The religious habit: It’s what separates, on sight, the laity from the professed religious (and, for that matter, the secular clergy.) And of the dozens and dozens of religious orders, congregations, and societies, only a very few wear a white habit: the Camoldolese, the Dominicans (also known as the Order of Preachers, with a great black cape), the Cistersians, the Carthusians, the Camoldolese, the Carmelites (are known as the “White Friars” though most of their habit is actually brown), the “White Fathers” of Africa, and the Norbertines also known as the Canons Regular of Premontre or the Premonstratensians.
However of this small, select group only the latter can claim that their vesture came to them from the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Legend has it that Mary appeared to St. Norbert in a dream/vision and showed him that the Praemonstratensian habit should be “white, like those worn by the angels who announced the Resurrection. At the same time, not dying the unbleached fabric will match your poverty.”
What’s less clear is how the pope’s current regalia matches, almost exactly, that of a Norbertine abbot.
While most church historians point to Innocent V (1276) as the first pope to wear all white — as a Dominican he apparently just kept wearing the vesture of the Order of Preachers — it wasn’t until St. Pius V (1566-72), another Dominican pope — laid down the tradition of the pope always wearing white (as distinct from the cardinaliate red.)
But to return to St. Norbert: His family was successful in the wool business. This makes for a historic component of the Norbertine habit. Wool is, naturally, a gift from the lamb — which further allows no small amount of poetic musing and symbolic associations, along with its white coloring. Not for nothing are lambs (agnus) presented to the pope on the feast of St. Agnes (a lamb-like pure virgin-martyr) so that their wool may be fashioned into the pallium — a narrow, circular band placed around the shoulders with short lappets hanging from front and back — that adorn metropolitan archbishops and patriarchs.
It’s good to remember that most religious habits were simply the clothing of the day at that particular time, slightly transformed to set apart the wearer from the laity. But traditionally the parts of a habit are:
The tunic: A garment whose origins are so old we know that Christ himself wore one. It may have been an outgrowth of the Roman toga. Button-less and often woven in one piece, the clerical version of this would be the cassock, set apart by its buttons (traditionally 33 in number, one for each year of Jesus’ life), and always black. Prelates wear a simar, which is technically not a cassock, but functions in an same sartorial vein.
The scapular: Many devout Catholics wear a truncated version of a brown (or red) scapular under their clothes. However, professed religious, including Norbertines, wear a full-length scapular over their tunic. Its lay-equivalent is the apron.
The hood: Those winter nights are cold! As with our modern-day hooded sweatshirt (“hoodies”), lay and ecclesiastic personages alike wore a hood to keep their heads warm. The hood may or may not have been part of the tunic. Or in the case of the Norbertines …
The shoulder cape: The hood may have been attached to the shoulder cape, also called a mozetta. This garment later became the province of high-ranking prelates — one still sees bishops, archbishops, and cardinals wearing them. The front has a series of small buttons running down the placket. The Norbertines have a tiny vestigial hood attached to the back of their shoulders representing that they had begun as a quasi-monastic order.
The monastic cowl: Monks — at least Benedictines — find the full expression of their final profession when they take on the monastic cowl.
The cincture/sash/fascia: Holding all of the above together, literally and figuratively, is the cincture, or belt, or sash. The pope wears a sash (fascia) with his coat of arms on the bottom of it, followed by tassels. The Norbertines — when fully professed — wear a white sash.
The zuchetta and biretta: While clerics may wear a biretta (black for priests, violet for bishops, scarlet for cardinals, while Norbertines sport a unique white one), the pope wears a white zuchetta or skull cap (though Benedict XVI brought back the ermine camauro, as had St. John XXIII). A Norbertine abbot may wear a zucchetta — but it should be black.
Back to the pope
So how did the pope go from wearing the white habit of the Dominicans to the white habit of the Norbertines? And why?
Part of the answer is the types of orders represented here: the Dominicans were a mendicant — that is to say, “begging” — order. Like their Franciscan brethren (known for their brown habits and rope-belt), they were not confined to an abbey or monastery — at least not initially: rather they went about preaching (hence the name “The Order of Friars Preachers”).
On the other side, the Norbertines were canons regular, which means they were neither monks nor parish clerics and not mendicants. They lived in an abbey and followed a common Rule, but served in parish churches. This set-up traces itself all the way back to St. Augustine and his Rule (written in the fourth century) in which he more or less established the idea if not the juridical definition of a “canon regular.”
So the Norbertine habit had elements of the monastic life (as mentioned above, the small vestigial hood), but since they were in the main clerics (and not lay-brothers) their habit was in the keeping of the style of priests — albeit in all white, right up to the white biretta!
The pope’s power comes from being the bishop of Rome. And bishops, of course, have a unique form of clothing. Coincidentally it is a vesture and accoutrements that is very much like that of an abbot (the miter, the pectoral cross, the ring, and as a sign of authority, the crozier).
Since all of the orders that wear white are either monastic (Camoldolese, Carmelite, Carthusian, Cistersian), mendicant (Dominican) or missionary (the White Fathers) they identify less with the clerical nature than with that of their order or society — except for the Canons Regular of Premontre (also known as the Norbertines) who are that unique hybrid of cleric/religious and whose identity is very much tied into that of their priesthood.
Thus as time went on (and no more Dominicans were elected pope!), the pope’s vesture retained the Dominican whiteness, while taking on the form of that of a bishop (if you think about it, the pope wears almost exactly what a bishop does, but all in white).
And the Norbertines — whose history stretches back to the 12th century, a full 100 years before the founding of the Dominicans — have always maintained not only a white habit, but one that reflected their status as priests who live in common as well.