How Catholic fashion got that way

Photo ~ Clockwise from left: Cardinal William O’Connell in 1948; Pope Francis; an image from the West Philadelphia Catholic Girls’ High School yearbook; a sister from the Sisters of Charity order, mid to late 20th century; members of the Daughters of St. Paul in Brookline in 1999; Sisters of St. Francis of Penance and Christian Charity, 1885-95; Mother Theodore Guerin (1798-1856), founder of the Sisters of Providence at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

The Catholic faith is rich with symbolic clothing: the priest’s Roman collar, the nun’s habit, the Pope’s white cassock and cap. They invest the church with a sense of timelessness and gravity.

But even in a 2,000-year old sacramental religion, clothing changes—and in the United States, Catholic dress has had its own distinct story. The Roman collar, ubiquitous now, wasn’t mandatory for American priests until 1884. Nuns’ hemlines have crept upward, and headpieces receded in size. Even Catholic school uniforms have changed.

In her new book, “Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism,” historian Sally Dwyer-McNulty examines how a religion’s long and sometimes uneasy trip through American society was reflected in clothing. For many years, priests often wore regular suits and ties, and were indistinguishable from Protestant pastors, or even from laymen. (In 1866, a group of bishops worried about priests “in fashionable watering places dressed in every other conceivable way but as a priest.”)

Nuns in the 19th century often disguised themselves as widows when they traveled, because they feared harassment from anti-Catholic mobs. A certain resourcefulness has also been part of the story: When one group of nuns ordered headpieces from Europe, and the headpieces arrived with a crease in them from being mailed flat, the women turned the crease into part of their formal habit.

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The illustration from the West Philadelphia Catholic High School year book needs one more further illustration of today's modification of that same uniform-in addition to the higher hemline needs the removal of the uniform shirt to expose her bosoms. Now that is truly a modern Catholic fashion!