Virtually all Book of Mormon incidents of unrighteous wealth or pride manifest themselves in the wearing of costly apparel. Nephi’s brother, Jacob, first denounced this practice. (See commentary accompanying Jacob 2:13.) When the Nephites began drifting away from Christianity two hundred years after the Lord’s appearance in the Americas, the first sign of that drift was costly apparel (4 Ne. 1:24).
This almost automatic connection between unrighteous pride and expensive clothing has an dramatic correlation in the distinctive Mesoamerican economic system. Linda Schele (an epigrapher) and Peter Mathews (an archaeologist) describe Mesoamerican wealth:
The Maya used commodities both in their raw state and as worked objects for money. These currencies included jade and other green stones; flint and obsidian, in both worked and unworked forms; other precious stones and minerals; spondylus (spiny oyster) shells; cacao beans; lengths of cotton cloth, both in plain weave and made into clothes; spices; measures of sea salt; birds and their feathers; animal pelts; forest products such as dyes, resins, incense, and rubber; wood in both worked and unworked form; and ceramics, especially beautifully painted elite wares. People at all levels of society used these currencies within their communities as well as in the markets and fairs. Farmers and villagers could use their crops and handicrafts to barter for or buy other goods for use in their daily lives or in special rituals, such as marriages, funerals, and house dedications.
People throughout Mesoamerica wore these currencies as jewelry and clothing to display the wealth and enterprise of their families.
Costly apparel was, to put it simply, a manifestation of Mesoamerican wealth. The connection between costly apparel and the sin of pride was dramatic and direct. Subtler, however, is the necessity of trade to obtain those goods. Interactions with people who might be deemed “better” because of their conspicuous wealth would allow not only for the importation of style but also of the accompanying concepts about the way things “ought to be.” The costly apparel not only displayed wealth which highlighted social differences but also indicates continued influence in Nephite society that probably included philosophical concepts as well.
In fact, costly apparel becomes a virtual signal of apostasy. The prophets fought consistently against a trio of dangerous practices: wearing costly apparel, not wanting to work with their own hands, and a renewed desire for kings. A desire for plural wives was a serious but short-lived problem, associated principally with the land of Nephi.