Forming habits: How costume designers create nuns' clothes

Sewing can be habit forming for Theatre Centre

More adjustments to the coif.

If you go

› What: “Sister Act, A Divine Musical.”› When: 8 p.m. Sept. 18-19; 7 p.m. Sept. 24; 8 p.m. Sept. 25-26; 2:30 p.m. Sept. 27; 7 p.m. Oct. 1; 8 p.m. Oct. 2-3; 2:30 p.m. Oct. 4.› Where: Chattanooga Theatre Centre, 200 River St.› Admission: $15 to $30 ($35 opening night).› Phone: 423-267-8534.› Website:

Elements of a typical Roman Catholic nun’s habit

* Black veil: This is worn over the coif head covering.* Habit: The central piece of the garment is also called a tunic.* Woolen belt: Often used to secure the habit around the waist.* Guimpe: A starched cloth covering the neck and shoulders.* Wimple: Cloth headdress covering the head, neck and sides of the face.* Sleeves: The habit contains two sets of sleeves. The larger can be worn folded up for work or down for ceremonial occasions or when entering a chapel.* Rosary: The rosary is hooked to the belt.* White coif: The headpiece includes the white cap, wimple and guimpe.* Scapular: The symbolic apron hangs from front and back. It is worn by all orders, though Benedictine nuns wear it over the belt.* Ring: Nuns who have taken final or “Perpetual” vows wear a simple silver ring on the left hand.* Underskirts: A complete vestment includes two underskirts, the top one made of black serge trimmed in cord and the bottom skirt of black cotton.* Shoes: Simple, yet functional shoes are the order of the day.— Source: Based on the research Scott Dunlap did when designing the habits worn by actresses in the CTC’s production of “Sister Act, A Divine Musical.”

It's possible that costume designer Scott Dunlap could have lucked upon one complete nun's habit when costuming "Sister Act, A Divine Musical" for the Chattanooga Theatre Centre.

But not 17.

Not many, if any, local stores stock wimples, guimps or scapulars, much less the other five or six pieces that make up the entire outfit. So Dunlap did what he often does for the CTC - he designed them himself and enlisted the help of half a dozen theater employees and volunteers to sew the pieces.

All told, the habits used up 127 yards of black fabric and another 40 yards of white broadcloth for the coif, veils, guimps, wimples, habits, aprons and sleeves that make up the outfits. It also took 20 500-yard spools of black and white thread.

Dunlap, who is also directing the musical that opens at the theater tonight, went to the Internet to research the design of the pieces. Not all habits are the same, of course, varying from order to order, so Dunlap focused most of his design on the one used in the original 1992 "Sister Act" film starring Whoopi Goldberg.

"It's a made-up order to begin with," he says, noting that it gave him some flexibility in his own designs since he didn't have to be too exacting.

Dunlap had to figure out how to make the white caps for the costumes, for example, and came up with what he calls "origami with fabric." He designed the caps in a headband-type pattern with three flaps that he sewed hook-and-loop material onto. The band wraps around the forehead and the flaps fold over each other to create the top. The design allows the pieces to fit different-sized heads, something Dunlap says he guessed was also an issue for Goldberg.

"The ones in the movie are bigger than others, and I think that was to accommodate Whoopi's dreadlocks."

The 17 habits aren't the only costumes used in the play either. The actresses also needed to have habits more befitting Vegas showgirls with lots of glitter and sparkles made for one number, and there also are scenes requiring 1970s-era street clothes. Dunlap found those in thrift shops or in the CTC's storage closets.

Inside the work area in the back of the CTC building, Dunlap is surrounded by racks of past costumes from the hundreds of productions the company has done over the years. There also are steam racks, washing machines and dryers and long, wide work tables. Every inch is utilized and almost nothing is ever thrown away in hopes it can be repurposed in another production.

"The thing about that, though, is the clothes have to fit. You can find the perfect piece, but if it doesn't fit, it's not any good. People aren't getting any smaller, either," he says.

"They're not getting any shorter, either," chimes in Vena Champion, the theater's wardrobe supervisor who is busy cutting fabric for the next "Sister Act" scapular to be sewed.

"And feet are getting bigger, too," she adds.

All of that means the staff must create much of what is worn onstage.

"This is about the normal amount of work," Champion says. "Each show is different, and everything has to be made."

For "Sister Act," Dunlap says his habit designs feature eight layers of clothing, including underskirts, woolen belt, holy habit, black veil, coif (the headpiece that includes the cap and wimple or guimp, which covers the neck and cheeks), scapular and sleeves.

The guimp posed a particular problem because the originals are usually two layers of fabric with the inside layer helping to keep the outside layer clean and white. One layer makes it tough for the actresses to hear, two only make it tougher. The solution was to cut out the inner layer around the ears.

Dunlap says there are several reasons why the CTC goes to the trouble of creating the costumes and making them as authentic as possible.

"Understanding the function of the costumes helps us understand the story better, and that helps us present it better," he says. "Also, it is important for us to upgrade the level of what we do as a community theater. The staff as a whole believes if you are going to do it, do it right."

As an added bonus, he says CTC veteran Beth Gumnick, who plays the Mother Superior in the play, doesn't always know what to do with her hands. Since the habit costume has no pockets or places to slip her hands, they almost automatically fall into a more "nun-like position," he says.

When all the costumes are made or purchased, the CTC will have spent between $75 and $100 per actor, Dunlap says.

"People wonder why our tickets have gone up and why it costs $30 to see a show."

Materials cost money and, while Dunlap and crew reuse sets and costumes in addition to shopping for bargains and clipping coupons as much as they can, it still adds up.

"It's fun, but it's a challenge."

Contact Barry Courter at or 423-757-6354.