Figure 1 - Cistercian Monk

A feature of love that gives it its gravitas is the promise of commitment. You promise to be present in another person’s life through their ups and downs. It involves that risk of love that Alain Badiou talks about. “inasmuch as love is a pleasure almost everyone is looking for, the thing that gives meaning and intensity to almost everyone’s life, I am convinced that love cannot be a gift given on the basis of a complete lack of risk.’ (Badiou 2012, 6-7). In religion, love and commitment involves sacrificing simple pleasures and taking risks. A monk would have to sacrifice a life of socialising and creating a family for a life of solitude. Every monk commits their lives to the monastic order as they believe in a higher form of love. Singularly every monk prays, reads and eats but their collective presence is felt in the uniformity of their clothing and the repetitive, simple life they practice. A monk is meant to embody the spirit of the collective rather than an attempt to individually shine. The robe becomes a signifier of this as it reflects sameness and resonates the austere life a monk is supposed to live by. 

The appearance of the robe goes hand in hand with the ideology that it is embedded in. In Language and Fashion, Roland Barthes describes what fashion means to him. He says “For me fashion is indeed a system. Contrary to the myth of improvisation, of caprice, of fantasy, of free creativity, we can see that fashion is strongly coded. (Stafford and Barthes 2006, 94). Though they are an exterior manifestation of the ideology practiced, they contribute to the creation of the ideology itself. When worn by the individual, he personally interacts with the ideology through the material and style of the garment, reminding him of his purpose and beliefs. 



The Cistercian Monks of Tarrawarra Abbey, Australia, practice a form of Catholicism but emphasise more on living a simple life of contemplation. They practice a self – independent way of life that is governed by praying during the day. The act of praying is meant to steady the mind and create a path that is closer to god. The dress worn by the monks while praying is a long robe known as the cowl. It is a heavy long robe with long sleeves. Father Casey of the Cistercian order in an interview with Laura Gardener describes the cowl as ‘It’s a contemplative garment and meant to be impractical – you can’t run in it for instance. It slows you down and you can’t do much in the way of work as a result of the long sleeves…When you make your commitment as a monk, after five or six years of probation, you are officially clothed in this garment. The experience of being enveloped by the cowl signifies being brought into monastic life. You become a part of the fabric. The actual experience for the wearer is to be enveloped, and it induces a thoughtful, sober mood.’  (Gardner n.d.)

The medieval garment stands out when worn outside but inside the church the long gowns fit naturally within the Cistercian ethos of slowness and mindfulness. The cowl, like the bible, acts as a guide to the monks who are sincere about learning the Cistercian way of life.


The Kasaya robes worn by the Buddhist monks in China were closer to the body and one could move more freely in them. The three -part costume consists of a piece of cloth that covers the lower half of the body (antarvasa), the upper garment (uttarasaiiga) draped over the left shoulder and outer robe (sartighati) that accompanies it for public occasions. They are symbolic of the renunciation of anger, greed and ignorance. Together, the ensemble represents the monk’s austere way of living. 

The cowls used by the Cistercian monks inculcates a slower rhythm to life. Here, the costume causes no hindrance to movement but the material used is symbolic of Buddhist doctrines. In medieval China, the use of silk in monasteries became a topic of discussion. How ethical was it to use silk for clothing that represented an austere way of life? Silk was an item readily available in China. It flowed in and out of every house as it was bartered, taxed, traded and gifted. Monasteries received pieces of silk and they were used as banners, tapestries and to wrap sacred objects. Silk was considered auspicious and symbolic of abundance. The silkworm itself was seen as a mysterious creature of transformation; an ideal in Buddhist ideology. However, the killing of the silkworm was seen as an act that didn’t uphold Buddhist ideals as the practice of compassion and respecting all creatures seemed to be lacking. 

When a couple of Bikshus entered a sericulture household to order for new beddings of silk to be made, the lay people around were shocked and retorted how could monks be a part of a higher religious order when they entertain the thought of killing silkworms for their comfort?  Most Buddhist doctrines such as the Saravastivada and Mulasarvastivada permitted the use of silk as long as it was recycled, or gifted. It is the non- monastic community that strived for the banning of silk that put pressure on the monasteries. The famous politician Shen Yue in his ‘Treatise on Ultimate Compassion’ stressed on the banning of silk. He argued that the same compassion that is practiced for animals should be implied here as well. He believed one need not be a part of the monastic sect to be a true devotee of Buddhist teachings. 

 Daoxuan, a monk drew from Shen Yue’s ideas and reinforced the banning of silk. To maintain the distinctive nature of the monastery he believed that only monks should be banned from wearing silk. Since the Nirvana Sutra considered silk a material fit for weaker beings, it was inappropriate for monks (who were/ are higher religious beings) to wear it. A young man named Yijing was one of the biggest contenders of opposition to Daoxuan’s banning of silk.  He said, ‘"Why should we reject the silk that is so easily obtained and seek the fine linen that is difficult to procure?" Further, the use of any kind of fabric, including cotton, at some level involved the taking of life, as worms and such are killed when the fields are cultivated.’ (Kieschnick 1999, 22-23). 

The debate around the use of silk brings to light the questions around ethics, austerity and the appearance of an ascetic. Do the ethics of killing silkworms matter more than the use of silk that defines Chinese culture? Who decides this? The Chinese robe signifies the growing debates around Chinese Buddhism versus Buddhism practiced in India. 

Clothing could then be read as an expression of identity and commitment within religious sensibilities. There are many languages through which love can be understood.  Can it be translated literally? Perhaps not. Instead, its essence would be retained no matter what sect or religion one belongs to. The robe embodies a series of normative  meanings and when worn those meanings are felt by the wearer. Be it the cowl or the kasaya, these robes are worn by a collective. The robes act as mirrors reflecting the doctrines that those of the monastery must practice. To live a committed life, means wearing clothes that are embedded in societal codes. 



Written by Rukmini Swaminathan. 

Rukmini is a researcher at The Registry of Sarees. She is interested in textile, design and architecture history and hopes to explore  her interests through these journal entries.


Badiou, Alain. 2012. In Praise of Love. London. London: Serpent's tail.

Gardner, Laura. n.d. "The Contemplative Life; On Slowing Down Production By Elongating Wear." Accessed March 7th, 2020.

Heirman, Ann. 2014. "Washing and Dyeing Buddhist Monastic Robes." Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae , Vol. 67, No.4 467- 488.

Kieschnick, John. 1999. "The Symbolism of the Monk's Robe in China." Asia Major , Third Series, Vol. 12, No. 1 (University of Hawai'i Press) . 9-32.

Stafford, Andy , and Roland Barthes. 2006. The Language of Fashion. Oxford: Berg.

Young, Stuart H. 2017. ""Bald-headed Destroyers of Living Things": Buddhist Identity in the Silk Cultures of Medieval China." Asia Major, Third Series, Vol. 30, No. 2 27-70.


 Image References


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