Changing Habits: Catholic Style

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Designer-publishers sometimes do the darnedest things. That is certainly one way of understanding why London publishing imprint GraphicDesign& has an ampersand at the end of its name. As its founders, Lucienne Roberts and Rebecca Wright, state, theirs is a publishing house “dedicated to creating intelligent, vivid books that explore how graphic design connects with all other things and the value that it brings.” They routinely partner with experts from other fields “to inform, educate, entertain and provoke—and to challenge perceptions about what and who graphic design is for.” Roberts is a graphic designer and design writer. Her design studio LucienneRoberts+ creates accessible, engaging graphic design with a socially aware agenda. Rebecca Wright is Programme Director of Graphic Communication Design and Course Leader of MA Communication Design at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London. As a design educator and writer she has lectured, spoken at events and acted as consultant at academic institutions in the U.K. and abroad.

Looking Good: A Visual Guide to the Nun’s Habit, their most recent book, is a collaboration with Cambridge theology graduate Veronica Bennett and graphic illustrator Ryan Todd. Looking Good identifies and illustrates the dress of more than 40 Catholic communities of nuns and sisters. It examines this distinct religious clothing, explaining its components and significance. The fascinating text incorporates visions and miracles, high drama and humble beginnings, persecution and insurrection, and reveals how the story of the habit is also that of the struggle between the powerful and the poor; of politics, social care and the role of women; and of the interplay between culture, fashion and faith. I asked the team to answer a few questions and received a collective reply that will doubtless trigger your curiosity as it did mine.


What a wonderful and totally unexpected book. What inspired it? Why nun’s habits?We co-founded GraphicDesign& to produce books that explore the value of graphic design in relation to all manner of different subjects, but of all the GD& projects produced so far, our GraphicDesign& Religion title, Looking Good, is the most weird and wonderful, it’s true!

From the outset, we wanted to use GD& as a platform to tackle projects that might be too eccentric, too risky or too niche to appeal to a more mainstream publisher, and in one of our earliest discussions the subject of religion came up. We discovered that we each had childhood experience of the church and so shared a perhaps unfashionable curiosity about its rituals and regalia. We discussed a variety of interesting overlaps between design and religion (some designers see their practice as akin to a calling, after all), but it was the simplicity and symbolism of religious dress that fired our imagination most particularly. Initially we joked about creating a spotter’s guide to the nun’s habit—as a former convent girl, Lucie thought it might be useful while holidaying in a variety of church-y destinations! But as we researched our idea more fully, a far more GD&-suited idea began to take shape. Religious communities have been using color, form and symbol to communicate their identity for hundreds of years, making the habit a form of visual code. We concluded that graphic design and illustration were uniquely placed to make this tangible to a wide audience and that this should be the remit of our book.


Who generated the project? Theologian or illustrator?GD& actually generated the idea for the project, but as our venture was set up to explore how graphic design connects with all other subjects, we couldn’t produce any of our titles alone. For Looking Good we called on the expertise of theologian Veronica Bennett and graphic illustrator Ryan Todd. We first approached Veronica, a theology graduate of Kings College, Cambridge (where she specialized in the psychology of religion). She took to our research task with enormous vivacity and dexterity, drawing upon learned texts one minute and online forums the next (yes, there are forums dedicated solely to the nun’s habit).

Awash with information we then turned to illustrator Ryan Todd. We cited the apparent simplicity of Otto and Marie Neurath’s celebrated Isotype system as an inspiration, knowing that Ryan’s clean and graphic style was restrained and elegant without being cold or clinical. The collaborative process involved us working together in different ways at different times—there was a lot of back and forth between Ryan and Veronica about how details of some habits would be rendered, and we worked closely with Veronica to shape and edit the text. To the best of our knowledge there is no other book like this on the nun’s habit and we are all proud to have collectively created this unique publication.

