” And

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