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The Habit: A History of the Clothing of Catholic Nuns
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About the book
Curiosity about nuns and their distinctive clothing is almost as old as Catholicism itself. The habit intrigues the religious and the nonreligious alike, from medieval maidens to contemporary schoolboys, to feminists and other social critics. The first book to explore the symbolism of this attire, The Habit presents a visual gallery of the diverse forms of religious clothing and explains the principles and traditions that inspired them. More than just an eye-opening study of the symbolic significance of starched wimples, dark dresses, and flowing veils, The Habit is an incisive, engaging portrait of the roles nuns have and do play in the Catholic Church and in ministering to the needs of society.From the clothing seen in an eleventh-century monastery to the garb worn by nuns on picket lines during the 1960s, habits have always been designed to convey a specific image or ideal. The habits of the Benedictines and the Dominicans, for example, were specifically created to distinguish women who consecrated their lives to God; other habits reflected the sisters’ desire to blend in among the people they served. The brown Carmelite habit was rarely seen outside the monastery wall, while the Flying Nun turned the white winged cornette of the Daughters of Charity into a universally recognized icon. And when many religious abandoned habits in the 1960s and ’70s, it stirred a debate that continues today.Drawing on archival research and personal interviews with nuns all over the United States, Elizabeth Kuhns examines some of the gender and identity issues behind the controversy and brings to light the paradoxes the habit represents. For some, it epitomizes oppression and obsolescence; for others, it embodies the ultimate beauty and dignity of the vocation.Complete with extraordinary photographs, including images of the nineteenth century nuns’ silk bonnets to the simple gray dresses of the Sisters of Social Service, this evocative narrative explores the timeless symbolism of the habit and traces its evolution as a visual reflection of the changes in society.From the Hardcover edition.read more
I loved this book. It's not just about articles of clothing, but the belief systems and sacrifices associated with the nun's habit.read more
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Even though relatively few Catholic nuns actually wear the distinctive uniforms today, the habit still fascinates and disconcerts Catholics and non-Catholics alike. This "wearable sacramental" sums up much about Catholic spirituality and history, and Kuhns does a workmanlike job of taking readers back to the habit's early origins, through its myriad medieval variations and up to its conflicted present. Along the way we are reminded of the many roles that religious women have played in the development of Catholicism and of Western society, roles that were reflected in the clothing they wore, from peasant simplicity to elaborate creations of silk. Kuhns pays particular attention to the complex interplay between social class and the life of the cloister-different orders drew their membership from distinct social strata. Unfortunately, aside from a deftly written introductory chapter that examines the habit's contemporary fascination, much of the book sorts dutifully through too much history, without a clear story line to keep the reader's interest. One also wishes for a greater variety of illustrations than a single appendix consisting of 1950s-era photographs of habits from a variety of orders. Kuhns is strangely neutral on the question, still hotly debated, of whether the habit is a liberating or oppressive force today. This inconclusive conclusion is something of a letdown in a book about Christianity's most dramatic and durable fashion statement. (Sept. 16) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved