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How Catholic fashion got that way

Sally Dwyer-McNulty traces how religious dress evolved in America

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.

Dwyer-McNulty identifies the tension between American simplicity and Roman opulence as a major theme in the country’s expression of Catholicism. She quotes a 1912 poem mocking cardinal William O’Connell for dressing like “the Prince of America.” The author was no anti-Catholic pamphleteer—he was a Boston priest, leader of a church in Allston, who saw O’Connell’s royal aesthetic as flouting the increasingly accepted notion that Catholicism was compatible with American democracy.


Dwyer-McNulty spoke with Ideas from her office at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where she is an associate professor of history. This interview was edited from two phone conversations.

IDEAS: The Catholic Church—especially in Rome—is known for its elaborate vestments, and it’s easy for non-Catholics to be taken aback by the ensembles worn by priests and bishops. What is the significance of those “higher” styles?


DWYER-MCNULTY: There’s certainly a beauty in a carefully crafted chasuble. The priest is a central figure in the celebration of the Mass. It’s such an important occasion that brings Catholics together. That the priest be dressed in a way that people recognize and have reverence for, that’s important.

IDEAS: Given that, it’s surprising to learn just how much flexibility priests had in the early years of American Catholicism. Why were they finally forced to wear the Roman collar in the late 19th century?

DWYER-MCNULTY: [The United States] was very spread out, and the church had some challenges with regard to exerting its authority. In the early part of the century, lay trustees—men who were administering the church and administering the financial affairs of the church—expected to have a certain amount of power. So the church was looking for ways to help distinguish the priests from the laity, and give the priests a device to assert authority, and then also to assert authority over the priests....They wanted priests to be identifiable not only so that people could go to a priest, but that also people could observe them and monitor their behavior.

IDEAS: Was it dangerous to stand out as a Catholic in 19th-century America?

DWYER-MCNULTY: In the middle of the century, it would not have been ideal to have been identified as a priest or a nun. There are instances of people throwing mud at nuns, and writing on their backs, and calling them names, and things like that. There’s also at the time this very sensational literature about what went on in convents. So there was a lot of suspicion about convents and about nuns and that perhaps women were being held against their will at convents. This is the 1830s through the 1850s. I would say at that time it was risky to go out as a nun, and it also could potentially be risky for a priest.


IDEAS: By the turn of the century, you find that both priests and nuns begin dressing more distinctively and openly.

DWYER-MCNULTY: Antagonism is definitely receding. Large numbers of Irish immigrants have come over, the Catholic population has grown significantly, and Catholics have proved to be good citizens....The fact there hasn’t been this control over the priests has become problematic [for the church]. Sartorial consistency, for a church that now has such a large population—you want to convey a more consistent message, and clothing would help to do that. And also, the priests are proud of their distinction. They’re the most well-educated among the Catholics; they are professional men. While some chafe at the new restrictions, others embrace them, so they can present themselves as the men of society that they are....The sisters, who did not have in any way the same status as the priests, recognized that as a good way to garner approval from the Vatican. They wanted to give visible evidence of their allegiance to Rome and inspire trust.

IDEAS: You also include school uniforms in the history of Catholic dress. It sounds like there has always been more attention paid to what Catholic girls wore.

DWYER-MCNULTY: Yes. The boys don’t become consistently uniformed until after World War II, and even then, “uniform” might be a strong word. Sometimes it’s a uniform with young boys, but oftentimes in high school it’s a dress code: wearing a tie or a jacket, or not wearing their hair beyond their collar. For girls, the rules are more strict, and that’s consistent and begins much earlier.

IDEAS: Why is that?

DWYER-MCNULTY: The girls are considered more prone to sins of vanity. There is this belief that girls need to be controlled in this way or they’ll stray, that they’re more materialistic.

IDEAS: You write that school uniforms were different for Catholic schools that served rich and poor children.


DWYER-MCNULTY: People talk about uniforms as being a way to erase class or diminish class, but I didn’t get the sense in my research that was the case. If anything, the uniforms maintained intra-religious class by distinguishing between parochial school kids and private school kids.

IDEAS: Yet students themselves found ways to show off their individualism. You found a funny cartoon from a 1930 Catholic school yearbook showing how students adapted their uniforms after school let out for the day.

DWYER-MCNULTY: I thought that was hilarious. I had gone to Catholic school and had done some creative altering of my own, including hemming my uniform with a stapler.

IDEAS: For many people, nuns’ outfits may be the most iconic. They also wore some remarkable clothes in the past—full habits and huge headgear.

DWYER-MCNULTY: I would run across stories where a sister was killed in a car accident; some of their headpieces didn’t allow for peripheral vision! Some things that we would take for granted today, that you would want to have your vision completely unobscured, that wasn’t a priority....There was also an aspect, as much as it was somber and modest, I think you could argue there was something almost regal about [most] habits.

IDEAS: Many people don’t think of the Second Vatican Council in sartorial terms, but you point out that it had a big effect when it decreed nuns no longer had to wear the habit.

DWYER-MCNULTY: This was mind-blowing for many Catholics, because they hadn’t seen these women’s ankles, they hadn’t seen these women’s arms, they hadn’t seen these women’s hair. Suddenly they are reclaiming their identity as women and asserting themselves, saying, “We can think for ourselves.” That was very jarring for the church.


IDEAS: These days, many young nuns are wearing the habit again. What’s behind it?

DWYER-MCNULTY: The church from the ’60s through the ’80s went through a lot of growing pains. The group that came out, there’s some consistency to these orders that maintain the habit. There’s a knowable identity. I think that they are recruiting younger women who are looking for that stability....A lot of these young women, too, were inspired by John Paul II. John Paul II certainly affirmed the significance of wearing a symbol of consecration, and that it’s important to be distinctive in your attire.

IDEAS: How would you characterize the clothing of contemporary American priests, bishops, and cardinals?

DWYER-MCNULTY: It seems as though there’s a “Francis effect,” when you go up toward the cardinals. Certainly the cardinals are being mindful that they have a pope that’s encouraging simplicity....Distinctive Catholic clothing remains important among priests and male religious. But I think we’ll continue to see a renaissance of simplicity.

Ruth Graham, a writer in New Hampshire, is a regular contributor to Ideas.