Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Recent Work on the History and Culture of Religion and Dress

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Recent Work on the History and Culture of Religion and Dress

Article excerpt

The Religious Life of Dress: Global Fashion and Faith, by Lynne Hume. Dress, Body and Culture Series. New York and London, Bloomsbury Publishers, 2013. 173 pages. $29.95 US (paper).

Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism, by Sally Dwyer-McNulty. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2014. xiii, 257 pp. $39.95 US (cloth).

A Cultural History of Jewish Dress, by Eric Silverman. Dress, Body and Culture Series, New York and London, Bloomsbury Publishers, 2013. XXV, 259 pp. $39.95 US (paper).

Islamic Fashion and Anti-Fashion: New Perspectives from Europe and North America, edited by Emma Tarlo and Annelies Moors. New York and London, Bloomsbury Publishers, 2013. xvii, 294 pp. $29.95 US (paper).

Anthropologist Grant McCracken once noted in a pivotal work that "the principles of a world are found woven into the fabric of its clothing." (1) As the four recent books above demonstrate, the same is true for religious worlds, where dress visibly manifests the interaction between religion and culture on the surface of human bodies. For many religious groups, dress--defined broadly to include clothing, grooming, and all forms of body adornment--can be a crucial symbol of religious identification and belief, a marker of history and tradition, and means of signifying, non-verbally, fundamental ideas, concepts, categories, or social relations. This has been a long-standing point of view. However as more contemporary scholars have found, the study of dress is not always so straightforward. There is a growing amount of scholarly work on dress coming from a variety of disciplines and perspectives, and numerous points of view are presented by contemporary scholars who often provide more nuanced analyses of the multiple levels of symbolism at work when dress is the subject of inquiry.

Modern ecclesiastical dress for Roman Catholic priests resembles dress from the early days of the Christian church when the clergy were not distinguished from other male members of the church by their dress. However, in the sixth century as fashion changed, the clergy did not adopt the new fashions and continued to wear the older styles. Particularly for the Roman Catholic Church, ecclesiastical dress has become a form of fossilized fashion, a phenomenon where the garments worn seem frozen in time and continue to be worn even as other forms of dress evolved.

Until recently, academics who study the role that dress plays in social life have primarily come from anthropology and the field of clothing and textile studies. In recent years, however, cultural studies scholars from diverse academic backgrounds have drawn attention to the way that dress functions at the symbolic level. Similarly, there has been a recent trend in religious studies to examine the impact of the material culture on religious practice and expression. In 1997, the British publishing house, Berg Publishers (now part of Bloomsbury) began publishing the Dress, Body, Culture series, which now numbers fifty-seven books, including Silverman's, Hume's, and several others on religion. While all four of the books reviewed here offer historical perspectives on religion and dress, two of them offer comprehensive histories of dress in specific contexts, while the other two focus on contemporary dress.

In Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism, historian Sally Dwyer-McNulty offers readers an interesting and engaging look at how Catholic history, immigration, and acculturation shaped the expression of Catholic identity through dress. Mobilizing a vast array of documentary evidence collected at major Catholic archives, she focuses her study on Catholic dress in the United States beginning in the nineteenth century, when Catholics were an impoverished minority at the margins of American society. She argues that dress was used strategically as they assimilated into a sometimes hostile society dominated by Protestants. …

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