Father Michael Casey OCSO (Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance) is a priest, tailor, author and member of the Tarrawarra Abbey, the only Cistercian monastery in the Southern hemisphere. Observing the ancient rule of Saint Benedict, the Cistercians are an ancient order that broke away from the Catholic Church in medieval times with a desire to lead a more simple and contemplative life. Faith, work and self-sufficiency are the mainstays of the Cistercian way of life. The Tarrawarra Abbey in central Victoria, Australia, was established in 1954 by a group of Irish monks, and is now home to fourteen monks. The simple monk garments, tailored by Casey with fabric from a local mill, last the wearer anything upward of fifteen years. The ‘cowl’ in particular, is worn ceremoniously seven times a day for prayer. The garment is symbolic of the daily transition into the introspective space of worship. The excess fabric and draped sleeves of the cloak are specifically designed to slow down the wearer, allowing for contemplation and introspection during the Liturgy of the Hours in the church. This ceremonious dress is observed routinely within the monastery, but outside in the public eye the monks prefer to venture ‘incognito,’ adapting to modern dress so as to limit unwanted attention. Father Casey speaks of the power a garment has in a context far removed from mainstream fashion, but also of the act of slowing down the production of clothing by elongating wear.
The Tarrawarra Abbey is a Cistercian monastery in the tradition of the
rule of Saint Benedict from the sixth century, when it was the major monastic rule throughout the Western church. The Cistercian element derives from a reform in the eleventh century, which broke away from the Catholic rule with the desire to get back to a simple, contemplative life and the search for God. Throughout the centuries there have been many reforms, but the idea to live a simpler life by supporting and sustaining oneself with one’s own work, remains.
In effect we’re a Catholic religious order based on a life of balance between work and the daily praises of God, what’s called the Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours. Monks go to church seven times a day beginning at four o’clock in the morning, and ending at eight at night, so the day is punctuated by prayer.
Dress has a significant role in monastic life and the ordinary daily dress consists of a tunic, over which sits something called a ‘scapula,’ named after the scapula bone in the shoulders. The main monastic garment, and a crucial aspect to the Liturgy is the ‘cowl.’ Originally the cowl was worn at times a monk wasn’t working, but we’ve become more practical than the medieval people and now only wear it for times of prayer.
The design of the cowl is a large cloak, with long sleeves and a hooded neck hole. It’s a contemplative garment and meant to be impractical – you can’t run in it for instance. It slows you down and you can’t do much in the way of work as a result of the long sleeves. Because you can’t move quickly, it calls forth a sort of gravitas by imposing a sense of gravity on the wearer. There is a special way of walking within the church, which isn’t always observed nowadays, called walking in ceremony, where you let the sleeves down. The long sleeves merge with the body, which becomes unified. There’s also the added symbolism of the cowl that when you lay it flat, you get a cross.
When you make your commitment as a monk, after five or six years of probation, you are officially clothed in this garment. The experience of being enveloped by the cowl signifies being brought into monastic life. You become part of the fabric. The actual experience for the wearer is to be enveloped, and it induces a thoughtful, sober mood. It’s not frivolous. At the same time, nothing could be simpler in terms of the shape of the garment. But it’s not a totally impractical garment, so long as you don’t want to do a lot of things. If you want to sit, it’s perfectly comfortable, but it gives the kind of sobriety that’s inductive to the contemplative life.
Our dress hasn’t really changed since the medieval era. It’s difficult to know an exact date when it was designed but the earliest description of monastic dress is in the writings of Saint Hildegard of Bingen, a mystic of the twelfth century in Germany. She was interested in clothing and its theological significance and gives very detailed directions about how various monastic garments are to be constructed.
The garments have been fairly standard since their creation: the cowl is simply three metres of cloth with a hole in the middle. We don’t actually have a pattern for this, we just measure the length needed and do a freehand sweep of the shape. For the fabric, we use a product called Prestalene, developed in 1960 for uniforms by an Australian company called Prestige. It’s sixty-five percent polyester and thirty-five percent viscose rayon, and very tough.
My best cowl and my newest (I have three in total), is seventeen years old. My oldest is from 1965 and I’m still wearing it every day. There is the slowness in that it impedes fast movement, but also attesting to the stability of the cowl. I suppose that is another sort of slowness, since you’re wearing the same garment for fifty- odd years and it doesn’t change colour, or season, or style.
Benedictans, another monastic order, have a very similar way of dressing, but they wear the belt inside the scapula, and their garments are all black. Their cowl is gathered around the neck, a detail that started in the old European monasteries for practical reasons of warmth. Often in drawings around the seventeenth century, the cowl has a detachable hood since this is the part that would get dirty, and can be washed separately.
The white cowl also has it’s own history; for instance if you ever cut your finger it leaves a stain which is there forever. So it’s a record of your life in a sense. We expect at least fifteen years from each cowl, so it collects a history over time.
We don’t wear our monastic garments outside of the monastery, this is for efficiency really; if you’re doing the shopping, you don’t want to make a spectacle of yourself. If you’re on a plane you don’t want to attract too much attention. Anonymity is what we are looking for outside the monastery.
My tailoring predecessor would say that he could always tell to whom a garment belonged by how it hung on the hook. People customise their cowls by wearing them. We had a psychologist working with the community in the 1960s who said he always recognised individuals by their shoes, watches or glasses, that’s where they make the difference, where they express themselves. For us, we can be differentiated by some details, but we don’t choose glasses just because they’re fashionable, but because they are cheaper, or more comfortable. In the church space, however, we strive for uniformity.
The monk that taught me to tailor, who has since died, Brother Leonardo Xavier, had been a milliner in Paris for Christian Dior before opening a hat shop, Leonardo’s, in Brisbane. Before coming to the monastery he made hats for famous women like Princess Margaret and Shirley MacLaine, who would fly over to meet him. We used to joke that the only reason he entered the monastery was because women stopped wearing hats!
I don’t really have a view of mainstream fashion. I get the impression that there’s a kind of exhibitionist tendency that something isn’t deemed ‘good’ unless it’s different from everything else. In my distant observation, originality seems to be the prime value, despite whether it’s comfortable, or usable. I compare it to when I pass a house that looks as though its been designed by an ‘architect’: it’s the same for bold outfits that look as though they’ve been designed by a ‘fashion designer.’ It’s self-consciously dramatic or glamourous.
For instance if you were listening to a pianist, you might say ‘anybody could do that,’ it sounds so natural and effortless. I’d say the same about a well-designed house: it looks as though it belongs in that place, it isn’t shouting at you or pointing to itself. That would be my idea of good design, that it looks easy, and only when you know something about it, you see the work. I’m attracted to things that are simple and elegant, and that have longevity and history.
Father Michael has been a Cistercian monk at Tarrawarra since 1960. In 1980 he was awarded a doctorate in theology from Melbourne College of Divinity. He has written extensively on different facets of monasticism.
Laura Garder is a Melbourne-based writer, scholar and editor. She holds a PhD from RMIT University, where she also teaches in the School of Fashion and Textiles.