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Quodlibet 31 - FAQs about the Dominican habit

Thursday, June 17, 2010
Godzdogz has received a range of questions about the form and colour of the Dominican habit, when and how it is worn, and who may use it. This post will attempt to answer these questions.

Firstly, the word 'habit' comes from the Latin habitus which, among other things, simply means clothing. However, the religious habit is not just clothing but also has a symbolic value. As the Dominican Constitutions §51 says, the habit is worn "as a sign of our consecration". Therefore, it is both a reminder to the brother of the consecrated life to which he has vowed himself, and also a sign to others of his commitment to Christ and the vows he has taken. So, the Dominican historian, William Hinnebusch says that "its cloth, colour, and cut expressed the poverty, chastity and obedience [the friar] had promised".

The habit is placed under the section on 'Regular Observance' in the current Constitutions, and it is described thus: "The habit of the Order comprises a white tunic, scapular and capuce, together with a black cappa and capuce, a leather belt and a rosary" (§50). An appendix (3) then details tailoring instructions on the length of the habit and the proportions of each part of the habit in relation to the others. The appendix, however, does not detail the textile to be used, nor details like how the cappa is fastened, nor the type and colour of one's shoes, nor the colour of the Rosary or even how many decades it should have. So, these matters are left to one's personal preference.

It may be necessary to explain the terms used by the Constitutions.
The tunic is a long ankle-length garment, with long sleeves that can be simply folded up, or have buttons to hold those folds in place.
The scapular is a long piece of cloth with a hole cut in the middle for the head; the cloth then hangs over the shoulders and covers the front and back of the tunic. It should be about a hand's width from the bottom of the tunic, and wide enough to cover the "juncture of the sleeves with the tunic".
The capuce is a hood attached to a circular piece of cloth that falls over the shoulders and comes down to a point in the small of the back. This hood used to be simply attached to the scapular (like a Carthusian's habit) but at some point it became detached from the scapular and evolved into a rather elegant shoulder-cape with hood.
The black cappa, from which we get the name Black Friars, is just a large cape that covers most of the white habit. It was worn for warmth and when travelling. This too had a hood that became detached, resulting in a black capuce.
The entire Dominican habit thus has five items of clothing, plus a leather belt and the Rosary.

The same habit is worn by all Dominican brothers. Until Vatican II, non-clerical brothers (lay brothers) like St Martin de Porres wore a habit that did not have a black cappa and the scapular was black rather than white.

Traditionally the cappa was worn "during the winter and during certain liturgical services, when [the friar] heard confessions, preached, met the laity, or left the priory". In the English Province, it is worn in choir from All Souls Day (2 November) until the Gloria of the Easter Vigil, and on other liturgical occasions such as professions, funerals and in processions.

The Dominican receives the habit at the start of the novitiate, and is eventually also buried in one. Regarding its use, the Constitution only says that it should be worn inside the convent, "unless, for a good reason, the prior provincial shall have determined otherwise" (§51). As for wearing the habit outside the convent, one typically follows the custom of a local priory, and it is for the prior provincial to give directives in this matter if necessary. In the English Province, a brother is left to decide prudently whether or not to wear the habit on the streets. Most friars will wear the habit whenever they are engaged in work for the Order, such as giving talks and retreats, teaching, on pilgrimages, etc.

The current law does not mention what material the habit has to be made of. It used to stipulate wool, and in the English Province, we currently have our habits made from a wool blend, and a cappa of 100% wool. These habits are currently made by two lay Dominicans and they source the materials for us. People often wonder why there are cream and white habits. This comes down to sheer practicalities: the availability of material, and the tailor. Some habits, which tend to be worn in the summer, are from the tropics. An example is the habit of our brothers in our Vicariate in Grenada and Barbados which tends to be of lightweight white cotton. Brothers are generally supplied with one habit on beginning their novitiate and they can ask for another at their profession if they need one. However, if they need lighter-weight habits they will have to find someone to make them. The result is an interesting mixture of habits from different places and tailors when we sit in choir! This lack of uniformity is not new. Hinnebusch notes that in the Middle Ages "shades and colours varied from province to province, even from house to house".

Finally, some people wonder about whether we use our hoods (capuce) to cover our heads, and if so, when. We no longer have any customs or rubrics about their use, so that they are raised, if an individual brother so desires, for purely practical reasons: to keep the head warm in the winter, to minimize distractions during private prayer, to keep the head dry when it is raining. However, a fuller answer with historical explanations can be found at the Dominican Liturgy site.

There is then notable freedom in the use of the habit. Ultimately, I think it should help form us in the observance of our vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and be used accordingly. So, the early Dominicans emphasized in their stories, the Vitae Fratrum that the habit was sacred and was a sign of salvation. No matter how much or how little a friar wears the habit, I think it still holds true that all Dominicans love the habit. Like our brothers down the ages, we affirmed in our legends that "Mary endorsed it [and] Dominic wore it", and because of it we are still known in England as 'Black Friars'.

Lawrence Lew OP

Comments

Anonymous commented on 26-May-2016 03:00 AM
What is street attire for Dominican cooperator brother?
Jordan commented on 04-Jun-2016 12:27 AM
The exact same as for a clerical brother, there is no distinction in habits anymore.
Anonymous commented on 31-Oct-2016 07:42 PM
There is a point I'm wondering about: it is said a brother receives one habit at profession and may request another...as a Buddhist monk, let me say we are given three full sets of the habit and are not permitted more. Does your tradition limit possessions in this way (as a fulfilment of the Vow of Poverty)?
Jordan commented on 16-Nov-2016 04:02 PM
Friars usually have two habits, if not three. When one wears out another one is made for them or they find one which is still wearable from a deceased brother.

All the best,
Ray Smith commented on 26-Dec-2016 07:06 PM
Are the white habits difficult to keep clean? They look like they're just waiting to accumulate food stains and such.
Fabi commented on 20-Feb-2017 01:47 PM
I would like to offer a tunic, scapular and capuce to a dominican priest, how and where can I get them? Thank you
Obiora Marie-Michael commented on 27-Mar-2017 02:20 PM
How possible is it to request for more than two habits in the course of your training?
Dennis M. Doody, M.D. commented on 05-Aug-2017 04:15 AM
Are Third Order Dominicans (Dominican Laity) usually buried in the regular Dominican habit the same as the nuns and Friars. Are women members of Dominican Laity buried in the habit and black veil?
Dennis M. Doody, M.D. commented on 05-Aug-2017 04:28 AM
Laity (Tertiaries) were telling me how to join their group. I have had Dominican Sisters in elementary school, college, and now in my parish we have Dominican Sisters from the Polish Dominican Province of the Immaculate Conception. I had Dominican Friars in college and I have been a member of my Dominican parish for over 30 years. I am very familiar with the Dominican Order and pray for them every day. The Brothers of Dominican Novitiate were at the Mass and reception as well as our our Dominican Sisters and Friars at our parish.

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