The Symbolism of Religious Clothing: Why Nuns Wear What They Do

The following text originated as a series of chapter talks given by a religious superior to a community of sisters. The superior shared it with Dr. Kwasniewski and gave him permission to edit it and publish it. The accompanying photos have been drawn from various places online.

The Council of Trent stated: “Though the habit does not make the monk, it is nevertheless needful that clerics always wear a dress suitable to their proper order.”[1] Although the habit is not the cause of being a monk, it is nonetheless, as Trent implies, necessary (“needful…always”) for the monk to wear a habit, because the habit does help to make him who he is.

Taken in isolation, the popular saying “the habit does not make the monk” seems to assert that clothing, being external, does not matter. But this is wrong. Our clothing affects us and forms us. Clothing is much more than protection against the elements. For human persons, clothing is symbolic: it is a sign of who I am and who I wish to be. What we wear forms us.

Our formation in religious life is primarily through doing and being. We learn to be Sisters by being Sisters. Our doing includes what we wear. One learns how to pray by praying; one learns how to be a Sister by doing the things Sisters do and wearing what Sisters wear.

Our habit is beautiful. It is appropriate that it be such, for we are brides of Christ. A bride ought to look the part! Our habit reflects the reality that we are not brides in a worldly sense, but brides of Christ. The beauty of the habit is not the same as the beauty of secular dress; it is an otherworldly beauty.

Our habit helps us to know how a Sister ought to act. You do not need to ask me whether you may climb the pine tree in the back yard: your wearing of the habit makes it clear that this is not an appropriate activity for a Sister. A habit serves to remind all who see us of God (it cannot but do so) and it reminds us of what a bride of Christ has to be. Even the word itself “habit” give us an indication of the importance of the clothing. Aristotle taught us that virtues are good habits. We acquire interior virtue by doing exterior actions. We form our heart and soul by exterior means. If we desire to be generous, we begin by “making” ourselves do generous things. If we persist in doing generous deeds, generosity will begin to grow in our heart. We will become generous and we will begin to love doing generous deeds. The external forms the internal. We become more fully brides of Christ through the habit of wearing religious garb. Many temptations are removed when we wear a habit: we do not tend to think about clothes; we are not so easily tempted to be vain; our external actions are restrained by the habit. If we feel uneasy in being somewhere or doing something in a habit, it is a clue that we probably should not be there nor be doing that. The habit is a tool of discernment!

Receptive Asceticism

Moreover, our wearing of the habit habituates our body and our soul to the ascetical life.

The habit is, after all, warm. Assuming that all of us would dress modestly before entering the convent, I do not think that any of us would dream of covering ourselves head to toe, in quite a few layers at that, in the heat of summer! As part of our particular expression of modesty, we keep our legs wholly covered, even underneath our long habit and the slip under the habit. Our head is covered not only by a veil, but by a wimple, an underveil, and then an upper veil: three layers! What a relief it would be to wear just a little less (for example, on our heads)—but we do not dream of doing so, and we would not wish to do so. Our habit is an ascetical instrument. By means of it, we “teach” ourselves to be detached from seeking our comfort.

The asceticism of the habit is very appropriate for us women. Women’s strength, even physically, lies not so much in great one-time feats as it does in quiet perseverance. A woman’s strength is that of quiet suffering. The Latin word for “suffer” is passio which means “undergoing.” You will note how “undergoing” is receptive: we say “yes” to what comes to us. The asceticism in our habit is a type of, you might say, “receptive asceticism”: the habit, as such, is not a penance, but the habit may involve penance for us. We take that penance as it comes. The asceticism of our habit is precisely in its every-day-ness, in our wearing it day and night, no matter the season, no matter our disposition. The habit is an expression of our self-gift.

The Tunic

The main part of our habit is the “dress” which we call the “tunic.” Why do we not call it a dress? Would that not be a more feminine way to refer to that part of our habit? “Tunic” is a “unisex word” which seem quite unfeminine. Yet we choose to use words which are distinct from words in the world, in order to make clear that our clothing is unlike clothing in the world. We do the same thing in other aspects of our life: we call the room in which we eat the “refectory” not the “dining room.” Why? Because we do not dine in the way that lay people dine. Lay people do not eat in silence, sitting in a row, while listening to reading. We take meals in a different way, and it is therefore appropriate to have a distinct name for the room in which religious eat. Words such as “cell” rather than “bedroom” or “collation” instead of “supper” are similar.