There is a modern/contemporary sensibility to this art and typography that takes it out of the realm of sanctification. What were your thoughts about how to design, and who you designed the book for?All GD& books are conceived with a broad audience in mind. Despite the prevalence of graphic design, it is a little-understood field, so we’re always hoping to make our subject accessible to the many, not the in-the-know few.

From our earliest “spotter’s guide” conversations, Looking Good was intended to employ information design to help decipher the meaning behind the habit. Our research confirmed that the nun’s habit is very much a kit of parts—a codified uniform with details of color, hem length, and veil shape all speaking volumes to those in the know. Ryan’s elegant illustrations are shown at the same size, positioned in the same place on the page, for easy comparison, and to reinforce both the similarities and differences between each habit.

Our books are designed and art directed by Lucienne’s studio, LucienneRoberts+. While every GD& title shares a format and some stylistic details, each book is tailored for its subject. Color is one of the primary identifiers of the differing orders, and Looking Good uses more color than our previous books, with color-coded sections as well as full-color habits. One of our favorite design features is that each habit is shown from the back and the front, with those congregations that are cloistered (or “unseen”) shown initially turning away while those who are active (or “seen”) first shown facing the reader.

The typography is restrained and modern in feel, in keeping with the simplicity of the illustrations. As a nod to some of the more decorative aspects of chur
ch paraphernalia, the display typography uses an italic font called Marian—how could we resist a font whose name is also an adjective for things relating to the Virgin Mary?


Not being Catholic, I’ve nonetheless been fascinated with uniforms and have long puzzled over the details and symbols of their design. What surprised you about the range and similarity of these garments?I suppose you could say that what surprised us was the range and similarity! Flicking through Looking Good at speed, there is certainly variety on show—from floor-length to knee-length the hems go up and down; bare feet make way for shoes and sandals while veils in white, grey, black, violet and blue are long and voluminous then short and pinned back. We see crosses and crucifixes, sewn or worn on chains; belts and girdles; knotted cords and rosary beads. Cloaks and cardies and cucullas are all here and yet each image clearly depicts the same thing—the habit, a highly recognizable uniform that signifies difference and unity in almost equal measure, and that is so simple in form that it can withstand all manner of subtle variation while retaining its essential character.

We were particularly delighted when Veronica suggested that our introductory matter include a section explaining the different elements of the habit accompanied by the prayers recited by some Carmelite nuns as they dress. The formality and daily repetitiveness of this process is clearly designed to remind the wearer of the symbolic significance of each element of the habit, placing as much emphasis on items not seen by others.


Who or what decides on the formality or informality of a habit? Does it come through the specific order or the leaders of the church?In terms of the church’s stipulations about the habit, its teaching really focuses on the importance of the habit as a public sign of consecration to God and as a witness to poverty, as wells as its role to provide uniformity within an institute, and distinction between institutes. For example, in the 13th century, the Augustinians were “assigned” a black habit by the Pope. This wasn’t anything to do with the Pope having a penchant for black: He simply wanted them to be easily distinguishable from the Franciscans. In this sense the habit is like a trademark: The church doesn’t say what it has to look like, but does prevent one institute copying another. The detailed make-up of color and composition is left to the individual institute, which stipulate varying degrees of detail in their constitutions.

Perhaps the most significant factor in whether a habit appears formal or informal is the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Appropriate Renewal of the Religious Life from 1965, which declared the habit should “meet the requirements of health and be suited to the circumstances of time and place as well as to the services required by those who wear them.” The point the Council was making was that nursing communities doing hospital rounds in a thick wool tunic, or sisters working in social services risking road accidents by driving round in starched headgear that blocked their peripheral vision, wasn’t meeting the needs of the people these women served. This led to a shortening of hem lengths and a modernization of some habits that divides Catholic opinion to this day.


Did you come across any heretical garb?We didn’t come across any clothing that was deliberately heretical or contrary to church teachings. Accusations of heresy, on the other hand, are plentiful. Hildegard of Bingen, for example, was heavily criticized for dressing her nuns variously in gold crowns, silk veils and wedding dresses (she provided a theological argument for her nuns being brides of Christ, and soon nuns across Germany and Scandinavia were wearing crowns). More recently the institutes which have interpreted the Second Vatican Council as permission to wear “civvies” or adapted habits have been slammed as heretics by many Catholic traditionalists.


