A religious habit refers to a particular set of garments worn by adherents of religious orders. For Roman Catholic nuns, this has traditionally included a veil that partially covers the wearer's face. Most veils are either black or white and are attached to a cotton cap known as a coif.
In Christianity, the requirement for women to wear veils in church is based on the writing of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:4-16. The traditional black veil Roman Catholic nuns wear is based on those Christian women wore in medieval Europe. Despite many orders no longer requiring the veil to be worn, women who are training to become nuns are still said to be "taking the veil."
Novice nuns in orders such as the Sisters of Life Convent of the SUNY Maritime Campus wear all-white veils while they study Catholic theology and ministry for up to two years. Becoming a fully-fledged nun with a black veil takes an additional four to eight years, during which time the novice will serve the convent's mission and make her final vows.
The nursing habits of orders such as the Felicians, the Sisters of Charity and the Sisters of Mercy all feature white veils. Other orders, such as the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Mankato, Minn., do not mandate a habit and associated veil. Although orders such as the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word and the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary may wear tunics of various colours, the veil is always black.
Although the numbers of Catholic nuns have been steadily declining since 1965, this trend has been slowing as a new wave of younger women choose to enter convents. Many of these young recruits choose to wear a form of black veil, despite the introduction of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which states that women have not been required to cover their heads in church. According to the author of "Unveiled: Inside the Hidden Lives of Nuns," these nuns view the black veil as a public expression of their faith. Nuns who do not wear the veil may opt for a plain dark dress adorned with a pin.