The Order of Saint Benedict

General Information


The Habit of the Benedictines

Description and Use

With slight modifications of shape in some congregations, the traditional monastic habit of the Benedictines consists of a tunic, confined at the waist by a belt of leather or of cloth; a scapular, originally a work apron, the width of the shoulders, that reaches somewhere between the knees and the hem of the tunic; and a hood (men) or wimple and veil (women) to cover the head. In choir, at chapter, and at certain other ceremonial times, a full, often pleated, gown with long, wide sleeves, called a "cowl" or "cuculla," may be worn by the finally professed over the ordinary habit. The word cuculla comes from the Greek word, koukoulion, for the great habit allowed to be worn after final profession of monastic vows.

Local or Special

 The proper heraldic monastic crosier is depicted veiled. In service at the altar, monastics may don surplice or alb rather than choir dress; clerics dress according to rank and function. In contemporary and active monasteries, informal clothing is usually tolerated at the day hours in choir and at workday lunch in the refectory. Employing a modern choir robe or the cuculla, some monasteries require monastic costume only during liturgical services. Some lay Benedictine communities dispense entirely with "monastic" clothing or adopt a contemporary equivalent, simple and common. Benedictines assigned habitually to positions in non-monastic, clerical, academic or medical environments often employ tokens of monastic allegiance in the use of colors, crosses, rings, medals, pins or badges.


The color of the habit is not specified in the Rule but it is conjectured that the earliest Benedictines wore white or grey, as being the natural color of undyed wool. For many centuries, however, black has been the prevailing color, hence the term "Black Monk" has come to signify a Benedictine. Some independent or reform congregations have adopted a distinctive color; e.g., the Camaldolese, Cistercians, and Olivetans wear white. The Sylvestrine's habit used to be blue. Members of the St. Ottilien Congregation used to wear a red sash to signify their special missionary character.

Text above adapted and updated from "The Benedictine Order" by G. Cyprian Alston, The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol II, Copyright © 1907 by Robert Appleton Company; online edition copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight.

-- R. Oliver osb.


Ms. image
St. Benedict in cuculla

Behrendt OSB, Roland. "Theology of Dress," The American Benedictine Review 52:4 (Dec. 2001) 437-460.

Böckmann OSB, Sr. Aquinata. Bibliography on the habit. Atenæo Sant'Anselmo, Roma, 2000.

"Clothing of the Middle Ages." Annenberg/CPB Exhibits, © 1997.

Columbás, García. "Abito religioso," Dizionario degli Istituti de Perfezione," 1:50-56.

Derwich, Marek. "Clothing: Christian Perspectives," Encyclopedia of Monasticism, ed. William Johnston, (Chicago, 2000) I: 309-10.

Feiss, Hugh OSB. "The Substance of the Ephemeral: Clothing in the Benedictine Tradition," American Benedictine Review 53:3 (2002) 243-263.

Abbatissin Augustina OSB]
Rev. Mother Augustina OSB,
Abbess of Eichstatt, ca. 1959.

Harris, Mark S. "Medieval monks and orders; Monk's clothing." A collection of rec.org.sca messages (1989- ) in Stefan's Florilegium. The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) stages renactments of bygone times, especially the medieval era, as accurately as possible.

Harvey, Barbara F. Monastic Dress in the Middle Ages: Precept & Practice. Canterbury, 1988.

Kelly, John P. "Proclaiming the Good News: On the Monastic Habit," pre-convention paper, ABA 2000.

Kuhns, Elizabeth. The Habit: A History of the Clothing of Catholic Nuns. Doubleday, 2003.

Reed, Cheryl. "The Politics of the Habit." Alicia Patterson Foundation Reporter 19:3 (April 2000). A journalist's somewhat naive look, from the outside, at a complex phenomenon.

abbot primate
Abbot Primate Bernhard Kaelin OSB
in black cappa magna, 1948.

"Religious Costume and Clothing" by Tara Maginnis, Ph.D, in The Costumer's Manifesto (encyclopedic, ecumenical, interreligious, pan-cultural; slow-loading).

La Sostanza ell'Effimero: Gli abiti degli Ordini religiosi in Occidente, ed. Giancarlo Rocca. Roma: Edizioni Paoline, 2000. [Scholarly catalog of an exhibition, Museo Nazionale di Castel S. Angelo, Jan. 18-Mar. 31, 2000; summarized and reviewed by Hugh Feiss OSB, see citation above.]

"Spirituality and Clothing," special issue of The Way 39 (1999) Nr. 3.

Veil and Cowl: Writings from the World of Monks and Nuns, ed. by James B. Simpson; preface by Theodore M. Hesburgh. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1994. Veil and Cowl is a collection of essays about monastic life in general.

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