Clergy Apparel Then & Now
By: Stephen Fendler
With the change of seasons, we are all bombarded by ads reminding us that, in the secular world, the wheel of fashion turns faster and faster. Novelty, excitement, and sex appeal are primary drivers in the development of styles for the mass market. But clergy people are bound to put aside these distractions. Their mission is to call people to God, to see them through life's passages, and to teach eternal truths. This sets the clergy apart from the general population.
Clergy in many Christian denominations have learned that the clothing they wear signifies. It marks them as a person of the Word. At its best, it is more traditional, distinctive, and dignified than secular clothing. For these reasons, styles in clergy apparel change slowly, but they do evolve! Let's explore some interesting changes in clergy apparel over the past century and some factors that affect those developments.
From Cassock to Clergy Shirt
In the early years of the century, among Anglican and Protestant clergy, the cassock gradually gave way to the more common and practical jacket and trouser outfit. To retain what had become the standard clerical collar appearance, clergymen adopted waistcoats or vests made with the same mandarin collar styles as on their cassocks. The clergy vest then evolved further into the simpler rabat, a shirt front with a clerical collar and a belt, secured to the body at the neck and waist.
At the same time the popularity of the detachable shirt collar was having an effect on clerical apparel, it made the clergy shirt possible. Invented in Troy, New York, in the 1820s, the detachable collar had become a standard element in men's secular clothing. Washed, starched, and held to the shirt with collar studs, it was not especially comfortable, but it was clean and neat.
In the 1890s, the detachable collar invented in New York was adapted for clerical use by a minister in the Scottish Presbyterian church. Worn with a black shirt, the detachable, all-white collar became standard clergy look in Anglican and Protestant denominations. The collar itself has undergone changes. It started as a piece of starched linen. Later, to improve durability and make them easier to care for, they were made by laminating a piece of cotton between layers of acetate. Today, the most popular styles are made of flexible polyethylene that is long lasting and very easy to care for.
Knowing Catholic clergy preferred the look of the cassock collar, tailors developed two new products, the collarette and the tab-collar shirt to meet their needs. The collarette (or collaro) is a narrow black cloth "sandwich" that holds the white detachable collar and is attached to the shirt with collar studs. The tab-collar shirt eliminates the detachable collar altogether. It is made with a collar in the same color as the shirt, which, when folded down and sewn to the shirt body, forms a tunnel that is open in the front. A narrow piece of flexible white plastic can be inserted into the tunnel created by the collar, leaving a white tab in front that appears like the white notch in a cassock collar. The comfort and convenience of the tab-collar shirt have made it the most popular style worn by Catholic priests and clergy from many other denominations, as well.
The move away from the cassock as a required Mass vestment also created changes in another traditional garment, the white alb. The alb had always been worn over the cassock during the worship service, and, accordingly, it was very lightweight and loose fitting. Now, the alb would be worn over conventional street clothing and a clergy shirt, and new designs were created that use somewhat heavier, more opaque fabrics and also collars that hide the clergy shirt, pockets, and other features. The most successful of these is based on the ancient Roman tunic and is called the cassock-alb, as it combines the functions of those two garments.
Though not required for regular wear in most dioceses, the cassock certainly has not disappeared from use in the Catholic Church. In 1969, Pope Paul VI promulgated new standards for cassocks and other vestments worn by Catholic priests, monsignors, and bishops. In the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, the new rules eliminated some of the excessively luxurious fabrics and trimmings that had gradually been adopted by some prelates over the years. And, they standardized the forms and colors of the garments to be worn by members of a given level in the hierarchy. The result is a collection of traditional styles that remain distinctive yet are more uniform, sober, and dignified.
Pentecostal Churches and Apparel in the Anglican Tradition
Change and Continuity
Evolving standards of style and technology drive change. The tastes and preferences of people, or even entire denominations, who are new to the clergy apparel tradition also spur a degree of innovation. Yet important values endure. Clergy people require special clothing that is emblematic of their pastoral ministry.
Distinctive yet conservative clothing set clergy people apart, declaring their special calling and claiming the community's regard. For this reason, as styles evolve, we expect the symbolic clergy collar to abide as an essential element in the clerical wardrobe.
Stephen Fendler, is president of CM Almy, outfitters to the church and clergy, www.almy.com.