Modest, natural, and snazzy—those were the three directions Mother Mary Magdalene gave artist Julia Sherman for designing the habits for the Community of Compassion, Mother Mary’s new Anglican Catholic order in Fort Worth, Texas. “You can’t just go to the store and buy a habit,” Mother Mary wrote to me. “Every order has to have a distinct one designed by the foundress, and you’re not supposed to copy anyone else.” The difference between two orders can be as simple as a few extra pleats in the skirt or as noticeable as Mother Teresa’s blue-striped, sari-inspired head covering.
But Sherman’s habits are something entirely new. Moreover, the JF & Son store in New York has partnered with Sherman to produce and sell the habits for secular customers. So while Mother Mary is praying in her peach-colored harem pants in Forth Worth, a young New York woman might be traipsing across Fifth Avenue in the very same design.
Mother Mary found Sherman after she saw the artist’s work photographing nun dolls from the Nun Doll Museum in Indian River, Michigan, a shrine to more than five hundred dolls and mannequins, each dressed in the traditional garb of men and woman from religious communities in North and South America. Sherman, whose previous photographic work has focused on the intricate process of creating wigs for Jewish women, clearly has a thing for religious accessories.
“These traditions,” she said, “are compelling because there is an issue of agency. The head covering, for example, can be either a source of pride or oppression, depending on the perspective and position of the woman who wears it.” The clothing line isn’t Sherman’s only nun-related project—she’s also collaborating with another order on a line of blessed soaps and facial creams.
Sherman first became interested in the nun dolls because they wore the only surviving patterns for many centuries-old habits, like those of the twelfth-century German abbess, Hildegard von Bingen, whose order was extravagantly dressed in white silk habits and gold head pieces. “Old habits,” Mother Mary said, “many of them gorgeous, have been forgotten altogether as the order who wore them has died out. There are no patterns, no documentation. It’s really sad.”
When Sherman visited the museum, she tried on one of the life-size habits on display and photographed herself during the thirteen steps of getting dressed as a Discalced Carmelite Nun. But not all nuns opt for the multilayered look. Sherman pointed out that the nun’s habit has undergone dramatic changes in the last century. “In the 1960s,” she explained, “feminist nuns lobbied to gain the right to do away with the habit altogether. As a result of their activism, young religious women today have … reappropriated the symbol, modified it to their liking, and consider it to be an elegant wedding dress to be worn in perpetuity. One order, The Abbey of Regina Laudis, even made an alternate denim habit to be worn when they work, relating their lives to that of the American blue-collar laborer.”
Sherman has produced an elaborate array of pieces, including a hood, a Celtic-inspired beaded collar, a sleevelet, a cape with ceramic toggles, and the aforementioned flannel harem pants, complete with matching camisole (aka “nunderwear”). Some of the other items are even quite luxe, like the silk-lined “Gertrude Dress,” a loose-fitting shift in camel-colored wool that hits above the knee in the front and then dips at a forty-five degree angle, coming just to the knee in the back.
There’s also a little hooded shift in silk-lined wool and a sleeveless, ankle-length number in velvet. (Yeah, velvet. That’s got to be a first for the sisterhood.) Best of all, the silk isn’t just plain old silk: it’s been digitally printed with a “goat hair-shirt” pattern, a nod to medieval garments of penitence. The main attraction of the collection, however, is the “Fisher Dress,” an odd-looking number meant to be layered with the hooded shift and a wimple (which is, for obvious reasons, not for sale to the un-inducted). It can best be described as a long, color-blocked wool skirt worn as a full-length dress, kind of like a really long tube top. It’s held up by a pair of wool straps and worn with accompanying silk arm warmers—little elasticized tubes of silk worn between the bicep and mid forearm. And all these items can be yours for a mere $188–388 a piece—aligning yourself with a higher power, after all, has its price.
Needless to say, it takes a while to get all these clothes on. Like the Discalced Carmelite Nuns, Mother Mary’s order goes through a long morning-dressing ritual. I’m someone who bemoans the extra effort of winter dressing, who grumbles while layering tights and long underwear under sweaters, puffy jackets, and coats. So I asked Mother Mary how long it takes her to get dressed every day. “I cannot dress quickly,” she said. “Not simply because of the yardage. There is rich symbolism attached to different items. One example is the white, circular collar. It is symbolic of a woman being surrounded ‘in community,’ meaning that I am part of a wide community of sisters who are supportive of the same ideals that I espouse. We also speak prayers as we dress … but I can usually finish dressing in fifteen minutes if I focus.”
I stopped into the JF & Son store last week to try on a few pieces for myself. Jesse Finkelstein, the cofounder, selected four garments for me: a silky, dun-colored, bell-sleeved dress; the wool, camel-colored shift with matching hand-beaded collar; and two longer dresses, one a mix of light browns and ivories and one dark, navy blue and black velvet, which I struggled with in the dressing room before giving up altogether. Oddly enough, it’s the modesty of the costumey frocks that I found most appealing. I went in expecting to feel frumpy. But, covered in elegant fabrics that moved freely around my body, I felt graceful and poised. If I wanted to be married to the Lord for the rest of my life, this is definitely the dress I’d choose.
“Bear in mind we consider wearing the habit to be a privilege.” Mother Mary cautioned me. “It says to others when in public, I am open for business. May I pray for you, comfort you, and serve you? It’s a caring symbol in a difficult world.” But her favorite thing about wearing loose, flowy robes? “Dare I say it?” she laughed. “You can gain twenty pounds and nobody notices!”
This article was originally published by The Paris Review.