Most nuns wear a uniform consisting of garments with special symbolic meaning. This includes colors, such as black to symbolize repentance or red to symbolize the divine. Most nuns wear a habit or robe cut in a unique shape to signify the order they belong to as well.
The type of garments a nun wear depends on the specific religious order. For example, Roman Catholic Nuns often wear a black habit paired with a shoulder cape called a cowl and a black veil. Protestant nuns often wear a white or blue skirt and long-sleeved top paired with a veil. And Buddhist nuns wear five-fold robe in saffron, pink, or red in a style similar to the robes worn by Buddhist monks.
Often the clothing a nun wear depicts a willingness to renounce worldly possessions and live a simple life dedicated to spiritual pursuits. Nuns do not have closets full of the latest fashion because their apparel shows their commitment to a life of service or contemplation. No matter what religion a nun commits herself to, she chooses to leave the rest of the world behind when she puts on the symbolic robes of her order and takes on religious life, often taking vows of poverty and chastity as part of that commitment.
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Roman Catholic Nuns
With an estimated 650,000 sisters around the world, it is no surprise that you may instantly picture a Roman Catholic Nun when you think of the kind of clothing nuns wear. Catholic nuns traditionally wear the iconic long black tunic and belt paired with an apron-like scapular and either a wimple and veil or a coif and veil. In most cases, the robe, scapular, and veil will all be in black, though sometimes Catholic nuns wear blue or white instead.
But even within the Roman Catholic faith, you will find slight variations on this outfit depending on what order the nun belongs to, such as Benedictine vs Carmelite Vs Dominican. To learn more about the symbolic significance of each item of clothing worn by a Benedictine nun check out this article from Denver Catholic.
Plus, nuns also have variations in dress based on their level of commitment within the organization. A newly consecrated sister will wear a different type of veil from a fully consecrated sister, for example.
Eastern Orthodox Nuns
Eastern Orthodox nuns often wear a more comprehensive head covering than Roman Catholic nuns, with a long black veil covering the head, neck, and shoulders. This encompassing black garment, called an apostalnik, looks a lot like a shorter version of a Muslim hijab.
Sometimes new initiates wear a simple black head scarf and only nuns who have cut their hair to symbolize full consecration will wear the special apostolnik veil. Many Eastern Orthodox nuns pair a soft pointed cap called a skufia with this veil to entirely cover their head.
Unlike Catholic nuns who often have roles of service in the community such as providing food or healthcare to those in need, Eastern Orthodox nuns traditionally live monastic lives in a separate community or convent dedicated to spiritual contemplation. You can find out more about Eastern Orthodox religious clothing here.
A few Protestant religious organizations such as the Lutheran and Anglican churches also support convents for nuns. With only about 60,000 sisters worldwide, this subset of nuns is less known today, though if you have seen the popular TV show Call the Midwife you have experienced a little bit of the protestant nun life!
Protestant nuns often wear more modern street clothing such as a uniform of a long skirt, long-sleeved top, and sturdy shoes. If protestant nuns do wear a uniform, it often consists of a simple habit with a rounded shoulder cape in light blue or white with blue stripes.
Lutheran nuns often have affiliations with a service organization such as a hospital, where many serve as nurses. Some Lutheran nuns called deaconesses take vows but live in the world and serve a specific church by raising funds to provide food in the community, teaching Sunday school, or supporting the work of the church leadership.
That said, some protestant nuns also live a life of contemplation in convents. You can learn about some of these convents in this article on The Protestant Sisters from Time Magazine.
Buddhist nuns wear robes in shades of white, pink, saffron, or red depending on what sect of Buddhism they belong to. Typically, Buddhist nuns wear a tunic beneath their robe or a wrap that covers both shoulders. Other than that, their attire is very similar to the dress worn by Buddhist monks from the same order.
Just like Buddhist monks, Buddhist nuns renounce worldly pleasures and possessions. They also shave their heads to symbolize leaving the world behind. You can read more about the lifestyle of Buddhist nuns in this article from Sravasti Abbey.
The clothing worn by most Buddhist nuns consists of three parts called the sanghati, uttharasanga, and antharavasaka. When worn all together, this is called the chivara.
The sanghati consists of a robe or fabric piece draped over the shoulder. The uttharasanga (sometimes also called a kashaya) is the distinctive large rectangle of fabric worn draped over one or both shoulders. The antaravasanaka usually wraps around the waist like a sarong.
Like Hindu monks, Hindu nuns live a life of religious devotion without any worldly possessions or connections. These nuns go by several different names including sanyasini, sadhavi, or nirgrantha. While there are an estimated 3 million Hindu monks in the world today, far fewer women join Hindu monastic orders.
Both Hindu monks and nuns typically wear simple attire consisting of orange robes that symbolize the purity of fire. Unlike Buddhist monks and nuns, Hindu monastics do not often shave their heads. You can learn more about Hindu monastic life here.
The Colors of a Nun’s Clothing
Most nuns wear special uniforms, robes, or habits made out of cloth in a symbolic color.
Black symbolizes repentance in the Roman Catholic faith. Many nuns in this faith wear black habits and veils. Some Catholic nuns also wear light blue, which symbolizes the Virgin Mary in the Catholic faith. White represents purity and many Catholic nun garments will include some element of white for this purpose.
