essay · ethical fashion · textiles & spirituality

Domestic Vestments

A medieval priest stands at the altar, draped in a richly embroidered chasuble. Centuries later, a Benedictine postulant dons the black veil of her sisterhood, while on the road outside, an Amish family heads to market in their characteristic trousers, shirts, and dresses. Although quite distinct from one another, each of these examples point to the role clothing can play in religious expression, ritual, and community. We can read the priest’s silk chasuble as a symbol of Christ’s glory and authority, as well as a foreshadowing of the bodily transformation promised in the Resurrection. The nun’s veil serves as a sign of her calling to a monastic life of work and prayer, while the “plain clothing” of the Amish signal their conviction that the Gospel calls its followers to be “not of the world” (John 15:19)

In each case, clothing tells a story of faith, announcing membership apart from the world. And yet, there is a paradox woven into these peculiar vestments: each one evolved from much more ordinary dress. The chasuble of the priest was once a simple variant of the casula, a common traveling cloak worn throughout the Roman empire. The modern nun’s veil and wimple is a sober version of the common garb of a medieval matron. Even the distinctive clothing of the Amish was not once so different from their neighbors: when they migrated from Europe to America in the 18th century, they wore clothing quite similar to their rural neighbors of their German-speaking homelands (source). 

I’ve thought about this tension–the clothing of a Christian as both peculiar and ordinary, ritualized and regular–a great deal lately. As a Baptist, I didn’t grow up in a Christian culture with an explicit set of practices governing clothing. Having attended Anglican churches since my marriage, I’m now more used to seeing men and women don special clothing when leading a congregation in worship. However, I’m less interested in the special clothes associated with religious rituals, than I am in the ways religious faith and everyday dress can meet in the life of a Christian. 

Most Christian conversations about clothing follow wearisome and often-fruitless discussions of “modesty” (for more on that, see my thoughts here and here). While true modesty can enrich the spiritual life, I don’t think that “being modest” is the end of the good clothing can do for a Christian. If a priestly vestment can announce the glory and beauty of God; if the nun’s habit can call or the Amish dress can proclaim membership in a Gospel-centered community, then what can my clothing do to inform and announce my faith?

When I was a college professor, I answered this question by limiting my professional wardrobe to silk blouses. Each day, as I led my students in the study and contemplation of poetry and stories, I prayed that I might inhabit Christ’s parable in Matthew 13:52, that “ every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Silk blouses in rich colors were my way of announcing to my students that I had treasures to share with them. 

These days, however, I’m in a very different season. While working from home part-time for Sacred Ordinary Days, the most extensive and embodied hours of my day are spent as a mother to my 19-month-old daughter, wife to my farmer-husband, and mistress to an enormous dog and assorted chickens. Soon a baby brother will join the merry crew. These are not the days of silk blouses, but of syrup-sticky hands, wet kisses, muddy paws, and garden soil. When this at-home season began alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, I was at a loss about what to wear each day. My clothing seemed doomed to endure stains and soiling, even as the demands of nursing and pregnancy limited what items from my closet I could even wear. 

A similar weariness can stress the spiritual life of a mother. How do you begin the day with contemplative prayer when your toddler clamors for breakfast? How do you devote hours to Scripture and study when your weary eyes want to close as soon as the baby is in bed? In the midst of these questions, some dear friends sent me Ron Rolheiser’s little book Domestic Monastery. I wept as I read Rolheiser’s argument that life with young children could provide mothers with a “monastery bell.” For monastics, 

“when the bell called, it called you to the next task and you were to respond immediately, not because you want to, but because it’s time for that task and time isn’t your time, it’s God’s time. […] the monastic bell was intended as a discipline to stretch the heart by always taking you beyond your own agenda to God’s agenda. Hence, a mother raising children, perhaps in a more privileged way even than a professional contemplative, is forced, almost against her will, to constantly stretch her heart.“ (source)

How, I wondered, could my everyday clothing serve my physical needs (protection from the perils of small children and animals), while also reminding me of the spiritual treasures hidden in this season of motherhood? It didn’t actually take me very long to realize that the answer was an apron. As I wrote in an Instagram post, my first chore in my childhood home was washing dishes. I hated it, but when my mother made me my very own apron, the task took on a sense of gravitas. My 7-year-old mind assumed that If washing dishes required its own special outfit, then it must be important, how unpleasant. Like any child, I was eager to be entrusted with important things. ⁠

And so, for the past several months an apron has been the centerpiece of my daily clothing. Putting it on in the morning signals that I’m ready to begin the day. While wearing it, I have no hesitation when I need to extract a child from a mud puddle or snuggle a loving pup. Because I can sew, I’ve been able to make an apron that suits my body and my needs exactly: beautiful colors, nursing access, free movement, wrap-around coverage, capacious pockets. Soon I’ll have a week’s worth of these aprons so that each day can begin fresh. 

My apron is a kind of domestic vestment. It is an ordinary thing, worn by countless generations of hardworking women and men. And yet, even in a few short months it has become a special garment, reminding me that if the Lord builds my house, then even my kitchen can. be holy ground. Like the Roman traveling cloak or the 18th-century dress, the apron is taking on a meaning much greater than its utilitarian function.My apron reminds me to approach my time and space like the valorous woman of Proverbs 31, who laughs at the days to come and clothes her household in scarlet. It announces my membership in the little church of my household, a community I hope will grow larger and more complex–including not just kin, but brothers and sisters in Christ–in the years to come. It reminds me to receive the children, creatures, and guests in my care as bell-ringers in the “monastery” of my home.

How does your faith inform what you put on each day? Has more time at home during the pandemic shaped your thinking about the clothing you wear at home? As I continue to explore this concept of “domestic vestments,” I’m curious to hear how other Christians have found the use, care, and keeping of everyday clothing to be a tool of spiritual reflection or formation.

2 thoughts on “Domestic Vestments

  1. This is not an answer to your questions, but instead an addition to the idea of clothing as faith. My literature classes read “The Dream of the Rood” this week, and at the end of the poem the Rood says that those who bear the sign of the cross on their breasts need not fear at the Last Judgment. This can be figurative, of course, but at least one of my students took it as literal, a reference to people in holy orders. We also got to talk about the sign of the cross, the difference between a Protestant cross and a crucifix, etc. It was lovely.

    1. That’s really interesting — a good reason for me to go back and read “The Dream of the Rood.” Let me know if you come upon any other literary references to textiles (or symbols we “wear”) in your medieval courses. I was actually telling my husband about the nun in Canterbury Tales after he read this blog post. Come to think of it, Chaucer says quite a lot about his pilgrims’ clothing and the other symbols they wear.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s