Faith and Monochrome: White

Investigating Colour in Religious Dress

DRESS IS A VISUAL system of human communication that aids in defining social identity and interactions across space and time. For organised religious faiths, techniques of adornment have always operated as effective communicators of religious identity, also assisting to reinforce the boundaries between the sacred and the secular, believers and non-believers. This has been accomplished through the careful selection of garments, jewellery, accessories, and grooming techniques, which are then infused with a variety of narratives and symbolic meanings by top religious authorities. In the absence of singular designs or textiles, colour has played a particularly significant role in this process.

This new four-part series by Dalia Vann, examines the fascinating role of colour in religious clothing. Our first instalment investigates the visual and symbolic significance of the colour white to four religions or religious movements.

Roman Catholicism:

Throughout history, the rules of papal dress have carefully been determined by individuals fully aware of the close links between appearance and power. Indeed, much of the Roman Catholic Church’s image building campaigns have been supported by specific efforts to visually manifest internal church hierarchies, in an effort to legitimise the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of specific Church leaders, such as the pope. It comes as no surprise, then, that during non-religious, public formal functions, the pope is the only one allowed to wear white, while other clergy wear black. This calculated decision communicates to believers and non-believers alike the sheer extent of the pope’s authority within not only spiritual matters, but also secular ones.1

Pope Francis in papal dress, in the Vatican City, 2013. Photo by Tony Gentile.
Pope Francis in papal dress, in the Vatican City, 2013. Photo by Tony Gentile.
Papal dress, photo courtesy of Britannica.
Papal dress, photo courtesy of Britannica.

The Carthusian Order:

Carthusians are a Roman Catholic religious order of enclosed monks and nuns. The monks live in individual cells, where they pray, study, sleep and eat. They only leave their cells for morning mass and for a communal feast on Sundays. The monks use colour to designate the stages of a Carthusian life. During the first two years, the novice must wear a black cloak over a white Carthusian habit. After the third year, they become a junior professed monk, at which point they can wear the full Carthusian white habit.2

The Carthusian habit, photo courtesy of Britannica.
The Carthusian habit, photo courtesy of Britannica.
The Carthusian habit, photo courtesy of ARTstor.
The Carthusian habit, photo courtesy of ARTstor.
Painting of the Carthusian cloister of Nuestra Señora de las Cuevas in Seville by Francisco de Zurbarán.
Painting of the Carthusian cloister of Nuestra Señora de las Cuevas in Seville by Francisco de Zurbarán.

Mormonism:

Within Mormonism, it is customary for those who have taken part in a temple ordinance, known as the Endowment Ceremony, to wear a special type of underwear. Known as ‘temple garments’, these items are worn both day and night and are meant to operate as a reminder of the sacred vows between man and God. Adherents consider them to have symbolic or literal protective powers. In 1893, the church made white the standard colour of all temple garments, maintaining that white most adequately represented the physical and spiritual purity that all Mormons should aspire towards.3

'Temple garments' worn by Mormons, image courtesy of http://www.lifeaftermormonism.net.
‘Temple garments’ worn by Mormons, image courtesy of http://www.lifeaftermormonism.net.

It is not only temple garments whose standard colour is white. Any time an adherent enters a Mormon temple – the majority of which are white in exterior and interior – they must be fully dressed in white. In short, Mormons attach a strong significance to the colour white, for its ability to represent purity, modesty and religious faith.4

The Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints store website, courtesy of http://store.lds.org.
The Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints store website, courtesy of http://store.lds.org.
The Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints store website, courtesy of http://www.ldsapparel.com.
The Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints store website, courtesy of http://www.ldsapparel.com.

Śvētāmbara:

Śvētāmbara is a sect of Jainism, an Indian religion which dictates a life of non-violence towards all living beings and affirms spiritual equality between all forms of life. The name Śvētāmbara means ‘white clad’, referring to its believers’ tradition of wearing white clothes. Some Śvētāmbara monks and nuns cover their mouth with a white cloth, in the practice of Ahimasa, meaning non-violence. The white cloth prevents them from causing harm to others through speech or thought.5

Female Śvētāmbara followers, image courtesy of http://www.herenow4u.net.
Female Śvētāmbara followers, image courtesy of http://www.herenow4u.net.
Female Śvētāmbara followers, image courtesy of http://www.herenow4u.net.Śvētāmbara followers, image courtesy of Britannica.
Female Śvētāmbara followers, image courtesy of http://www.herenow4u.net.Śvētāmbara followers, image courtesy of Britannica.
Śvētāmbara followers, image courtesy of Britannica.
Śvētāmbara followers, image courtesy of Britannica.

Dalia Vann is a writer and stylist. She has an MA in History and Culture of Fashion.


  1. T. Carson. New Catholic Encyclopedia, Gale Publishing, Michigan, 2002 

  2. T. Carson. New Catholic Encyclopedia, Gale Publishing, Michigan, 2002 

  3. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, www.lds.org, accessed 9 March 2014 

  4. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saintswww.lds.org, accessed 9 March 2014 

  5. Jainism Global Resource Center, http://www.jainworld.com/, accessed 9 March, 2014