· Vatican City ·

Fashion and liturgy

Clothes maketh the nun
(but not always)

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06 February 2021

On 9 February 2017, Pope Francis set out the principles of the new education to the participants of the plenary session of the Congregation for Catholic Education: “Catholic educational institutes are called first to put into practice the grammar of dialogue which educates in encounter and in the appreciation of cultural and religious diversities. Dialogue, in fact, educates when the person relates with respect, esteem, sincerity of listening and expresses himself authentically, without obscuring or mitigating his own identity nourished by evangelical inspiration".  

The Pope speaks of a living experience of dialogue with the other and for the other in the contemporary world in a new and radical vision, which highlights a much broader purpose of education. The Pope's words also give rise to new areas of research and discussion, new themes, and new questions.

In line of Pope Francis’ educational proposal, the question is no longer 'what', but 'how' it is possible to take care of the other. How is it possible to educate the human person and to personalise educational action, just like when a tailor makes a 'made to measure suit'?

A book in the new series Riti del vivere [Rites of Living] by Barbara Marchica and Don Giulio Osto is dedicated to the theme of “dressing up”, which has been written with the aim of creating a “terrain where anthropology, theology and liturgy intertwine to give depth and taste to our being in the world”. This educational project is based on an existential question: does fashion have any influence on people's religiousness?

The style of religious dress is a much debated issue and has entered the academic debate at the Pontifical Gregorian University with topics such as The Tailor of Light. And Matisse’s chasubles for the chapel of Vence.  In recent years, debates, publications and exhibitions on fashion, nuns' clothing and liturgical vestments have created new opportunities for artists, designers, textile manufacturers and experts of Sacred Liturgy to exchange their views. This discussion culminated in the exhibition Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination at the Metropolitan in New York (2018), commissioned by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi. His curatorship was inspired by an essay entitled You have covered my shame by Anne Lécu, a French Dominican nun who is also a doctor: “...a wanderer through the land of leather and linen tunics”, in search of the related symbols, nudity, shame, innocence, malice, the mantle of glory, which is also described at the beginning of the Bible and history (Gen 3:21). In the recently published book God Thrice Tailor. Fashion, Church and Theology, the Dominican Father Alberto F. Ambrosio, professor at the Luxemburg School of Religion and Society, not only addresses the link between fashion, Church and theology, but also highlights the ethical profile of dressing. As director of research at the Collège des Bernardins, Father Ambrosio deals with the relationship between fashion, dress and religious identity.

Can we talk about a theology of dress? Is it plausible to say that clothing is an expression of a feminine creed? The design of the clothing worn by women religious is a question that now occupies a fully-fledged sector of academic research, especially from a personalist and existential point of view. Does fashion have any influence on the spirituality of those who approach divine worship? The age of the Reformation dictated strict and “bourgeois” norms for the use and style of clothing. In contemporary Europe, on the other hand, a non-confessional fashion has prevailed, which is able to go beyond the different moral declinations of religious denominations, but which is not able to bridge the polarity between chastened clothing and licentious or ‘fashionable’ dress. The charisma of religious orders should counteract vanity and not sacrifice individuality in favour of a common style. Religious women in particular have regarded fashion as synonymous with eroticism; however, in her writings a Dominican nun noted that for some young nuns a strict dress code was the cause of psychological distress, stating “fresh and adorable young girls often turn into chilling caricatures”.

In Rome, models from the Sorelle Fontana atelier paraded in liturgical clothing and fashionable hats before an audience of mannequins depicting nuns hooded in medieval fashion. The nuns from certain congregations have replaced linen underwear with fashionable corsetry and hide their short hair under their veils.

One could talk here about the rediscovery of a widespread ‘sustainability’. In fact, this principle, which often recurs in Pope Francis’ Magisterium, had already been proposed for the monks' robes by Benedict of Norcia, who did not impose the colour or style of the habit, limiting himself to prescribing that they wear “what can be found on the spot”. A detail of the Rule that today could be declined as follows: “wear what is functional to your task in the world!”. This is quite the contrary of the chauvinism of Cardinal Suenes, who, after seeing some nuns speeding through traffic on scooters with their skirts and veils flapping about, said that these nuns were a danger to themselves and others.

By Yvonne Dohna Schlobitten