So, we do not call the main part of our habit a “dress” because it is not a worldly dress. Each morning when we put on the tunic, the prayer we say reminds us that this is not a worldly dress, but that it is a particularly Christian dress. We pray: “May the Lord clothe me with the new man who, according to God is created in justice and truth.” We put on a “new” form of dress, not like the worldly dress we once wore.

The word “tunic” was used to describe the dress of ancient Greeks and Romans. It was a simple outer garment, with or without sleeves, knee-length or ankle-length, worn with a belt. The first monks wore tunics and referred to them as such. We find the term “tunic” used in the sayings of the desert fathers, in the Rule of Saint Benedict (516). Since, in religious life, we wish to insert ourselves into the tradition begun by the desert Fathers, we use the same name to designate this part of the clothing.

The Scapular

On top of the tunic we wear a scapular. Why do we wear a scapular? It seems a rather useless piece of clothing, which is surely part of the reason that it disappeared in the habits of many religious in the modifications made after the Second Vatican Council. Not only is the scapular useless, but it is even a positive hindrance. The scapular hanging down gets in the way when you bend down; it blows into your neighbor’s face when there is a strong wind, etc.

The scapular is a piece of cloth which hangs on the “scapulae,” that is, over the shoulders. The scapular has been a part of the religious habit since the time of Saint Benedict (see RSB, ch. 55). We wear the scapular for the same reason that we wear the tunic—namely, as an external sign of our internal union with the tradition of religious life. The scapular has come to have symbolic significance as a yoke that we carry on our shoulders, as is reflected in the prayer we pray as we place the scapular on our shoulders: “O Lord Jesus Christ, who didst say: My yoke is sweet and My burden is light, grant me patience in all my adversities and fidelity towards the inspirations of Thy grace.”

The Wimple[2]

The wimple came into fashion during the Middle Ages, from about the 13th century onward. All women of good breeding wore a wimple, and, later on it was retained for some time (through the 15th century) for married women. The wimple was always worn with a veil. The idea for the wimple is that the woman’s face is visible, but her neck and her head are covered. Even if it seems that lay women sometimes showed some of their hair when they wore a wimple or veil, the hair seen was dressed or braided, not hair flowing freely (which is an important difference with regard to its attractiveness).

One reason for the wearing of a wimple is the same as the reason for wearing a veil: that of reserving one’s beauty for one’s spouse. This is the reason that married women, above all, wore the wimple (and the veil). As we read in the Song of Songs, even a woman’s neck can be beautiful to a man: “Thy neck, is as the tower of David, which is built with bulwarks: a thousand bucklers hang upon it, all the armour of valiant men” (4:4). A woman who is not “available,” that is, one who is married or given in religion, does not wish, in any way, to draw attention to her physical beauty, and so it became customary for such women to wear wimples and veils. Fashions changed, but women religious retained the custom of wearing wimples and veils.

The wimple always leaves the face uncovered. What does the leaving of the face uncovered mean? First, it means that a woman who wears a wimple is not seeking to hide herself totally; she is not seeking to exclude or separate herself from others. She is not excluding communication with other persons. Her face is left free; in fact, the wearing of the wimple draws more attention to the face, since there is nothing else to draw our eye.

The wimple “forces” someone who meets us to focus on our face, not on our body. In a real sense, our face most fully expresses who we are. Our face reveals who we are more than our body does. Consider that we learn so much more about a person by looking at his or her face than we do by looking at his or her hands or feet. The eyes are called the “windows of the soul,” and these eyes are almost highlighted by the wimple. The wimple, then, helps us to relate to other human persons in a way that harmonizes very well with our vocation. The wimple draws attention to the “inner man” which finds expression in our face. Our wimple helps others to look at us in that way.

Communication is so much more than the exchange of words. We speak with our face, with our expressions.Even though people may think it “dehumanizing” that we sisters wear all the coverings we do as part of our religious habit, the truth is that the layers we wear can be aids to make our relationship and our communication with other human persons “more human,” more personal.

The Veil 

In wearing a veil, we Sisters insert ourselves into a very long tradition, a tradition which pre-dates Christianity. In ancient Greek culture, respectable married women wore a veil. Extant is an Assyrian law from ca. 1400–1100 B.C., which states that married women and widows are never to be in public without a veil. In ancient Greece, it was not considered seemly for a married woman to reveal her hair to the eyes of men other than her husband. In Rome, a veil called flammeum was the most prominent feature of the costume worn by the bride on the day of her wedding.

Throughout the greater part of history, married women wore head coverings. Even Protestant women typically wore head coverings during church services (a scarf, cap, veil, or hat). We might think today of the Mennonites or Amish who still follow such a tradition. Until the 20th century, everyday people would have readily understood the symbolism of the veil. Even today, we retain some remnants of the tradition of veiling in secular culture, at least in the form of the wedding veil.

