‘Monastic chic’ is always in for religious

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  • March 16, 2011
Religious garb has come a long way, from the days of the black wool habit with starch bands across the forehead. (Photo from Register files)TORONTO - Religious garb is in, says Forbes magazine. The churchly trend was quite evident at one of the world’s premier fashion events, New York Fashion Week, where models paraded outfits topped with hoods reminiscent of the cloister. The twist was that designers added leather jackets, dresses and catsuits to create a look that Forbes dubbed “monastic chic.”

The cloister would seem an unlikely source of inspiration for the world’s top fashion designers in our increasingly secular society. After all, for nuns, it’s not fashion that motivates them to wear a habit. Religious garb is a symbol of their identity and commitment to serve God and the Church.

It may suddenly be all the rage in chic fashion circles, but for nuns such as Sr. Agnes Roger the habit was never out of fashion. She continues to debunk myths about the habit and the religious communities that  continue to wear them, including the claim that the habit is a throwback to another age.

“The symbolism reflects on the outside. If people see me wearing the habit, that gives them certain information about who I am and more or less what I stand for,” said Roger, a Carmelite Sister of the Divine Heart of Jesus.

Until the 1960s, the habit was standard “dress code” for Catholic nuns. Just think of the nuns in The Sound of Music and the habit they wore with the dramatic black veil and starch-white headdress.

But then came the Second Vatican Council and the Roman Catholic Church opened up to a more modern world. Sr. Carol Forhan of the Sisters Adorers of the Precious Blood in London, Ont., recalls that religious communities were encouraged to review their traditions, including religious dress. Some decided to do away with the formal full habit and adopted more secular clothing to mirror the community they served. Other religious, especially cloistered contemplative communities, chose to keep the habit with some modifications.

This was the case for Forhan’s community. She remembers the days of the wool habit with the starch bands across the forehead and starch pieces of material from the top of the veil to the chin that held up the white headdress. There was also the “guimpe” which came across their shoulders and around the back. For Forhan, it took almost an hour to pin these pieces together.

It was “quite uncomfortable,” Forhan, who took her first steps to religious life when she entered the convent in 1958 at the age of 17, recalls with a chuckle. The switch to cotton or polyester material and a simpler headdress means it now takes only a minute to get the veil together. And instead of an hour of ironing, habits can go in the dryer.

Today, the Sisters of the Precious Blood’s habit is a white veil and white dress with a red scapular. Red symbolizes the Precious Blood of Jesus as a “pledge and measure of God’s love, outpouring love for us,” said Forhan. Their foundress, Mother Catherine Aurelia Caouette, also had a devotion to Mary and wanted to reflect this in the white habit.

But the newer style is not for all. Sr. John Mary of the Sisters of Life heard the call to serve God in religious life in her mid-20s during World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto. She says she was attracted to congregations that wore a more traditional habit.

“A lot of young communities that are growing are wearing the habit. There’s something attractive about the radical identity of a Sister as a public witness,” she said.

She adds that the habit continues to be useful for the religious who wear it and the people they encounter.

The Sisters of Life habit is a white tunic in the Dominican style with a blue scapular to symbolize Mary, along with a white veil and a medal that has the image of the “Madonna of the Streets” on the back and a crucifix with the phrase, “And nothing again would be casual or small.” This refers to the Sisters’ daily encounters in their mission of helping pregnant women vulnerable to the temptation of abortion.

“Just as a married person would wear a wedding band, (the habit) is part of our identity and a reminder of the commitment we made,” said Sr. John Mary. “The habit reminds us that we are consecrated to the Lord and we are a public witness to the Church.”

Sr. Theresa Ongo of the Missionary Sisters of St. Peter Claver agrees that the habit is an important reminder of the presence of Christ in the world. Living as a cloistered nun, the times that Ongo takes the bus or subway can be times of evangelization.

“I don’t go and preach but I can preach silently. It’s a way of evangelizing,” she said.  

Wearing the Carmelite’s traditional brown habit with a brown scapular, Roger says she blends right into the multicultural cityscape that is multiethnic Toronto. And as for the latest fashion craze, Roger believes it’s a trend recognizing a classic dress that doesn’t goes out of style.

“How many ways can you tweak fashion without going back to something from a long time ago?”

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