Summer 2011

Artist Project / Reviving the Habit

Symbols of sisterhood

Julia Sherman

The nun’s habit is a sister’s wedding dress and a symbol of her commitment to a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Before monastic communities were formally established in the late third century, Christian women in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria called to consecrate their commitment to God adopted a uniform that resembled both peasant clothes and women’s mourning attire. Many of these women were widows inspired to turn towards a religious life in the second stage of their lives by the radical Gospel of St. Paul, who declared that all people are equals in the eyes of Christ; their garments were an outward symbol of their transformation.

Once the general form of the habit was codified in the sixteenth century by St. Teresa of Avila and the Carmelite order, the founding sisters of new orders would design a variation of their own. Habits slowly became more elaborate, requiring special machines and custom sewing techniques, and by the seventeenth century, orders were further embellishing their uniforms by adding ornamentation where they could, deviating from their original ascetic nature. This trend led European convents to document their preferred design through the production of a handmade “nun doll” wearing an accurate, miniature version of the complete outfit. When a new community within that order was established in a distant European country, this doll was sent to be copied, but was otherwise locked away in the convent’s coffers to ensure the preservation of the original design.

As convents evolved and gained independence, nuns developed significant and diverse roles outside of the cloister and sisters began to question the costume, as it seemed to widen the gap between them and the lay people they served in the secular world. By the mid-twentieth century, liberal-minded sisters, primarily in the US, began to voice their mounting resentment toward the elaborate, high-maintenance garb imposed on them by the church and sought to recoup the right to determine their religious dress code.

By the 1960s, the habit had become a potent symbol of tension between Catholic nuns and the church, and also between the active orders who were no longer confined to the cloister but acting as social workers, nurses, doctors and educators in the secular world. Feminist nuns eventually won the right for sisters to determine their own dress in Vatican II, the ecumenical conference of 1962–1965. With this change came unforeseen complications such as a new awareness of body image, and anxiety and dissent about what the new standard for dress should be. And, much to the dismay of those who had lobbied for these changes, postulants today are often choosing to join orders that maintain their original habit, as opposed to modified versions, many of which evolved into dowdy polyester suits.

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