The form of consecrated life that came first in history—the consecration of virgins within a diocese by the bishop—was symbolized by the reception of the veil. Sadly, in the revised rite of the consecration of a virgin, the reception of the veil has become optional (like so much else in the new liturgy). The veil worn by the consecrated virgin is a bridal veil, intended to signify that the virgin is a Bride of Christ. Given that the consecrated virgin and the religious Sister are brides of Christ, it makes sense that they, like married women, should wear veils to signify the same.

Even if our contemporary world seems to have forgotten it, a woman’s hair is her crowning glory (cf. 1 Cor 11:15); the symbol of her natural feminine beauty. The ceremonial cutting of the hair is a sign of the total gift of self; a sign that she is giving all her natural beauty so that her life may be hidden in Christ. The prayer for the blessing of the white veil states: “May this veil bless, purify, and sanctify this Thy handmaid, so that her life may be hidden with Christ in God.”[3] We veil ourselves for a similar reason that we wear the wimple: we hide what may attract others to our bodies, so as to emphasize the importance of the “inner man.” The veil serves to protect us: it protects us from drawing unseemly attention to ourselves and it serves as a sign to indicate that we are “not available,” even if the veil is no longer a common symbol indicating that a woman is married.

It is important that neither our habit nor our veil be a shapeless cover. We are not seeking to hide that we are women, but neither do we wish to draw inappropriate attention to our bodies. The veil is not ugly or unbecoming. It is beautiful, but it does not draw attention to us as individuals. The beauty of our habit is not the beauty of our body. The beauty our veils may have is not our beauty. We seek to draw others not to ourselves nor to anything we may have, but to our Divine Spouse. All our garb is intended to convey that message… and it does! Without exception, seeing us makes people think of God.[4]

Our veil has a practical use, as well, namely, that it frees us from having to tend to our hair. We wish to employ our time and energy in other ways, and the habit is a source of great liberation in that respect. We do not have to spend time purchasing and selecting clothing; we need not expend mental energy on the daily question of “What shall I wear?”; we do not need to spend time on arranging our hair. Getting dressed only ever takes a matter of minutes.

Postulants already wear a “little veil” to indicate their intention to give themselves to God as Sisters. They are already set apart for God and are being formed by the wearing of the veil. When they become novices, they receive the full veil of the religious Sister. Their veil is white, to symbolize purity and chastity. The postulant bride, on the day of her investiture, replaces the bridal dress and veil with the white veil of the novice. As she enters the sanctuary at the beginning of the investiture, she is bedecked with earthly beauty of a white dress and her long hair. With a joyful heart, she offers to God all earthly beauty and exchanges it for the spiritual beauty of the longed-for habit and veil.

The black or dark veil of a professed Sister, on the other hand, reflects the style of a widow. This, too, is fitting. Although we are indeed brides of Christ, we are in exile. Our union with Christ is spiritual, hidden under the veil of faith, in darkness. Our vocation is eschatological: we live already now what all will live in heaven: poor, chaste, and obedient, given directly to Him. Father Sean Kopzcynski says: “Religious play at being at heaven.” We are not in heaven, but we are preparing for it.

Our Catholic tradition includes the custom of veiling whatever is a sacred mystery. The veiling of the sacred is not a mere human tradition; it is willed by God. For it was He who directed in detail the building of the tabernacle, telling Moses: “This Dwelling and all its furnishings you shall make exactly according to the pattern that I will now show you” (Ex 25:8–9). The specifications included: “You shall have a veil woven of violet, purple and scarlet yarn, and of fine linen twined, with cherubim embroidered on it…. Hang the veil from clasps. The Ark of the Commandments you shall bring inside, behind that veil which divides the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies” (Ex 26:31–33).

We veil a sacred mystery. The veil is the Church’s gift to us. The veil is a sign of the mystery of our vocation; the sign of the sacredness of our being given to Christ.



[1] Session XIV, Decree on Reformation, Chapter 6.

[2] Part of this section was first published at Rorate Caeli as “A Religious Superior Reflects on Wimples—and on the Current Masquerade.”

[3] … ut sit velum benedíctum, immaculátum, et sanctificátum huic ancíllae Tuae, quátenus eius vita sit abscóndita cum Christo in Deo.

[4] Even if they mistake us for Muslims, although we could argue that it is a different God to which we would be thought to point when we are mistaken for Muslim women. Also, it seems that conservative Muslim women, unlike us, do seek to hide themselves in a shapeless cover.

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...