Thursday, January 19, 2012

In The Habit

Considering the power of the Church in the Middle Ages, priestly attire gained a real cachet. Here are the basic garments no fashion-conscious ecclesiastic could ever do without:

Cassock: Everyday wear for priests - a long-sleeved, ankle-length, close-fitting garment with thirty-three buttons, one for each year of Christ's life.

Amice: A rectangular shawl that formed a snappy collar and protected the other sumptuous garments from sweat.

Alb: A linen tunic worn under the cassock.  It came in white as a sign of chastity, and was embroidered at the hem, chest and sleeves to signify Christ's wounds.

Cincture:  A belt that was another symbol of chastity.  But how come it was tied so loosely?

Chasuble: A poncho-style coverup made of silk and lavishly embroidered, worn while saying mass.

Maniple: A silk handkerchief worn draped over the left arm, just like a waiter's towel.

 circa 1848

Stole: A long scarf symbolizing ordination, worn when the priest, administered the sacraments.  A deacon of the church got an extra-special privilege - he could drape his stole over one shoulder and fasten it at his hip, like a Miss American banner.

Miter: a two-horned hat, worn by bishops, representing the twin rays of light that shone above Moses when he went to get the Ten Commandments; or, possibly, the  mouth of a fish, the symbol of Christ.

 circa 1592

Nuns got barely a glimmer of priestly glamor.  Their costumes shaped up as basically a less jazzy version of everyday medieval dress.  Still, during the Middle Ages there was a resurgence of interest in the religious life as a refuge from unchivalrous men - or simply as a source of free bed and board for those from plagued or Crusade-torn families. 

Women flocked to the convents wearing their usual huge white wimples, veils and barbes, which then became an established part of the habit.  Aprons were added as a sign of service (although fashionable women were wearing them to the nunneries as well) and girdles hung from cloaks to carry the Cross of Christ. 

The plain white band that wound around the forehead dates from the time of Henry II.  I don't know why - like it or not, there's not a reason for everything.

But I can tell you that the reason there were always nine buttons on a nun's cape - that is the exact number of letters in the word obedience, a nun's stock and trade.

Nun's wear changed little throughout the centuries, though it is reported in 1593 that one order favored rouge, powder, and other makeup.  This, of course, is an order of Parisian nuns.  Did the practice last?  No such luck.  They, like their counterparts across the world, were soon clean scrubbed again.


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