Above: Couturières bretonnes ou Atelier de couture by Jean-Baptiste Jules Trayer (1824–1909).
Last summer I returned from a silent retreat to find that Calx Mariae Publishing had just put out a small but remarkable book called Christian Fashion in the Teaching of the Church. With its comprehensive introduction and salient excerpts of Church documents on dress, the book (reviewed for Rorate Caeli here) has proved a valuable resource for me. I think many Catholics will find it both refreshing and informative.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview the book’s author, Miss Virginia Coda Nunziante.
Miss Coda Nunziante, I was delighted to read Christian Fashion in the Teaching of the Church. It covers an area of great interest to many Catholics today. Can you share with me what first inspired you to compile this work and how you went about it?
For many years, the theme of modesty and sense of reserve has been a constant reflection for me, especially seeing around us, year after year, a way of being, of dressing, of behaving, that not only opposed what should be, in my opinion, the right behaviour of Catholics, and especially of Catholic women, but also clashed against a natural feeling of modesty, which is inherent in the conscience of every man and woman. I began to delve into the Church’s teaching on this point and found enlightening the book Le probleme feminin, published by the Monks of Solesmes, which collects papal teachings on woman and femininity, especially from the 20th century. It was clear to me how the Church as a whole had paid a lot of attention to this issue: Popes and Bishops had written and spoken at length about the profound changes that had taken place in society since the beginning of the 20th century and that were greatly affecting women, changing their mentality and subverting their role. The strong appeals from the ecclesiastical authorities to women not to lose their femininity, sweetness, purity, and modesty were followed by the silence of the current era in which one no longer hears any reference to safeguarding these values. It is for this reason that I have tried to put together the teachings of the Popes that I consider to be the most important so that there would be a greater understanding of the challenges that women face today and the right behaviour to have in order to remain faithful to our vocation as Catholic women.
Many readers will have heard of your wonderful leadership lasting over a decade in the Italian pro-life movement. How does your work promoting the sanctity of life and the family inform your study of Church teaching on dress?
Clothing is an expression of a vision of life, and public events such as the March for Life are visible expressions of the same worldview based on the primacy of spiritual and cultural values. The vision of life that we profess must permeate all our actions. It is precisely because I have always been involved in defending the family and innocent human life that I have realised how much this depends on the woman. If a woman loses awareness of her role and mission in society, which is not to advance her career and vie for power with men, it affects every aspect of her life. Two well-known stages in this subversion of women are the destruction of Christian marriage with divorce and the destruction of innocent human life with abortion. But we could also list other stages such as the legalisation of contraception, the Sixty-Eight Revolution and the rise of feminism, which began its battles with the subversion of clothing.
Have you always had an interest in dress as a component of Christian culture, or did this interest develop for you gradually over time?
Clothing was once part of the good Catholic education one received in the family. I, thank God, can only thank my parents for the example and teaching they gave me. Then, as I grew up and had to present myself first to schoolmates, then to friends at university, and later also within the Catholic apostolate, I realised that I had to justify and defend my way of life and my clothing, which did not conform to current fashions. This forced me to go deeper into the subject in order to be able to give reasons and explanations to those who wanted to hear them, and it was also very useful for me to better understand what it means to be a Catholic woman today.
In the introduction to Christian Fashion, you make the distinction between custom (habitual usages of regions or nations) and fashion (fleeting trends that often destroy customs). As an Italian, do you think that the many customs of your cultural heritage, notwithstanding increasing secularization, can help inform Italians of faith as they seek to rebuild Christian culture in dress and other arts? And what would be your advice to “young” countries like the United States?
Certainly in the social fabric of our country, popular traditions with their beautiful costumes influence keeping alive the sense of beauty, decorum and modesty. Every Italian region is very proud of its costumes, which are all very different. Folk festivals attract a lot of tourism and this shows that people are attracted by the elegance and beauty of clothes, behaviour and ancient traditions. Today, we are immersed in a society of the horrid, the ugly, the vulgar, and therefore any appeal to beauty is an opening to the transcendent. This also applies to what surrounds us, from churches to cathedrals, from historic palaces to castles, from narrow streets in cities to medieval villages: everything reflects that spirit that made Europe great and that we call Christian civilisation.
