The graphic design of nuns: decoding their visual identity

New book Looking Good illustrates the dress of more than 40 Catholic communities of nuns and sisters, explaining their use of complex visual codes

Cover of Looking Good: A visual guide to the nun's habit
Cover of Looking Good: A visual guide to the nun’s habit

Looking Good: A visual guide to the nun’s habit is a collaboration between the publishing house GraphicDesign&, theology graduate Veronica Bennett and illustrator Ryan Todd.

“Many of us identify nuns by their deceptively simple form of dress – few of us understand, however, that the habit is also a visual code,” GraphicDesign& say.

Nuns of the Franciscan family wear a knotted cord in place of a belt to denote their devotion to poverty
Nuns of the Franciscan family wear a knotted cord in place of a belt to denote their devotion to poverty

Explaining the dress of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance in the Benedictine family. Their white tunic symbolises purity and joy at rejecting the material world. Cistercians typically support themselves with far labour: the belt keeps clothes out of the way.

The book catalogues and compares the clothing of 40 communities, “explaining its components, significance and distinguishing identifiers”.

“The history of the religious habit is a story of restless relationships – the struggles of the powerful and the poor; of politics, social care and the role of women; and the interplay of culture, fashion and faith,” the publishers say.

Image 1: Daughters of Charity of St Vincent de Paul are nicknamed ‘God’s geese’ due to their distinctive head-dress. Their extravagant ‘cornette’ is derived from caps worn by French peasant women. Image 2: Sisters of the Most Holy Trinity for the Redemption of the Captives wear a blue and red cross: blue represents the purity of God the Father and red the charity and zeal of the Holy Spirit. Image 3: Congregation of the Passion of Jesus: The Passionists wear black as a sign of the mourning for the death of Christ

Image 1: The Little Sisters of Jesus base their clothing on the people they live among – in America they wear denim, for example. Image 2: Sister Ministers of the Sick of St Camillus: The sisters originally wore black but changed to white following the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 and the increased understanding of hygiene that followed. Image 3: The Missionaries of Charity, of whom Mother Teresa was famously a member, wear a simple white sari with blue stripe

Under the habit, most nuns wear a simple white shift and a Coif or close-fitting cap. An Underveil covers the hair and neck. The book also explains the role and constituent parts of the Rosary

looking-good-cover-1

Looking Good: A visual guide to the nun’s habit is published by GraphicDesign&, £17.50. More details here

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