In Eastern religions such as Buddhism, red symbolizes the divine. The saffron-colored robes worn by many sects of Buddhist monks and nuns symbolize humility and simplicity. This color traditionally came from dyeing monk’s robes in leftover spices to get the distinctive orange-yellow shade. You can find out more about the meaning behind the color in Buddhist robes in this article from Tibet House.
Usually, the rules guiding the particular sect or order a nun belongs to determine what color of robes or habit she wears. But sometimes nuns may wear a uniform or robes in different colors depending on the task at hand. For example, a Catholic nun attending a certain mass may wear light blue to honor the Virgin Mary but will wear a black habit for everyday occasions.
Shoes Vs Bare Feet
Nuns from most religions wear sturdy shoes that allow for walking and even physical labor. Christin nuns often wear practical-looking sneakers or nursing shoes depending on the type of duties they perform. As Sister Margaret of Saint Benedict’s Monastery explains, nuns often wear simple black lace-up shoes.
Buddhist nuns typically either wear sandals or donated shoes, as the precepts of their religion guide what type of footwear they can wear. Buddhist monks and nuns may not wear shoes that cover the toes or the heels, which allows them to wear sandals. They also sometimes prefer to walk barefoot as a form of mindfulness.
Habit or Tunic
Most nuns in Christian faiths wear a large, long tunic or habit with wide sleeves and a loose cut. The habit often cinches around the waist with a special belt called a cincture
Every part of the habit has special significance for the nun who wears it. For example, the belt symbolizes the chains worn by Christ, while the habit itself symbolizes both penitence and poverty. When nuns first began to wear the long black habit, it came from the cheapest cloth available in the Middle Ages.
This article from the Catholic News Agency gives you an insight into why nuns choose to wear this special habit.
Many Christian nuns, both Catholic and protestant, also wear an additional layer over the tunic called the scapular.
A scapular is like a double-sided apron with a hole for the head, that hangs down the front and back of the body. The scapular symbolizes a yoke or collar, which was an item used to hook animals to a heavy vehicle or plow to pull. The yoke often connected two animals together and thus symbolizes the way a nun is connected to the divine.
The Sisters of Carmel wear a brown scapular as a silent, constant prayer. It has special historic significance and is believed to provide the wearer with spiritual protection.
Veil or Head Covering
Most Christian nuns wear some manner of head covering, ranging from a simple cap to a veil that drapes all the way over the shoulders, covering the upper body. The precept of covering the head stems from a Christian belief in the vanity of women’s hair, which nuns choose to leave behind when they embrace a spiritual life.
Buddhist nuns typically shave their heads just like Buddhist monks to symbolize leaving behind the place in the world given to them by their parents, which is a hugely significant moment. However, they do not typically cover their heads after this. You can read all about why Buddhist monks and nuns shave their heads in this article from the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhists.
Coif and Wimple
Some Catholic and protestant nuns wear headgear beneath the veil as well. This typically consists of either a coif or wimple and sometimes a cowl as well.
A coif or wimple covers the head, ears, and neck and is usually made out of white fabric. A cowl is like a rounded shoulder cape that drapes over the top of the nun’s habit.
The S.D. Catholic Gallery gives more information on the different types of headgear worn by nuns in different orders here.
Buddhist nuns wear a special set of robes called the kasaya or chivara, which has remained relatively unchanged for almost 25 centuries! The main distinction between the garments worn by Buddhist monks and nuns is that nuns wear a five-fold robe that has a bodice beneath it for modesty, while monk’s clothing is called a three-fold robe.
The color of the robes depends on the sect of Buddhism the nun belongs to. Tibetan Buddhist nuns will usually wear red robes, while Therevada nuns will wear white or light pink robes. The Textile Research Center provides more information on the colors of Buddhist robes here.
Like most Hindu women, Hindu nuns often wear a bindi on their foreheads. This ornament, placed between the eyebrows, symbolizes the ability to see with the third eye or focus on the unseen in the world.
You can find out more about the purpose of a bindi in this article from the American Hindu Association.
Street Clothes for Nuns
In some cases, both Catholic and protestant nuns wear practical street clothes ensembles often consisting of a skirt and a cowl. They typically still wear a head covering with this outfit, though in some cases lay sisters in the Protestant faith do not wear a head covering.
For Catholic nuns, the Vatican announced that nuns can wear street clothes at appropriate times about 60 years ago. This article from Canon Law explains the many rules governing what nuns and clerics wear.
Jewelry and Accessories
Nuns from many different faiths wear special types of jewelry with symbolic meaning. Catholic nuns wear a plain wedding ring that symbolizes marriage to the church. Many Catholic nuns also wear a crucifix or cross pendant to represent their faith as well.
Eastern Orthodox nuns wear a special prayer rope with knots and beads that represent a life of constant prayer. And Buddhist nuns often carry a piece of jewelry called malas, or Tibetan prayer beads. You can find out more about how to use a malas here.
Nuns may also wear special accessories for certain duties. For example, Buddhist nuns wear an alms bowl around the neck for alms rituals. This symbolizes the renunciation of the world and the total poverty many Buddhist nuns embrace.
Catholic nuns commonly carry a rosary, which is a beaded necklace with a cross attached to it. The Sisters of Precious Blood explain why a nun uses a rosary here.
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