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On a sunny April day my freshman year of college, I yearned to wear a white eyelet dress to class. I tried to get up the nerve but, in the end, simply could not. What stopped me?
Merely an army of wordless girls in baseball caps and T-shirts, leggings, high white socks, and Sperrys. I thought they looked ridiculous, like they had all gone dumpster diving in clothing donation boxes, but still, I could not bear to make myself look markedly different. The very loveliness of my dress would have set me too far apart. Surely, it’s a great disfigurement of human nature and a result of the fall that gives us comfort with ugliness so long as it is widespread and discomfort with beauty so long as it is rare; for ought not the reverse be true?
Most women desire to dress more beautifully, but most balk at the prospect of standing out in the crowd. The plot thickens for devout Catholic women. They have read saints who recommended utmost simplicity in dress, and they wonder if simplicity in their day means conformance to the “athleisure” imperative.
But what is simplicity? And is post-modern dress really simple? Simplicity, as described by Webster, is to be “uncomplicated,” “free from guile,” and “direct in expression.” This corresponds with Aquinas’ discussion of the Divine simplicity of God and highlights the relationship of simplicity to honesty and truth. To dress simply is to dress honestly, that is, to express the truth in one’s visible appearance.
Clinging T-shirts, Yoga pants, and jeans call so much attention to specific areas of a woman’s body that they detract from her own personality (as expressed in her face) and deny the presence of her immortal soul. On the other hand, loose baggy versions of the aforementioned speak so strongly of slovenliness, utility, and animal comfort that they contradict the ordered beauty of the human body and the eternal destiny of the soul. In short, whether clingy or baggy, erotic or comfortable, most current modes of dress deny the truth about who and what human beings actually are and therefore lack simplicity.
For a woman to speak the truth through her attire, she must dress with femininity, order, and grace. In this, she discovers true simplicity and follows ranks of female saints who have gone before her. However, where most saints enjoyed cultural climates with sure customs that promoted beauty suited to each class and state in life, modern women find themselves in societal anarchy that only ever promotes ugliness. Women must now rediscover, re-assemble, and create anew what in previous generations was handed from mother to daughter as a matter of course.
Since there are currently very few women willing to commit themselves to this task, those who do will inevitably stand out. It’s not that their clothing will be unnatural or outlandish—on the contrary, it will be much more natural, and more distinctly human than anything seen in the mainstream today. Nevertheless, it will turn heads as a result of its striking rarity. Before the fall of Christendom, no one would fawn over a wool circle skirt or stop to exclaim over a straw hat. Now the wearer of such articles finds herself accosted by admiring strangers. And it is this that gives well-meaning women pause. They do not wish to attract attention, to be celebrities at the park and the grocery store. Must they abandon the beauty of true simplicity in the name of self-effacement?
Somewhat surprisingly, the answer may be found in a short consideration of nuns and religious sisters. In the newer religious houses where love of Tradition prevails, one finds examples par excellence of young women seeking sanctity through self-effacement; they are anything but vain. And yet, in these same orders, one finds a striking phenomenon: meticulous care and substantial time are put into the design, production, and maintenance of a particular material item—the habit, that unmistakable sign of the religious that tends to stop traffic and draw attention everywhere it goes. These sisters usually opt to source their own materials (I know one order that uses a high-quality wool blend typically used for police uniforms!). They then sew their habits either by hand or with simple sewing machines. These convents always have long lists of articles which need to be made or mended, and before an investiture when new novices receive the habit, the sewing rooms are buzzing with activity.
One could ask if it wouldn’t be simpler and cheaper for the sisters to purchase ready-made secular uniforms of some kind. Or better yet, why should they not blend in with society and just wear yoga pants and T-shirts like everyone else? Wouldn’t that be most self-effacing of all? One has only to look to the disasters that befell religious houses following the Second Vatican Council to see that such misguided experiments have already been tried and, without exception, failed miserably.