With regard to a “young” country like the United States where it is difficult to find this spirit in society, I can only recommend that we try to create it in the environment in which we live, in our way of being and dressing; look for it in the churches where we go to Mass, in the flats or houses where we live. Ultimately, we must continually strive never to conform to the ugly but to always seek the beautiful and not to conform to the mentality of the world around us.
Throughout the book’s historical overview, you highlight the strong currents which have run through fashion from age to age. From the hatred of hierarchy which drove the sans-culottes of the French Revolution, to Chanel’s garçonne style (an early wave of gender-ideology), to the egalitarianism manifested by the ubiquity of jeans at the end of the 20th century, dress has often become a weapon for the destruction of true human identity. What forces do you see driving dress today, and how can Catholics respond?
This question is very complex because it would require a deep analysis of all the forces at play. I will, however, limit myself to one concept: there is a revolutionary historical process and the forces at work today are the same ones that acted yesterday in history even if the instruments they use are different. These forces can be defined as the ‘enemies of God.’ They have been at work for centuries and always with the same intent: to subvert the plan of creation, to corrupt man in order to lose him, to destroy the Church. Today they act through fashions imposed by mass media and social media; through false models; through schools that no longer educate to the good, the true, the beautiful, but almost always to evil, lies, ugliness. But the list could be very long…
Catholics have a duty to react because, as the book of Job reminds us, “Militia est vita hominis super terram” (7:1). And they must do so, in my opinion, on three levels: that of prayer, without which everything would be in vain; that of cultural formation in order to be able to understand the forces at play and not be deceived by a very cunning enemy; that of action, which will be the fruit of prayer and formation, made indispensable so as not to leave the field only to the enemies of God.
True to its title, Christian Fashion in the Teaching of the Church contains excerpts from the writings and addresses of various prelates. Which papal teachings on this topic have you found most helpful to yourself or most edifying in your own journey?
I must say that all the speeches are particularly dense and incisive. I was very impressed by Pius XI’s call, back in 1926, for a Crusade for purity. That was almost a century ago… And then various speeches by Pius XII, perhaps most notably that of 30 December 1941. In this speech, the Holy Father paints a very lucid picture of the corruption in which society found itself at the time and appeals to Catholic women to be worthy instruments of Divine Providence for a new evangelisation. The Pope often speaks of a ‘militant spirit,’ of a ‘crusade.’ He exhorts young women to enter “into the fight against the dangers of bad morals, fighting them in old fields open to you, clothing and apparel, in the field of personal care and sport, in the field of social relations and entertainment.” But he also gives them indications of how they should fight: “Your weapons will be your words and your example, your courtesy and your demeanour, which also speak to others and make such behaviour as honours you and your activity both possible and commendable.” These reflections are very important for two reasons: the first is that they make it clear that, as Catholics, we cannot passively submit to the “spirit of the world” but must fight it every day by renewing our love for God and His law; the second is that the Pope exhorts young women to concrete action, to go out of their homes and churches to carry out a militant apostolate, even in public space, to put God back at the centre of social life.
What projects are currently keeping you busy?
A book on the martyrs of purity. We are writing it together with other young women who are all engaged in a Crusade for purity following the one called by Pope Pius XI. We want to reaffirm our desire not to yield to the spirit of the world and to remain faithful to our female vocation, whose model is the Blessed Virgin. Purity is closely linked to modesty, sense of reserve, integrity of mind and heart: reflecting on the heroism that led these young women to sacrifice their lives so as not to lose their purity, we are spurred on to know how to face the world’s incomprehension or mockery in order to remain faithful to our ideals.
Thank you very much for sharing your time and thoughts with us, Miss Coda Nunziante.