Friday, December 16, 2016

Book Review: Looking Good: A visual guide to the nun's habit
A few weeks ago I noticed a flurry of posts on Twitter about a new book on nuns' habits. Featuring very basic illustrations, it described the habits of some 43 communities from the perspective of graphic design. The Daughters of St Paul were among the communities, so naturally I was particularly interested in the book! When they contacted me by direct message, I asked for a review copy, even a digital one. In response, they sent me a print copy of Looking Good: A visual guide to the nun's habit, along with a sweet note from one of the authors: "The nuns who taught me were its inspiration and get a thank you at the back!"

I brought the book with me on our concert tour, figuring it would be fun to leaf through while waiting at airport gates. Of course, the other sisters were also intrigued: many of them had seen the posts on Twitter--or the article in Wired about "nun fashion." (Confession: we all turned to the Daughters of St Paul pages first!)

Sample two-page spread: us!
What I found was fascinating and surprisingly accurate. (It helps that they had a Cambridge theology grad do the ecclesial stuff, including a marvelous appendix and glossary.) The text explains not just the clothing of each community but its deeper identity. That great appendix answers basic questions about religious life and the Catholic Church. (The author gets extra points for properly distinguishing between "nuns" and "sisters.")

Looking Good is published by GraphicDesign&, a UK-based publishing house that focuses on the intersection of graphic design and some other key dimension of life. Looking Good comes under the rubric of GraphicDesign & Religion. (My apologies to the publisher, but I cannot get their name to come out properly in this blog: the ampersand part of their name keeps coming out in code!) The contributors (several of whom seem to have had religious sisters as their teachers) noted in the Introduction: "Religious institutes have been using colour, shape and symbol to communicate their identity for hundreds of years.... Looking Good ... uses graphic design to present a resilient visual identity at a time when it appears to be in demise--and women's dress more broadly is under renewed scrutiny."

The rest of our write-up. Note our cross-emblem.
Communities are listed in groups according to the Rule that structures their life, with the page background corresponding to a color chosen to represent the "family" that follows a particular Rule: Franciscan (blue background), Carmelite (grey), Augustinian (plum), Benedictine (red) and "other" (green--that's where you find us). I couldn't really figure out why this order was chosen, since it is not chronological and doesn't appear to be by current numbers of members.

The full Carmelite habit was presented at the very beginning, article by article, since it has just about all the features that can be found in any religious habit. The first image is of a coifed, sandaled female form in a white shift. Page by page, the faceless form gets dressed like a paper-doll. Each successive element of clothing is identified by a little graphic (looking for all the world like the items in the periodic table of elements!); that graphic with its abbreviation (Co for "coif," Ri for "ring") corresponds to a short explanation of the item and perhaps a bit of history or some other detail. The reader becomes familiar with terms like "scapular," "mantle" and "veil" along with meatier words like "charism."

The GraphicDesign & team got creative in how they presented the habits of the various orders and congregations (yes, there is a difference; check the glossary!): the habit of a cloistered community was presented back first, indicating the "hidden" life of the sisters, with the face-forward view on the second two-page spread. The communities that are in the public eye were presented face-first on the opening page.

Four pages were devoted to each habit/community, with the write-up presenting the details of the specific habit (including any distinctive emblems or sacramentals), something of the history of the community, and any interesting or quirky information that seemed to add a bit of "colour."  While they depicted the contemporary habit of almost all the communities and noted any variations (they missed ours*), the designers couldn't resist presenting the Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul in their famous "winged" cornet instead of the simple uniform designed for them by Christian Dior.

Guides to nuns' habits were once a staple for young women in discernment. I remember seeing one from the early 1960's in our late 1970's novitiate library. Each community had a full-page write-up about their life and mission, with a black-and-white photograph (when available) of a postulant, novice and professed sister. (Our novitiate group agreed that the Maryknoll Sisters had the nicest habit of them all.)

While Looking Good was conceived (at first jokingly as a "field guide" to nuns on the street) as a "visual guide" and not a discernment guide, it very well could serve discerners who would like an overview of a large and varied array of communities of women religious they might not otherwise know about.
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*Most of the Pauline sisters in Europe and Latin America wear the standard uniform (not necessarily with the veil), while in French-speaking parts of Africa the sisters wear a blue printed wrap-around skirt and the typical woman's headwrap (in a blue print); in India, the sisters wear a sand-colored sari, while in Pakistan the common dress is a long blue tunic worn over pants, with a long scarf draped across the shoulders or around the head. All of us wear the emblem (which got special mention--and an illustration in Looking Good), a cross we receive on making our first vows. Also, just a bit of nit-picking: our habit does not (thankfully!) have the back pleat shown in the illustration. (Front pleats are quite enough to keep orderly!)

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Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission (which can eventually enable me to get more books!). In addition, I received a free review copy of the book mentioned above, possibly in the hope that I would mention it on social media. I am committed to giving as honest a review as possible, as part of my community's mission of putting media at the service of the truth. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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