If you’ve never connected the dots between graphic design and nuns before, you’re certainly not alone. I, on the other hand, have had a strangely close relationship to both, starting in high school, when I attended L.A.’s Immaculate Heart High School of Corita Kent fame (AIGA Medalist, artist, designer, and rebel nun); then almost a decade later, when I interviewed an Anglican Catholic order in Fort Worth, Texas about the high fashion habits they’d commissioned from an actual designer (something of an anomaly in the sisterhood, though Christian Dior once lent his talents to a French order in the ’60s). Now GraphicDesign&, a publishing house established by graphic designer Lucienne Roberts and design educator Rebecca Wright that produces books that bridge the (seeming) voids between graphic design and topics like math and literature, have upped the ante with its latest release on religion, Looking Good: a visual guide to the nun’s habit.
With theological help from Cambridge grad Veronica Bennett and striking illustrations by Ryan Todd, Looking Good chronicles the daily dress of over 40 Catholic orders around the world—think of it as the religious version of recent best sellers Women in Clothes and Worn Stories.
The link to graphic design is less about a narrative between the two disciplines and more about using design as a tool for visual order. The sections are color coded to help clarify the difference between Franciscans, Carmelites, Augustines, Benedictines, and “Others.” And Todd’s illustrations make parsing granular information about wimples and rosaries actually kind of fun, on par with a pleasurable flip through any other design coffee table book. If you’ve ever considered the sisterhood, Looking Good is essential reading; akin to a college guide book for high school students, it breaks down the orders by their charisms (contemplative, evangelizing, social work, teaching, etc.) and their reach (i.e. worldwide, the Americas, Kenya). And if you’re like me and have never even stepped foot in a real deal convent, it’s probably the most accessible peek into that cloistered world as we’re likely to get.
Of course Looking Good is more than bright pictures and “fun facts” (more on those in a minute); there’s a deeper story in the subtext here. As Roberts told Wallpaper*, Bennett’s research, “incorporating visions and miracles, high drama and humble beginnings, persecution and insurrection, reveals how the story of the habit is also that of the struggle between the powerful and the poor, of politics, social care and the role of women; and of the interplay between culture, fashion, and faith.”
But there’s nothing wrong with fun facts, right? Here are some of the best ones:
- Sister Death: the name of a skeleton newbie St. Clare nuns were required to hug while dressing, a grim reminder to shed worldly attachments and focus on salvation.
- Namesake of cappuccinos: the predominantly brown and white dress of the Poor Clare Capuchins apparently inspired the frothy coffee drink.
- Media mavens: one enterprising Poor Clare mother saw the possibilities of televised evangelism and set up a makeshift TV in her monastery’s garage. Now the Eternal World Television Network is one of the most watched religious networks in the world. In fact, the popularity of its online platform is surpassed only by the Vatican’s.
- Singing nuns: Sister Cristina, of the Sicilian singing and dancing order of the St. Ursulines, won the Italian version of The Voice in 2014, dressed in her order’s simple black habit, of course.
- Nunmobile: to reach remote communities, one order of Carmelite sisters drove a fully stocked motor chapel, complete with altar.
- Artist’s muse: after Augustinian nun Monique Bourgeois nursed an ailing Henri Matisse back to health, he expressed his gratitude by designing her order’s chapel in Vence, France.
- Nuns 2.0: today’s orders are embracing tech, especially when it comes to outreach. There are webcasts, live streams, apps (like iMass or Rosary, which is meant to simulate the experience of saying the rosary with the Daughters of St. Paul), and active websites, like Nun Blog, by Sister Anne in Boston, who also runs the accompanying @nunblogger Twitter and Instagram accounts.