Sisters, Why Don't You Wear the Traditional Habit?

Well, the truth is that we do!

It isn't unusual these days for aspirants, strangers and even our own Dominican brothers to ask this question of us! This post will, hopefully, answer this question and provide you with little known facts about the habit of the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans!

At the beginning of the Order the habit was most likely that which St. Dominic wore as a Canon Regular of Osma—white tunic, scapular, black cappa and perhaps the white surplice which was obligatory for Canons by the provincial council of Montpelier in 1215. This surplice was abandoned by the friars as the Order expanded beyond southern France. Not wearing it also accentuated the poverty of the Order.

The only part of the habit that to this day is blessed is the scapular, which is blessed at First Profession when a friar or nun becomes a member of the Order of Preachers.

While the veil for the nuns is now considered according to our constitutions a part of the habit, originally it was just taken for granted because all married women wore a type of wimple and veil. The veil was not even mentioned in the clothing ceremony until the 16th century. In fact, the first rule of the nuns, the Rule of San Sisto, merely says that the nuns are to have two tunics, a scapular and two veils. The third rule, that of Humbert of Romans in 1259 mentions a coif along with veils. This rule remained the only one guiding the nuns until the 1932 Constitutions which was written in response to the 1917 Code of Canon Law and legislated veils and guimpe. However, our current Constitutions of 1987 only mention a veil.

The style of the coif, wimple and veil have differed from region to region, century to century. In fact, the cut, style and even shades of color of the tunic, scapular and cappa have always varied in the Order. A rather humorous Commentary on the Prologue of the Constitutions by Humbert of Romans, 2nd Master of the Order tells us of all the variates in a Order that has itinerancy as one of it's outstanding features.

"One man has a black cappa, another a red one, and yet another a grey one...One man has a narrow scapular, another a broad one; some of them have pointed hoods at the back, others do not. Some people have cappas which cover their whole tunic, while others have cappas improperly shorter than their tunics; some are so short that they attract attention while others are so long that they attract attention!"

He then proceeds to say how even the customs of the Divine Office vary from province to province, priory to priory! From the beginning it was unity not uniformity that was the goal!

This was also so because the stipulation was that the tunic and scapular were to be made of undyed wool and even white wool is many shades of gray or brown! We are told that Bl. Jordan had a red cappa, referring no doubt to the wool which was perhaps more of a red hue than black!

And then there is the cape which which is one of the attractive features of the habit of the Brethren and some of the active Dominican sisters. We are often asked why we don't wear the cape. Why? Because it was never a part of our habit and in fact it wasn't a part of the habit of the friars either!

In the beginning the scapular and cowl (hood) were one piece much like you see the scapular and hood of a Benedictine habit. Slowly hood and scapular were being separated and the hood was forming a short cape covering the breast and shoulders. By 1355 the Master General of the Order was issuing an ordinance forbidding such a separation. However, as Fr. William Hinnebusch, OP, tells us in his History of the Dominican Order, vanity prevailed and we have what is known as the Dominican Habit with both cape with hood and scapular.

The nuns, however, never, um, indulged in such ostentation! Given the manner in which clothing was made in the medieval world a cape would have been seen as a departure from poverty because of the amount of extra fabric it takes to make one. Ask any nun who has made a habit for a friar! The capuce-cape is the part that is often the most difficult!

And finally, what about the Rosary? The early lay brothers wore their Pater Noster chaplet on their belt. The Rosary isn't specifically mentioned until 1625 in official documents and only in 1907 was it specifically listed as an integral part of the habit!

Detail from the Morgan Bible (1250) shows the various headgear of medieval women.

The dream of Bl. Guala of the death of St. Dominic from the 13th Regensberg Lectionary.The Dominican Nuns of the Monastery of the Holy Cross still exist after more than 750 years! Notice that St. Dominic is NOT wearing a cape and that the hood is attached to his scapular.

This is from a manuscript of around 1250. Already you can see the influence of a change in the scapular!

Detail from the monastery of Unterlinden.