As a professor who happens to be a woman, I have a different set of rules about what to wear in the classroom than male professors. In conversation with a man who teaches at the University about what do faculty normally wear, I was told that people are pretty casual. They wear khaki pants, jeans, etc. I asked if women follow the same habit of dressing more casually, and the answer was not as much. This fits with my experience at other institutions. Women, particularly younger women or those new to the institution, had to dress more formally in order to distinguish themselves as the teacher from the students. This is not universally true, but seems to fit my experience.
Oddly enough, men who dress up, wear ties and jackets, can get attention and noticed as that professor who wears a tie, but not in a negative way. Students seem to like when their professors dress up–or at least they comment on that. (Confession, this statement is based upon no actual social scientific research, no study, not even a poll of a poor sample. Completely anecdotal evidence bases upon my and my small circle of acquaintances’ experience.) We put on a wardrobe to present ourselves to our students. We dress casually because we want to lessen the barrier between students and teacher. We dress up, wear skirts, or dress pants to convey a degree of authority. Or we want to articulate to the students the seriousness of what we do in the classroom, the professionalism of this endeavor. We take it seriously, so they should as well. What we wear says something about who we are and how we wish to define our interactions and relationships with students.
If we take this idea and transfer it to the religious habits of sisters and nuns (or even priests and brothers), what a religious wears conveys a message. In the nineteenth century, the non-Catholic world in the United States largely were unfamiliar with Catholic sisters and nuns, at least initially. There was often a fear of what Catholic nuns represented and many Protestants had not direct connection with women religious, but had preconceived and negative notions of vowed life. I think of the Maria Monk stories and other accounts of imprisoned young women at the mercy of sexually depraved priests, and so forth. Nothing like a good escaped nun story to get the blood boiling. Much of this attitude was ameliorated by increased exposure to women in habits, particularly after the Civil War. For Catholics of the same period (speaking in general terms) were more familiar with sisters and nuns and especially in immigrant parishes, they represented members of their own communities. Yes, they were religious beings, who had committed themselves to a higher purpose and therefore revered but they at least were not a shocking sight to behold.
The habit in some ways enabled women to go where “respectable” laywomen could not. They could work, administer institutions, and interact in public settings in ways barred to single and married laywomen of all faiths. The religious habit brought sisters closer to the People of God (within reason–there were still restrictions on religious life). By the twentieth century, prior to modifications of habits, sisters in these cumbersome garments were, in some areas, fairly commonplace and in many ways expected. For many women religious in active ministries, the habit became a barrier in their apostolic life. Modifying their religious dress, or doing away with it all together, meant women religious could do their job, engage in their religious ministry in new and better ways. The lack of habit brought many sisters up-to-date with the world around them and going back to a religious habit would be difficult. It is interesting once again how outsiders react to the lack of habit on women religious, still.
What we wear has an impact on those we encounter in our daily life. What we wear signifies what we are doing, and who we are. The lack of a religious habit, however, does not suggest that sisters are less of women religious than those who wear one.