The earliest attire of the Daughters of Charity was modeled on the peasant dress of 17th century France. Vincent de Paul insisted by the Sisters’ clothing be uniform everywhere, and he addressed the subject often in his letters and in his conferences to the Sisters.
One concern of Vincent’s was the potential for a lack of unity within the Company. In 1656 a Sister wrote to Louise asking to wear a serge headdress, which was a local custom. Louise shared the letter with Vincent. In his response, Vincent noted it was typical for persons in consecrated life to wear the same attire; the Daughters of Charity should be no different.
“Furthermore you would cause division in your Company, which should be uniform everywhere; for, if in Arras the women wear one sort of headdress, in Poland-or even in France itself-will wear another, If, then, you follow these fashions, diversity will be the result. Do not the Capuchins and Recollects go everywhere dressed in the same way? Does the difference of their habits from the ordinary dress of the people where they live, or the shame of wearing such coarse fabric, or of going barefoot, as they do, cause them to change what they wear? The Church itself is so exact in wanting priests to be dressed suitably at all times that, if a priest lays aside his cassock, she declares him an apostate of the habit.” [note 1]
For Vincent, the lack of unity was something to be avoided because of the potential for envy within the Community that it would cause. In his conference of August 5, 1657, Vincent noted that cloistered nuns do not have any choice in how they dress; the order makes the attire and provides the nuns with everything they need. While the Daughters were not nuns, Vincent advises the Sisters to
“admire the guidance of Providence, which has established this holy custom among you that you do not purchase your own clothes or have any different from the others; for you can’t imagine the envy that’s caused when a Sister is seen dressed differently from the others … That’s why you must thank God, the Author of all your Rules and of this one in particular, which obliges you to have nothing for your own use but what the Superioress, or the Siter whose duty it is to make provision for poverty, gives you”. [note 2]
Vincent devotes his conference of June 24, 1654 to the subject of envy. In it, he warns the Sisters that disunity within the Company of the Daughters of Charity will breed envy, and that envy will ultimately tear down the community:
… the opposite of charity is envy. A Sister who has this spirit, instead of being the daughter of God that she was, becomes a daughter of the demon, a daughter of perdition. What a misfortune to become the daughter of the devil! You see, the executioner of the Daughters of Charity is envy, which causes us to be angry when we see our Sister better cared for during her illness, or sought after in a parish because she does so much good, or better dressed than we are. For that’s what envy does. As soon as a Sister reaches that point, say, ‘She’s no longer a Daughter of Charity; she’s divested of the interior habit, which is the love of God and of the neighbor.’ Ah! but we have our attire! Poor Sister, it’s not the dress that makes you a Daughter of Charity; it’s the interior habit of the soul.” [note 3]
In addition to the dangers of disunity and envy, another reason for Vincent’s insistence on uniform attire is that, if the community provides what a Daughter of Charity needs, the Sister is then freed of attachments. Sisters must be completely given to God and to serving the poor. Whatever a Sister is attached to, whether it is an article of clothing, a person, or even a place where she is serving, detracts from total devotion to God and service to God in the person of the poor. Vincent addressed this in his conference of June 6, 1656
“Here, in the words of Our Lord, is another reason for not having any attachment: ‘Where your treasure is, there is your heart. ‘ So, according to that, your dress or the shoes to which your heart is attached is your treasure. You may say, ‘But it’s only a headdress, a dress, or a parish for which I feel an affection.’ No matter! The Sister who is attached to something in the way we’ve just mentioned has her treasure there. She thinks of it often; it’s her delight to be in this place; she desires nothing else than to keep what she possesses; so much so that her treasure is there, and her heart is with her treasure, from which it can’t be detached without a very special grace.” [note 4]
The rules expressed by Vincent concerning the Sisters’ clothing, like everything Vincent and Louise did, had the ultimate purpose of preparing the Sisters to go out and serve the poor. The cornette, however, was not a standardized part of the Sisters’ attire until 1685. This change will be the subject of Part 3.
note 1. Vincent de Paul, Letter #2160, To Sister Marguerite Chetif, Sister Servant, in Arras, October 21, 1656. CCD v.6, p.129
note 2. Vincent de Paul, Conference #82: The Use of Things Placed at the Disposal of the Sisters (Common Rules, Art. 9). August 5, 1657. CCD v.10, p.240
note 3. Vincent de Paul, Conference # 60: Envy. June 24, 1654. CCD v.9 p.552.
note 4. Vincent de Paul, Conference # 73 Indifference (Common Rules, Art. 5). June 6, 1656. CCD v.10 p.139.