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Clergy Apparel Trends
By: Jason Gaspard

Clergy apparel and religious vestments have a long history in the church, dating back thousands of years. Over the centuries, designs have vacillated from ornate, elaborately detailed pieces to simple, plain garments, depending on a variety of influences. Besides the traditions they represent, vestments are meant to symbolize the glory of Christ and remind the congregation that clergy are not acting on their own personal authority, but on that of the church.

While the basic styles and shapes of clergy and choir apparel have not changed much in recent years, there are always fresh designs that incorporate different fabrics, trims, embroidery, and adornments. The inspirations for new ideas may come from ancient symbols, church leaders, architectural details, special material and trims, or even nature.

If you are looking for new options, there are many resources online, and most clergy apparel manufacturers also produce catalogs that may help you find ideas. And, if you are working with a custom vestment maker, you can even design your own pieces.

Symbolic Traditions, Environment, and Tastes Guide Choices
When new clergy begin serving at a church, this may spur interest in updating vestments. Over time, vestments will wear with use and fabric colors may eventually fade, requiring repair or replacement. If a church is remodeling its sanctuary, oftentimes it also evaluates its paraments (such as banners, hangings, pulpit/lectern pieces, etc.) and, along with those, its clergy apparel.

Of course, each religion has its own doctrines and policies for clergy apparel; these are usually guided by church officials. Naturally, those standards shape the choices of clergy.

In addition, each church has its own process that influences choices as well. For example, sometimes an alter guild or other committee is responsible for selecting, purchasing, and maintaining vestments; in other cases, the pastor or priest will select the garments.

Personal tastes and comfort also come into play. Some prefer traditional styles, while others gravitate more toward the contemporary, and still others enjoy a mix.

Another trend affecting religious apparel is that deacons are playing a more active role in many churches. Deacons and their spouses are usually responsible for purchasing their own vestments. Many of the guidelines that apply to priests or pastors also apply to deacons.

Colors Are Meaningful
Colors are also important when it comes to clergy apparel choices. Make sure you understand their significance for your religion. The following is a quick overview of the meaning of colors in Christian traditions; it is not all-inclusive, but offers basic guidelines.

White symbolizes virtue, holiness, purity, respect, and reverence and is used for all Holy Days and festival days of the Church Year, including Christmas and Easter. It's also used for weddings, baptisms, dedications, and for funerals as a symbol of the resurrection.

Gold is often used with white during the seasons of Christmas and Easter as it symbolizes preciousness, value, majesty, and joy. Because of its brightness, it also symbolizes the presence of God.

Blue signifies royalty and represents the night sky in which a star appeared to announce the birth of Jesus. It is increasingly used for Advent in Protestant churches to distinguish it from Lent, which is traditionally represented with purple.

Purple is used during the Season of Lent, because it can symbolize pain, suffering, and penitence. It is also a color of royalty and is used for Advent in Catholic churches.

Red is the liturgical color for Pentecost. It represents fire and the presence of God. Considered as the color of the church, it can also be a symbol for the blood of martyrs. It is used in the Roman Catholic Church for Palm Sunday, in some traditions to commemorate special days for martyrs or saints, and for the ordination of ministers or priests.

Rose represents happiness and joy and is an alternate color for the Third and Fourth Sunday of Advent.

Green is used for the Season of Epiphany between Transfiguration Sunday and the beginning of Lent as well as for Ordinary Time between Trinity Sunday (first Sunday after Pentecost) and the beginning of Advent. It connotes renewal of vegetation and the promise of new life.

Old Styles Are New Again
During the last decade, more traditional styles have become more popular again, perhaps due to various church influences. For example, there has been a renewed interest in an older-style chasubles commonly known as "Roman" or "fiddle back" chasubles. Chasubles are the outer vestments worn by clergy in Catholic, Episcopal, Methodist, and some other Protestant churches. These pendant-style designs were used almost universally in the 18th century. Some clergy favor them because they are lighter weight.

In many Christian faiths, wardrobe basics for clergy conducting worship include a basic white alb, which is a floor-length, long-sleeved robe (you might want to have two, in case one is being cleaned). Over the alb, a stole and sometimes a chasuble are worn. While there are many different styles from which to choose, there are four important colors that are worn to coincide with the liturgical calendar: white, green, red, and purple.

Tips for Maximizing Your Investment
Because economic factors are a determinant for many churches, it's more important than ever to plan purchases carefully. This will help to ensure that your expectations are met and you are getting the best value for your money.

Here are a few tips to help you with the vestment selection process:

* Use supplier catalogs and websites as a planning resource to generate ideas.
* If there is a group or committee involved in the purchase, make sure all of the decision makers are in agreement prior to ordering.
* Consider the life of the garments. Will they be worn frequently or only for special services or ceremonies?
* Consider the style of your church. Is it contemporary or more traditional?
* Request fabric samples so you can see the quality, color, and weave of the fabric.
* Request garment samples so you can examine the craftsmanship.
* Review the supplier's size information carefully. To ensure accuracy, it's best to have someone other than the person wearing the garment take the measurements.
* Ask your supplier for guidance; they likely work with many churches and can offer advice and ideas to you.

To offset the cost of acquiring religious apparel, churches often use special donations or fundraisers. Parishioners may choose to purchase a vestment to honor or memorialize a family member or friend. A special label can be sewn into the vestment to celebrate the gift. This opportunity could be made known through a church bulletin or during announcement readings.

How to Ensure Quality
Once you have an idea of what you'd like to purchase and have samples in hand, you can determine if the quality meets your needs and the colors are what you have in mind. While natural fibers such as wool or linen used to signify higher quality, over the years, synthetic fabrics have improved dramatically and offer great draping qualities and long, dependable wear. Items that are lined tend to be more durable and also will hold their shape better. Whatever material is used, it is critical to practice proper care to maximize the life of the garment.

Keep in mind that changes in the overall garment industry are making it more difficult to find high-quality fabrics and re-order specific colors. If you'd like several coordinating pieces, you may want to order them at the same time to make certain that the fabric color matches.

Also consider whether your church may be interested in coordinating pieces, such as banners, alter cloths, and Bible markers. Many vestment makers offer these, and they will provide a consistent look that adds a special touch to ceremonies and celebrations at your church.

New Technologies Enhance Tradition
Craftsmanship and attention to detail are critical to creating long-lasting pieces. When you combine those old-world traditions with new technology advances in embroidery equipment, it's possible to create extremely detailed embroidery embellishments that were never before feasible. These new developments also enable consistency when multiple or repeat items need to be ordered.

Protecting Your Vestments
To keep your vestments in optimal condition for years to come, follow the maker's cleaning instructions carefully. If it is a dry-clean-only garment, make sure your dry cleaner is experienced in caring for embellished garments and does not use chemicals that would harm your pieces. If it is a hand-wash-only vestment, do not dry clean it.

Storage is equally important. Whether it is a choir robe, alb, cassock or chasuble, keep it out of direct sunlight to avoid fading. To protect it from dust, store it in a garment bag.

Finally, the way you hang your vestment may also affect how well it keeps its shape. Use a hanger that is sturdy enough to support your garment without sagging.

With so many choices available in style, fabric, color, trim, and embroidery, enjoy the opportunity to apply your creativity and traditions to the celebration of worship through your clergy and choir apparel.

Jason Gaspard is president of Gaspard, Inc., a Wisconsin-based custom vestment manufacturer, www.gaspardinc.com.

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Religious Product News