Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism

Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism

Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism

Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism

Excerpt

America Magazine’s Matt Malone offered a perceptive observation about Catholicism; when it comes to clothing, Catholics take it seriously. Talk of clothing is not “so much irrelevant claptrap” because “Catholicism is rooted in a sacramental worldview. In other words, symbols matter… they matter a lot.” I agree with Malone, but I would add that symbols are naturalized by those in power, and while they hold sacramental meaning, they are also freighted with social and political significance. When power is destabilized in Catholicism, or in any other symbol-ladened community, symbolic meanings are likewise altered. In consideration of these two observations, this study, first, documents the history of Catholic clothing in America. Catholic apparel is something that appears to have always been there—it has undergone naturalization. As a result of this “time-free” phenomenon, Catholic clothing remains under-studied. Second, this examination reveals why clothing is important. I uncover how Catholics came to rely on clothing to negotiate relations between religious authority and laity, men and women, and adults and youth, and how Catholic clothing continues to function as a battleground where Catholics work out issues of power, identity, and sacredness in their everyday lives.

A recent example of Catholic discord highlights the intriguing significance of attire. In 2008 the Vatican, under the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI, announced that it would conduct Apostolic Visitations of active orders of women religious in the United States. The Vatican also initiated a separate inquest to consider the behaviors and statements of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organization whose membership includes roughly 80 percent of all American women religious. The Vatican was concerned that the Leadership Conference held “radical feminist” views and took up positions that dissented from the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, as determined by the magisterium, or the official teaching authority of the church. Despite the fear that they ascribed to “radical feminist” views, the sisters seemed to have made few pronouncements on issues such as abor-

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