Design inspiration: the habit in fashion
- GraphicDesign& with Julia Errens
- 8 February 2014
Fashion has long referenced religious paraphernalia, and the habit, despite its modest, unassuming shape, has not escaped the attention of many big-name designers. From cloister to catwalk, we explore the many interpretations of the habit, as a venerated icon in design and as a classic staple in the modern woman’s wardrobe.
At the Dolce & Gabbana Autumn/Winter 2013 show, models draped in black and grey filed out against a backdrop of gold and cobalt blue. The cathedral of Santa Maria Nuova in Sicily had inspired the Italian design duo’s collection as demonstrated by its mix of mosaic patterned gowns, charcoal herringbone suits and occasional glimpses of a widow’s black lace.
For fashion designers to reference religious paraphernalia is not a singularly contemporary phenomenon. Coco Chanel’s early years in the care of a convent surely informed her many design iterations for the little black dress while designer Jeanne Lanvin’s take on the clerical robe appeared throughout the 1920s and ‘30s – again, most likely influenced by her Catholic upbringing. While the opulence of much Catholic iconography has inspired controversial collections by designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier and Christian Lacroix, the habit itself seems to garner particular attention from the fashion world during times of economic austerity. With modesty back in fashion once more, and a greater emphasis placed on longevity rather than variety with a push for artisanal manufacturing processes over industrial mass production, it seems only natural that the understated habit, connoting simplicity, timelessness and humility, should resurface. Recent examples include Suzanne Rae’s Autumn/Winter 2013 collection that included minimal, elegant and linear designs in neutral colours inspired by the restraint and simplicity of religious clothing and the designs on show by Wayne Lee, threeASFOUR and Victoria Beckham at New York Fashion Week two years earlier.
Perhaps surprisingly, ‘women religious’ have on occasion looked to visual artists and designers for help and guidance. In 1964 the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul asked Christian Dior to redesign their habit. Known as ‘God’s geese’ in their traditional white, winged wimple, the nuns were finding their generous full-length habit incompatible with their apostolic work in hospitals and schools. Dior’s simplified design of short blue veil, white headband and slightly raised hemline is still used today. More recently, a newly instated order, the Sisters of The Community of Compassion in Fort Worth, collaborated with artist Julia Sherman to create their new clothing. The line, including meditation trousers and a cape, was manufactured with such attention to detail that Sherman and the order’s Mother Mary Magdalene collaborated with New York boutique JF & Son to produce selected items for sale to the public. ‘[Mother Mary] was faced with the challenge of designing and producing a habit for her community on a shoestring budget and with limited resources,’ Sherman explained. ‘She described herself as having been a real lover of fashion before she took her vows, [this] was an opportunity to connect to the history of monastic communities while expressing the unique identity of her order… The life of a contemporary nun is difficult, so why shouldn’t the sisters feel beautiful and confident in their habits?’
Embracing their newly designed habit future-proofs Mary Magdalene’s congregation in more ways than one. Research at Georgetown University shows religious orders in the USA that have retained the habit attracting more new members than those that have rejected it. Acting in part as a form of ‘brand’, its restraint and simplicity is visual testament to the principles shared by those who wear it. Although differences in shape and colour serve to identify and distinguish congregations, certain staples remain: modest, clear-cut outer layers, an interpretation of the veil and a light collar to signify community.
Few garments can have permeated the collective consciousness so effectively.