Best Clothes and Everyday Attire of Late Medieval Nuns
By Eva Schlotheuber
Fashion and Clothing in Late Medieval Europe, edited by Rainer C. Schwinges and Regula Schorta (Schwabe Verlag Basel, 2010)
Oh woe upon my youthful days
oh woe is my languishing wail
Sister, dear sister mine, shall we be cut off from the world?
That is my greatest pain.
Should I never wear a circlet, then I must complain,
for in the world I yearn to be.
A circlet in my hair would I rather wear,
instead of the veil of the nuns.
With these words, a young girl bemoans her forced entry into a cloister in a song. This and other songs of lamenting nuns express what entry into the cloister meant for them: parting from the lay world with its zest for life and the joys of its colourful and sumptuous dresses, here exemplified concretely with the image of a circlet in the hair – the epitome of courtly hair decoration. In contrast, entry into the cloister was connected to an internal and external conversio, and the festive ex-change of clothing was an integral part of the ceremony in this rite of passage, which took the form of a celebratory mass. The inner transformation of mores, which now were to conform to the divine commandments of humility, chastity, and obedience, corresponded to the external renunciation of worldly clothing. During the ceremony, the priest illustrated this symbolic act with the words: Exuat te dominus veterem hominem cum actibus suis – «May the Lord strip you of your old nature with all its deeds». And as he dressed the nun in the habit, he said: Induat te dominus – «May the Lord cloth you with a new nature» (Col 3,9; Eph 4,24). The habit of a nun consisted of a frock (floccus) with sleeves, a wide sleeveless cowl with or without a cingulum (a belt or cincture), and in some cases on top of it a scapular and a mantle.
The headdress consisted of a wimple, two veils – a peplum (usually a white underveil) and a velum, which was typically a black veil (depending on the order, it could also be white), and often a nun’s crown. Canon law prescribed a habit that varied between black and white and intermediate tones of gray and brown, which was worn by men as well as women.
In the altarpiece of St Clare, the artist visualises the decisive step of entry into the spiritual estate by means of the exchange of clothing and cutting off the hair: Clare swaps the gorgeous golden dress of a daughter of the upper classes for the white habit and black veil of the order, which she receives from the hands of its members.