YOU KNOW A nun when you see one. The uniform, known as a habit, is a dead giveaway. But the outfit you’re picturing in your head might look very different from the one worn by the sisters at your local convent. And yet, each ensemble’s meaning is immediately clear. That’s because nuns abide by a sartorial system that is at once endlessly adaptable and instantly recognizable.
That’s an impressive feat for any visual system. In the case of nuns’ habits, that system relies on a standardized combination of symbolic elements. “It’s really a kit of parts,” says Lucienne Roberts, cofounder of GraphicDesign&, a British publishing house devoted to design’s more esoteric subjects. For their latest book, Looking Good: A Visual Guide to the Nun’s Habit, Roberts and cofounder Rebecca Wright worked with illustrator Ryan Todd and theologian Veronica Bennett to dissect the dress of nuns from some 40 Catholic orders. The result is a fascinating work of reference on a subject to which you’ve almost certainly never paid much mind.