They failed for three reasons. First, opting for convenience and the “cheap” is not actually to embrace poverty, but rather parsimony. Second, the mass market rarely produces anything with the beautiful and timeless quality that every religious habit ought to possess. And finally, the sisters who gave up sewing work on the habit lost a profoundly nourishing aspect of their lives, something that had helped them embrace their vow of poverty, namely, the opportunity to channel that ultra-feminine propensity for making simple things beautiful. As Mother Mary Francis puts it in her classic A Right to be Merry:
We do not paint things black where we could paint them white. We plant flowering tamarisk around our homemade incinerator because there is no reason why emptying the garbage should not be done with beauty and grace. We stitch our flour-sacking night guimpes with a precision and care that others might reserve for silk and satin. If poverty were thrust upon us, anything would perhaps be good enough. But we chose it, we espoused it. And we mean to clothe it in beauty.
In the Middle Ages, nuns’ habits resembled the dress of poor widows or married women of lower class and thereby presented a chance to live all the more hiddenly. But now, the very antiquity of their attire makes them stand out brilliantly in contrast with the modes of post-modernity. Noticing this phenomenon in his historical work, The Culture of Clothing, Daniel Roche writes:
[B]oth male and female ecclesiastical clothing constitutes a museum of ancient practices; the habit of the Daughters of Charity, a seventeenth-century congregation, was still, in the twentieth century, the female dress of the time of young Louis XIV; monks’ robes take us even further back in time.
And so, instead of blending into the crowd, religious sisters and nuns of today stand out like pearls that the receding tide has left behind. They do not balk at embracing those articles of clothing—namely, the floor-length tunic, the long veil, the universally flattering wimple, and the regal choir mantle—which truly sing the word of beauty; they embrace them as the surest way to express their status as brides of Christ Himself.
Are they trying to win admiration and praise? Far from it. But the humble rung of society into which they once blended has fallen away from the simple beauty of the Middle Ages to outright chaos and ugliness. While, in their humility, religious sisters might wish they did not draw so much admiration, they recognize that they cannot descend with society into false simplicity. They understand that in one of those strange paradoxes of Divine Providence, the present sad state of dress conduces to the most humble, modest, and simple, standing out like sparkling gemstones; and they embrace this as they embrace all parts of the mysterious Will of God Who casts the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly (Luke 1:52).
Like religious sisters, Catholic women in the world must prioritize truth and beauty over normalcy. They must seek clothing that speaks of who they are, namely, daughters of Christ the King, types of the Church herself, and, married or not, spiritual mothers of immortal souls. While their position in the world demands that they dress in a way that does not appear totally set apart from the world (only religious sisters have this great freedom) they may, on the other hand, legitimately adorn themselves in ways not allowable to women reserved for Christ alone. For example, they may have a greater variety of clothing, express joy through festive colors and trims, and enhance the beautiful lines of their bodies with modest but flattering tailoring. Dressing beautifully, they will receive attention (either admiration or scorn), but this need not trouble them, if only, like their sisters in religion, they accept it as a mysterious feature of Divine Providence acting in the present age.
Cover Photo Courtesy of Mrs. Tracy Dunne
 Notable examples of saints on dress being: St. Paul (1 Timothy 2:9), St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica, IIa-IIae, q. 169, a. 1. Modesty in Outward Apparel), and St. Francis de Sales (Introduction to the Devout Life chapter, 25).
 “Simplicity,” Merriam-Webster, 9 September 2022, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/simplicity
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fr. Laurence Shapcote, OP (Green Bay: Aquinas Institute, Inc. 2012 – 2018), Ia, q. 3, a. 1.
 Mother Mary Francis P.C.C, A Right to Be Merry. (Providence, Rhode Island: Cluny Media, 2021) 44.
 Daniel Roche, The Culture of Clothing, trans. Jean Birrell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996) 74.
 Alice von Hildebrand, “Spiritual Motherhood,” Plough. May 8, 2022. Originally published May 5, 2015. https://www.plough.com/en/topics/life/parenting/spiritual-motherhood