Originally Posted by Shantimama
Religious who are less traditional still share many of the traditions that people say they want. They still live communally, only maybe in a house of just a few women integrated into a neighbourhood instead of with dozens or hundreds of women in a convent that is separate from the neighbourhood. These communities still engage in common prayer, praying the liturgy of the hours together every day.
As for the habit, the garments that we now refer to as religious habits were not something that set religious women apart from society when they were first worn. Nuns wore the common garb of the day and went into the community, caring for the poor and sick, wearing what the widows of the day would wear so they could be left alone to travel in the streets and not be bothered. For some reason the tradition became to wear the same garments as the founding members of religious communities wore, not to dress with the same purpose in mind. That is why some religious congregations stopped wearing habits. They looked into the histories of their founders and changed some customs to be more faithful to what their founders intended.
I'm not sure this is a totally true picture. As far as clothes for various monastic and other orders, it is the case that they usually reflected the clothing of the day. But they weren't just random assortments - they were a uniform that identified the members as belonging to a certain group. And they continued to wear them even when they began to be "uncommon" clothing as such.
Groups that decided to abandon that dress did so for a variety of reasons, and some went to a modified habit that was less difficult to maintain, less expensive, and more practical for certain activities. As far as I can see this has worked well. Or there are newer orders like the Sisters of Charity who took a similar POV, and chose readily available, inexpensive fabric, appropriate to the climate, and wore it in the local style. But, it is definitely a habit, and you can see they are sisters of a particular order right away.
Now some other groups decided to do away with uniforms, except for something like a cross. This seems to have had somewhat mixed success - in some types of work it was probably sensible. But it also reduced the visibility of the orders to a large extent - wearing a cross, even prominently, does not tell many people that this person has a special vocation. And I think for some it has tended to cut off one possible link to the past, and to their own history - especially when other changes happened that also tended to have the same effect. And any kind of uniform has a psychological effect that can be quite profound.
And there were other changes that didn't always have great effect. For example, many sisters and brothers had restrictions lifted on the amount of time that could be spent among the laity working, on what were acceptable reasons to be away from the daily prayers and meals of the group, or for traveling away, and they were often given more responsibilities in the world. This was seen as a good thing, strengthening their missions.
But it has actually not been entirely positive - what many groups have found is that they have ceased to be a group or community to the same degree, that the prayer life which anchored their work is undermined, and then the work itself is undermined.
A lot of groups are having a look again at their purpose, their way of life, and are seeing that some of the rules they thought were outmoded actually had a very well thought out rational. It's probably a very healthy activity I think, and perhaps in some ways a lesson in humility.