Contemporary monks' robes follow the same design as medieval monastic habits.
Contemporary monks' robes follow the same design as medieval monastic habits.

Catholic monasteries and the monks who live in them have weathered the ups and downs of colorful historic times while embracing an architectural austerity and color palette that starkly differentiated them from society. The subdued and neutral shades of monks' robes visibly proclaimed their vows of poverty and detachment from the ornaments and distractions of this world. Different monastic orders chose distinctive hues for their habits as an additional means of advertising their particular missions and philosophies.

Evolution of Monastic Style

In early days, the habits of religious orders were somewhat of a hodgepodge. Monks wore whatever color of poor garment was available, based on donations from the faithful, local cloth and vegetable dyes, or the tradition of their monastery. Robes were gray, brown, undyed wool or a mix of dun colors. As the monasteries grew in power and prestige, traditions codified and each order identified itself with colors chosen to express the philosophy or commitment of that particular community. By the twelfth century, as monastic growth and influence was approaching its zenith, the habits of the orders had become distinctive uniforms.

Black and White Monks

Benedictines were the most organized and widespread order and, like other religious houses, they started out wearing simple undyed wool robes -- a kind of dingy white shading to dark, depending on the local sheep. Eventually they settled on black as the color for habits and became known as "the black monks." True black robes required dye so the adoption of a processed color may have signified the relative wealth of the Benedictine communities, without refuting ideals of monastic humility and simplicity by embracing an ostentatious -- and more expensive -- color like red or blue. The Carthusians, an order of mostly contemplative monks, wore undyed white wool robes with white over-tunics called scapulars or cowls. They were known as "white monks" due to the all-white habits of fully-professed Carthusian monks.

Cistercians

Cistercians follow the Rule of St. Benedict but their practices are more severe and, unlike the Benedictines, Cistercians do not wear black. Cistercian robes are undyed and range in hue from grayish-white to light brown. The undyed wool of their tunics and cowls is a mark of their poverty. Despite the fact that none of their garments are exactly white, Cistercians are also called "white monks" to distinguish them from the more worldly Benedictines.

A reform monastery of the Cistercian order is today known as Trappists wear a stark white tunic under a black scapular -- a kind of protective apron -- to signify their strict adherence to monastic life. Trappists are a relatively recent monastic order. Unlike most monasteries that were founded in the Middle Ages, the Trappist order began in the vivid and opulent seventeenth-century Renaissance, well after the dissolution of the established monasteries by Henry VIII in the fourteenth century.

Carmelites and Friars

Brown went in and out of fashion in monastic couture. The Carmelites chose brown wool and stayed with it as a reminder of the cross on which Christ was crucified and of the humility of the soil of the earth. The sturdy brown robes are held together with a leather cincture, a visible sign of the vow of chastity the monks take when entering the order.

Franciscans, itinerant mendicant preachers who are actually friars, embrace a life of poverty and their original brown robes reflected the destitution of the peasants they served. The robes of St. Francis' followers were made of cloth and old clothing donated by those peasants, who always wore undyed brown. The color brown also symbolizes the Franciscan commitment to protect the earth and nature and to contribute to society.

Dominicans are also teaching friars, not monks, who wear white tunics. Their pale robes reflect traditional garb of teachers and represent purity. Tunics are belted in black leather and their white scapular is a blessed shield of protection from the Blessed Virgin, the Mother of God, not a protective apron for their robes.