- Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism by Sally Dwyer-McNulty
In the Introduction to Common Threads, Sally Dwyer-McNulty explains “why clothing is important” for those who wish to study American Catholic history and culture. In so doing, she clarifies her method: “I uncover how Catholics came to rely on clothing to negotiate relations between religious authority and laity, men and women, and adults and youth, and how Catholic clothing continues to function as a battleground where Catholics work out issues of power, identity and sacredness in their everyday lives” (1).
The first three historical chapters on priests, sisters, and Catholic schoolgirls share a common trajectory: diversity (a response to being Catholic in Protestant America) gradually gives way to uniformity as Catholics become more confident and powerful in American society. By the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884), when the Catholic bishops issued a mandate for a school in every parish, there were parallel mandates for uniform and identifiable clothing for priests, sisters, and schoolgirls. During the early period, from the nineteenth century through the 1930s, prescribed clothing curbed sartorial individualism and increased the hierarchy’s control over priests. Uniforms at parish and diocesan schools performed a similar function, as well as downplaying class diversity and competition at school. At elite convent schools, uniforms had a slightly different function, since they were to reflect the special status of the students and the sisters who taught them. [End Page 63]
By far the most complex issues are raised in connection with sisters’ habits. Nineteenth-century sisters traveled in disguise for safety when their work took them outside convent or parish walls. At the turn of the century, when Pope Leo XIII “invited sisters to . . . ‘improve’ . . . their canonical status . . . and become officially ‘religious’” (99), sisters’ lives became much more constrained: a quasi-monastic schedule was imposed and habits were always worn. Dwyer-McNulty argues convincingly that “there was much more to gain [during this period] in wearing the habit than in laying it aside on public occasions.” The habit “ultimately freed the sisters to perform their ministry.” Moreover, “sisters came to dominate the visual landscape,” (84) and became the face of the church for generations of Catholics.
Chapter 4 examines the apotheosis of Catholic clothing when the post-World War II generation of female Catholic high school students exported the lessons learned from their school uniforms to the world at large, attempting to persuade stores to provide clothing “a Catholic girl could consciously wear” (138). Chapter 5 explores the changes affecting priests, sisters, and schoolgirls in the wake of Vatican II. The sisters’ attempts to modernize their clothing (with papal support) exposed the larger issues of governance and equality that we still struggle with today. Dwyer-McNulty captures profoundly illuminating moments, such as the speech by Cardinal Suenens at St. Mary’s College (Notre Dame, IN) in 1969, when Suenens told assembled sisters to reject Vatican policy demanding that they have new habits approved by male bureaucrats at the Sacred Congregation of Religious (188). Much more than clothing was at stake.
The history of Catholic clothing in America is uncharted territory, and Dwyer-McNulty does scholars and general readers a service by pacing out its boundaries and filling in some of the topography. Her narrative also shows how much remains to be done at this crucial intersection of material Christianity and Catholic Studies.