What is the difference between the nuns’ veil and the Muslim hijab or headscarf?The nuns’ veil and the various Muslim head coverings share common roots. At various times, predating both Christianity and Islam, it was common for Greek, Roman, Hittite, Assyrian and Persian women to wear some form of hair covering. This was sometimes as an act of religious consecration, such as the Roman vestal virgins; sometimes as an identifier of social class, such as the Assyrian law requiring upper-class women to wear a veil but banishing peasant women from wearing one; and sometimes it was a social custom with religious roots, such as the Jewish practice of women covering their hair in public.

By the middle ages, women in Christian Europe wore a head covering as standard attire. This was both religious and social; it was inherited from the practice of high-standing Roman women and as such, was a sign of decorum and respectable standing. It was also religious, with the New Testament stating explicitly that women should cover their heads while at prayer. Both social and religious practice of head covering in public remained until well into the 20th century (it is still not uncommon to see women in Southern Europe and in Eastern Europe covering their heads when they enter a church). But, right through the middle ages, the head covering worn by women in the West was almost indistinguishable from that still worn by nuns, and from the Muslim hijab: a piece of cloth completely covering the hair, and joining under the chin to cover head, cheeks and neck.

Were there any taboos or freedoms that surprised you?Our research was focused on founders, which lends a certain slant to our discoveries. There are many stories of extraordinarily zealous belief, often in the face of opposition. For the earlier orders, there are numerous examples of the Church forcing nuns back into enclosure, not allowing women … to work in the communities they wish to serve. Later though, nuns and sisters are pioneers in nursing, social work and teaching—especially teaching girls—at times when these careers would not have been open to the majority of women.

The habit itself has been alternatively a form of protection (nuns smuggling food and children under their habits in WWII) and a target (in periods of religious oppression). Perhaps what makes the story of the habit so fascinating, and at times bizarre, is exactly this opposition. It is a visual symbol of faith, and that can be powerful, but also controversial, as the current media dialogue around the burqa—or even the burkini—shows.

Who do you think will be attracted to this book?Our aim was always to communicate to a broad audience and to be as neutral as possible. The book is not about the Catholic faith but the symbolism of the habit, and for this reason we hope it will appeal more broadly to the visually curious. Full of color and charm, this quirky book demonstrates perfectly how graphic design can lend meaning to the most unusual of subjects. Whether you are a lapsed Catholic fashion designer with a penchant for the minimal, left convent school agnostic about hem lengths but fired up by gender politics and church symbolism, or have never entered a church but can’t resist trying to crack a visual code, then this book will appeal. It’s also a beautiful object in its own right, striking an appropriate balance between sobriety and opulence—a compact volume, rich in color, minimal in its design and carefully crafted in terms of production.

And what do you want your audience to take away?Looking Good is unusual. It combines history and humor, symbolism and style, conventions and quirks that we hope will delight, intrigue and inform—and presents a resilient visual identity for fresh appreciation at a time when it appears to be in demise. There are insights which will touch and amuse—nuns who breed miniature ponies, sisters who run media empires. It also demonstrates how graphic design and illustration are tools to extend knowledge, distill ideas and contribute to cultural memory.


Finally, are there other fields known by their garb that can be visually analyzed in such a manner as this?One of the things that made the habit such a compelling subject was the idea of it being the same but different across many congregations. With this in mind, it could be interesting to apply a similar kind of visual analysis to something like police uniforms around the world. Our favored comparison however, which might sound funny—and within this context, profane—is the eye-catching stripes, polka dots, chevrons and checkered forms worn by race jockeys. People immediately see the parallel—simple color and shapes, applied to clothing that signal difference and commonality at the same time. Although whether any other field would have quite such rich symbolic meaning
to their garb is another question!

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