Sally Dwyer-McNulty is Associate Professor of History and Chair of the History Department at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. This interview is based on her book Common Threads: A Cultural History of Clothing in American Catholicism(University of North Carolina Press, 2014).
JF: What led you to write Common Threads?
SDM: When I was conducting my dissertation research, I examined yearbooks from the first diocesan high school for girls in the country, the John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls’ High School in Philadelphia. While looking at the yearbooks, I was surprised to see that throughout the early years of the high school, the girls were not in uniform. The students from 1911 to 1923 came to school in a variety of outfits, and then in 1924, the “civilian clothes” were gone, and the student appeared in uniforms. Even though clothing and uniforms were not on my radar as far as a topic (for that dissertation chapter I was looking at how educational approaches in Catholic girls’ schools changed between 1920 and 1962), the observation about the clothing stuck with me. After finishing my dissertation, I began working at an art college, Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia. It was in this creative and visually-charged environment that I decide to go back to those yearbooks and dig a little. I wondered why the school would choose uniforms in 1924 and why and how the phenomenon spread. In my mind, the Catholic school uniform was an iconic aspect of Catholic culture. But I realized that icons, too, have a beginning. The uniform query turned into a conference paper, and then a published article. After that I began to think about other examples of Catholic attire and new questions began to form. Putting all my questions together became the book proposal
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Common Threads?
SDM: I contend that the adoption and consistent use of Roman collars, religious habits, and Catholic school uniforms in America was not inevitable, but rather it was a strategic and meaningful choice. Once adopted, Catholic clothing became, and continues to be, a significant means of cultural identity, communication, and political expression both within and beyond the church.
JF: Why do we need to read Common Threads?
SDM: There are many reasons to read Common Threads, but I will focus on just two. First, it fills a significant gap in both American and Catholic cultural history. Distinctly clad Catholics (men, women, and youth) are part of many Americans’ personal experience. Likewise, outfitted Catholics are characterized in American literature, television, and film. Nevertheless, until now, there hasn’t been a single study devoted to understanding the Catholic clothing phenomenon. Observers and practitioners of Catholicism often recognize that clothing plays a role in Catholic expression and identity, but what they don’t often appreciate is the history of this iconic feature or the intra and extra- Catholic politics surrounding these wearable symbols. This study begins to address that lacuna with an accessible resource on the history and significance of Catholic clothing in America.
And second, this study is timely. News coverage of people, issues, and event within Catholicism seems to have grown over the last decade. The activities of women religious, Catholic school closings, sexual abuse by priests, debates on homosexuality, and the distinctive leadership (and attire) of three different pontiffs has introduced Americans to one or more issues, often controversial, regarding Catholicism. Common Threads, by examining such long swath of history, 1830s to the present, provides the historical background as well as a unique lens, material culture, from which to understand Catholic values, history, and politics.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
SDM: I always enjoyed history classes in high school, but I didn’t consider history as a career until I attended college. When I went to college I became enchanted by the possibility of doing what my professors did. They read what appeared to be countless books, traveled for research, presented at conferences where they would meet up with old friends from graduate school, and best of all conducted terrific classes. I enjoyed listening to lecture as well as participating in discussions. Finally, all my professors dressed comfortably. That might not seem important now with so many workplaces adopting casual attire, but in the 1980s both men and women often wore suits to work. As a 20 year old – I felt I could read, discuss, and write in comfy clothes my whole life. It was then that I decided to be a historian. I chose American history because I was fascinated with American culture during the Cold War. I just couldn’t get enough of it. My passion for American religious history came later – after I read Susan A. Glenn’s, Daughters of the Shtetl: Life and Labor in the Immigrant Generation. Then I was hooked on the interplay between history and religion.
JF: What is your next project?
SDM: I am planning an oral history project to gain a better understanding of the lived experience of Catholics and maybe even non-Catholics who wore Catholic clothing. When I talk to students, colleagues, friends, and strangers about Common Threads, more often than not, someone shares a Catholic clothing story with me. Some tales are serious and some humorous. For instance, a friend of mine just told me a funny story on the way to a conference. He attended an all-boy high school in Toronto in the mid-1980s. Close-fitting trousers were in vogue at the time and young men narrowed the trousers of their pants to keep in style. The religious men who ran the school did not approve of the “skinny” look and made a rule that pants had to be wide enough so a student could take off his trousers without removing his shoes first. According to my friend, a teacher would stop tapered pants wearer in the hall and just say, “Take off your pants.” Clearly, that was one way to get the students to wear looser fitting trousers. In all seriousness, though, I’d like to learn more about what Catholic-identified clothing meant to the people who wore it and how they viewed its significance. Common Threads provides an introduction to the topic of Catholic attire, but there is much more on the topic to consider and I am looking forward to that undertaking.
JF: Thanks, Sally! Great stuff. For other installments of The Author’s Series click here.