In the relentlessly patriarchal society of New Spain, there was no place for a girl genius. Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648–1695) was a prodigy: she could read and write by the age of three, was fluent in Latin by the age of ten, and by her late teens was famous for her brilliance in mathematics, theology, Greek logic, and history. Yet there was no career open to her, no university she could attend. Juana became a nun because the convent was the only place a woman could pursue the life of the mind.

And pursue it she did: for 25 years Sor Juana poured out a torrent of stunningly brilliant poems, plays, and letters, all the while battling with church authorities over whether women should be allowed to think. Today she is revered as the first great poet of Latin America and the first feminist of the New World.

Our costume is based on the famous portrait by Miguel Cabrera showing Sor Juana in the distinctive habit of her order. The inset is a photo of the charming wax figure of Juana in the Museo de Cera (Wax Museum) of Guanajuato. The most obviously recognizable component is the escudo de monja (nun’s shield) worn on the front of the habit, just under the face. This was a big papier-mâché medallion featuring a religious scene of the nun’s choosing. Fortunately, it’s very easy to create a replica: all it takes is a paper plate, some glue, and a color printout of a painting (see below). The costume pieces we suggest, from left to right:

1. Full-length dagged sleeve chemise in white. Also available here. The nuns of the Order of San Jerónimo wore a white habit with very long flowing sleeves; this medieval chemise is the best match we’ve found. The nuns’ sleeves actually had narrow cuffs inside the flowing part, so wear something with long white sleeves underneath your chemise to get the effect. Note that this chemise is cut very loose, and the ribbons shown on the mannequin in the picture are not included. The nuns girded their waists with a black cincture, so some kind of black leather or rope belt will work fine.
2. Black table runner to use as scapular. This is an incredibly cheap and convenient way to get the look of a scapular, which is the rectangle of fabric worn over the shoulders to hang down like a panel in the front and back. These table runners are 12 x 108 inches, which is perfect. Just fold in half and cut a hole in the middle for your head. And since they’re already nicely finished all around, this is easier than using raw fabric off a bolt. To cover up your hole-cutting handiwork, we recommend wearing the scapular under the headcovering (next).
3. White headscarf. Another easy solution: this one-piece headcovering will give you the look of a nun’s coif and wimple.
4. Black round tablecloth to use as veil. Yeah, we like the table linen approach. It’s cheap, convenient, and the fabric is opaque and already hemmed. A 70-inch round tablecloth, folded in half, will give you an excellent half-circle nun’s veil.
5. Jumbo costume rosary. Not a real rosary. Suspend from your belt, as we show, or wear as a necklace. Sor Juana’s rosary stretched from neck to ankle (how many decades is that?), but we can’t find one quite that huge.
6. Escudo de monja. The Cabrera portrait shows Sor Juana wearing a medallion of the Annunciation, but there’s reason to believe she actually preferred an image of the Immaculate Conception. This antique escudo is similar to what she might have worn:

We’ve scaled this to 7 inches, so if you print it out true-to-size, it will fit right inside a paper plate. If you get a gold paper plate, you can use the outer rim as an extra frame. Just use a glue stick to paste the printout inside the plate. For extra credit, get some Mod Podge and decoupage over everything to give it a unified, lacquered look (be sure you do this only after the printout is fully dry, otherwise the ink will smear). You can also add texture by piercing the rim of the paper plate with a series of metal brads.

To wear the escudo, just tape a piece of string on the back (or tie a piece of string to the brads) and use a safety pin to suspend it from your habit.

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