Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism

By Bradley, Linda Arthur | The Catholic Historical Review, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism


Bradley, Linda Arthur, The Catholic Historical Review


AMERICAN Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism. By Sally Dwyer-McNulty. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2014. Pp. xiv, 257. $39.95. ISBN 978-1-4696-1409-0.)

This engaging book is filled with information that connects Catholic history, acculturation, and identity expression. Sally Dwyer-McNulty derived her work from documentary evidence collected at major Catholic archives. She began her study with the nineteenth century when Catholics were an impoverished minority at the margins of American society. She argues that dress was used to improve the status of Catholics as they navigated their role as a minority in the Protestant United States. Dress was strategically used to develop a sense of both unity and respectability as Catholics worked their way up America's social ladder.

To Catholics, material goods are highly symbolic, as Catholicism is based on a sacramental worldview. Dwyer-McNulty examines the intersection of gender, age, ideology, class, and democracy and how these are seen in dress. The book focused on institutionalized Catholics, such as priests, nuns, and Catholic schoolgirls, rather than the laity (which account for 97.6 percent of American Catholics).1

The book begins with the use of priestly attire in America from the 1830s to the 1930s. The United States was a missionary territory until 1908, and that affected the perception of priests. Dress became symbolic of political leanings. As priests embraced America's concept of egalitarianism, they dressed much like the laity when away from the church, and the Holy See responded with clear dress codes so the clergy would keep religious identity at the forefront. Even shoes played a symbolic role with regard to ideology. When Pope Francis chose to wear simple black shoes rather than the traditional red papal footwear, he made a statement.

While the clergy represents a tiny percentage (0.02 percent) of American Catholics, it has been through Catholic schools (with about 2 percent of Catholic students enrolled) that ideology about the social control of the body is taught, perpetuated, and regulated. …

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