- Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism by Sally Dwyer-McNulty
This engaging book is filled with information that connects Catholic history, acculturation, and identity expression. Sally Dwyer-McNulty derived her work from documentary evidence collected at major Catholic archives. She began her study with the nineteenth century when Catholics were an impoverished minority at the margins of American society. She argues that dress was used to improve the status of Catholics as they navigated their role as a minority in the Protestant United States. Dress was strategically used to develop a sense of both unity and respectability as Catholics worked their way up America’s social ladder.
To Catholics, material goods are highly symbolic, as Catholicism is based on a sacramental worldview. Dwyer-McNulty examines the intersection of gender, age, ideology, class, and democracy and how these are seen in dress. The book focused on institutionalized Catholics, such as priests, nuns, and Catholic schoolgirls, rather than the laity (which account for 97.6 percent of American Catholics).1
The book begins with the use of priestly attire in America from the 1830s to the 1930s. The United States was a missionary territory until 1908, and that affected the perception of priests. Dress became symbolic of political leanings. As priests embraced America’s concept of egalitarianism, they dressed much like the laity when away from the church, and the Holy See responded with clear dress codes so the clergy would keep religious identity at the forefront. Even shoes played a symbolic role with regard to ideology. When Pope Francis chose to wear simple black shoes rather than the traditional red papal footwear, he made a statement.
While the clergy represents a tiny percentage (0.02 percent) of American Catholics, it has been through Catholic schools (with about 2 percent of Catholic students enrolled) that ideology about the social control of the body is taught, perpetuated, and regulated. Until the religious reforms of the 1960s (the Second Vatican Council) instigated major changes in dress, most women religious wore habits [End Page 179] derived from dress in the Middle Ages. They underscored the sacramental nature of Catholicism and the role of nuns as being married to Christ. The dark colors (often black) symbolized that they were dead to the world and committed fully to the Church.
In the chapters on school uniforms and social activism, Dwyer-McNulty discusses dress in the mid-twentieth century and how Catholic schools socially controlled female bodies. Uniforms were used to suppress concurrently status and sexuality. Nuns and women religious were charged with keeping young women modestly attired and did so through constant admonitions to control their bodies and ward off temptation.
The final chapters cover changes since the 1960s. At the heart of the matter was the interaction of several social reform movements related to inequality in the United States along with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Tension related to issues of gender and authority surfaced, and the notion of female submission was examined. It was a difficult time for women religious. Change in roles, and in dress, was needed. Today, most women religious in the United States wear modified habits or are nearly indistinguishable from other modestly dressed women.
There is a paucity of information available on Catholic dress from the 1970s forward, and it is truly needed to capture the whole picture. Perhaps Dwyer-McNulty is planning to pursue this in future research. Common Threads is a stunning history and should be widely appreciated by Catholics. In addition, it is appropriate for a general audience as well as college classes at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.
1. 2014 statistics used here are derived from CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate), the Catholic agency that maintains statistics on the Church.