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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
At the start of the 20th century, the traditional cassock was the accepted everyday dress for Catholic, Anglican, and many other clergymen. Like many items in the clerical wardrobe, the cassock was at one time a common robe worn by all men. In the 1200s, as more non-clergymen joined university faculties, the clergy distinguished themselves by retaining the cassock, while secular teachers adopted the square-yoked, open front gown we know today as an academic or Protestant preaching gown. The long, gown-like cassock, usually black, had a mandarin-style collar. It was worn over a white linen or cotton shirt with its own standing collar or neck cloth. This arrangement of the black mandarin cassock collar over the white shirt collar is the origin of the distinctive appearance of the clergy collar we know today.

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.

Noble Simplicity
The liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the mid-to-late 1960s had a profound effect on clerical apparel and vesture, in the Catholic Church, and in many other Christian denominations. Priests were formally encouraged to wear trousers and a vest, rabat or shirt rather than a cassock when in public, and were no longer required to wear a cassock in church when celebrating the Mass.

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.

Clergy Blouses
Building on the tradition of a number of the groups that formed it, the United Methodist Church has ordained women since 1968, and, in the last 40 years, the number of women serving as priests, elder, pastors, and deacons has grown tremendously. Initially, women took a conservative, even cautious, approach to the clergy shirts they wore, favoring black, man-cut styles. Clergy women are still conscious that their clothing should be modest and dignified. Yet they are seeking more feminine styles, fabrics, and colors, and many clerical tailors are happily taking up the challenge of creating fresh interpretations of the clerical tradition for women.

Pentecostal Churches and Apparel in the Anglican Tradition
Another notable development in the evolution of clergy apparel is the recent embrace by Pentecostal churches of clothing and ceremonial vesture that first appeared the 19th century Anglican Church. Encouraged by the Joint College of African American Pentecostal Bishops and by the Church of God in Christ, Pentecostal clergy are wearing clergy shirts and vests every day. For worship, bishops are wearing the traditional Anglican choir outfit of cassock, rochet, chimere and scarf, sometimes in new color combinations, but always with the solemn dignity those vestments impart.

Change and Continuity
We have seen that clergy apparel evolves over time. Clergy, like all people, appreciate the comfort, convenience, and economy that new styles and technology provide. Thus, the general adoptions of trousers instead of cassocks as daily wear led to the development of the clergy shirt. The creation of synthetic fibers in mid-20th century revolutionized the textile industry and introduced fabrics that are more durable, wrinkle resistant, color fast and economical than traditional materials. And, development of standard sizing and patterns, allowing multiple garments to be cut at once, has made apparel production more efficient and helped maintain the affordability of the very specialized styles worn by clergy.

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.

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