Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

To discuss the question of ecclesiastical costume in any detail would be impossible in an article like the present. No topic has formed the subject of so many synodal enactments, and in almost every country and every order of the clergy we find distinctive features which might call for special treatment. Only the broad outlines can therefore be dealt with here. It may be noted, however, that the more prominent items of clerical attire, e.g. BIRETTA ; MANTELETTA; etc., have separate articles assigned to them.

History

It seems that in the early centuries of Christianity no distinctive dress was adopted by ecclesiastics. Many indications point to this conclusion, e.g. the lacerna , or birrus , and (civil) dalmatic, associated with the martyrdom of St. Cyprian. The most explicit testimony is that afforded by a letter of Pope Celestine in 428 to certain bishops of Gaul, in which he rebukes them for wearing attire which made them conspicuous, and lays down the rule that "we [the bishops and clergy ] should be distinguished from the common people [ plebe ] by our learning, not by our clothes; by our conduct, not by our dress; by cleanness of mind, not by the care we spend upon our person " ( Mansi, "Concilia", IV, 465). In the East it would seem to have been the custom for ascetics and philosophers, whether Christian or not to affect a special habit, but the Christian clergy generally did not profess asceticism in this distinctive way, and were content to wear the birrus ( byros ) like the laity about them. This usage a canon of the Council of Gangra (340), especially when it is taken in conjunction with other facts (cf. Sozomen, III, 14), distinctly approves. "If any man ", says the council, "uses the pallium [cloak] upon account of an ascetic life, and, as if there be some holiness in that, condemns those who with reverence use the birrus and other garments that are commonly worn, let him be anathema " ( Hefele - Leclercq, "Hist. des Conc.", I, 1037). At the other extremity of Christendom the documents that survive concerning St. Patrick and other early Celtic bishops present them to us as habitually dressed in the casula ( chasuble ), which was at that time not a distinctively liturgical attire, but simply an outer garment commonly worn by the humbler classes. In the sixth and following centuries we find that in Rome and in countries near Rome the civil dress of the clergy began markedly to differ from that of the laity, the reason probably being that the former adhered to the old Roman type of costume with its long tunic and voluminous cloak, representing the toga, whereas the laity were increasingly inclined to adopt the short tunic, with breeches and mantle, of the gens braccata , i.e. the Northern barbarians, who were now the masters of Italy. Probably this Roman influence made itself felt to some extent throughout Western Christendom.

The canons of the Council of Braga in Portugal (572) required the clergy to wear a vestis talaris , or tunic, reaching to the feet, and even in far-off Britain we find indications, both among the Celts and Anglo-Saxons, that undraped lower limbs were not regarded as seemly in the clergy, at any rate during their service at the altar. During the same period synodal decrees became gradually more frequent, restraining in various ways the tendency of the clergy to adopt the current fashion of worldly attire. By a German council of 742, priests and deacons are bidden to wear habitually not the sagum , or short military cloak, but the casula ( chasuble ), which even then had not become an exclusively liturgical dress. Perhaps the most interesting and significant enactment of this period is a letter of Pope John VIII (c. 875) admonishing the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to see that their clergy wore due ecclesiastical attire, and quoting the example of the English clergy in Rome who, on the eve of St. Gregory's feast, had given up their short cloaks and adopted the long Roman tunic reaching to the feet: "Apostolicæ sententia usque adeo Sedis prævaluit, ut voluntarie omnes Anglorum clerici, sub ipsis vigiliis S. Gregorii, laicalem et sinuosum, sed et curtum, habitum deponentes, talares tunicas Romanas induerent" (Jaffé-Wattenbach, Reg. RR. PP. 2995). In the East the distinction between lay and clerical costume was somewhat slower in developing than in the West, probably because the influence of the Teutonic invaders was less acutely felt. In Justinian's legislation it seems clear that a distinctive dress was recognized as belonging to monks, but there is nothing to show that any similar distinction applied to the clergy at large. The Trullan council, however, in 691 prescribed that all who were enrolled among the clergy should use at all times the robes ( stolais ) appointed for those of their profession, under pain of excommunication for a week. Furthermore from the eighth century onwards we find almost universally numerous canons passed to restrain clerics from wearing rich dresses, bright colours, and extravagant ornaments. In Germany, at Aachen, in 816 the cuculla was forbidden them, as being distinctive of monks. On the other hand, at Metz, in 888, the laity were forbidden to wear the copes ( cappas ) belonging to the clergy, while in another synod presbyters were enjoined to wear their stoles always, as an indication of their priesthood. Such a bishop as St. Hugh of Lincoln still complied with this rule in the twelfth century but at the present day the practice is peculiar to the Holy Father alone.

In the later Middle Ages the dress of the clergy was regulated by the canon law, the jus commune of the Church at large, but with many supplementary enactments passed by local synods. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) laid down the principle that clerics must wear garments closed in front and free from extravagance as to length (Clausa deferant desuper indumenta nimiâ brevitate vel longitudine non notanda. — Mansi, XXII, 1006). Ornamental appendages, cloth of red or green colour, brooches ( fibulœ ) to fasten their cloaks, and the wearing of sleeved copes (cappœ manicatœ), either at Office or at other times, are all forbidden by the same enactment. In England, the synod held under Cardinal Langton, in 1222, required that dignitaries and ordinary priests should be seen abroad becomingly attired in the "ecclesiastical habit", and should use "closed copes " ( Mansi, XXII, 1161). These cappœ clausœ seem to be prescribed as an addition to the habitus clericalis , and were perhaps now imposed upon the ordinary secular clergy for the first time. In 1237 the national council, held under the presidency of the Legate Otho, declared that lay folk were scandalized at the dress of the clergy, which was not clerical at all, but more suited to knights ( non clericalis sed potius militaris ). Offenders in future were to be punished, and the bishops were to see that all in sacred orders used garments of fitting length and wore closed copes. Somewhat later the legatine council under Ottoboni insisted that all ecclesiastics, whether in Sacred orders or not, were to wear clothes of fitting length, coming at any rate below the middle of the shin ( saltem ultra tibiarum medium attingentes ). Further, all priests and beneficed clergy were to wear closed copes, except when on a journey, or for some other just reason (Wilkins, "Concilia", II, 4). Severe penalties were enacted against transgressors, but they do not seem to have produced any lasting effect, for numerous other decrees on the same subject were passed in England at a later date, notably in 1281 and in 1342. The proper dress of the medieval clergy was therefore the vestis talaris , and over this priests and dignitaries were bidden to wear the cappa clausa . The former of these must have been a sort of cassock, but made like a tunic, i.e. not opening, and buttoning down the front. The wearing of the closed cope was no doubt often evaded by the secular clergy. Such writers as Chaucer and Langland seem to lay so much emphasis upon the copes of the friars that it is difficult to believe that this mantle, resembling a liturgical cope, but partly at least sewn up in front, was as commonly worn by secular priests. That the cope was often of considerable length may be gathered from a passage in "Piers Plowman's Crede": —

His cope that biclypped him, wel clene was it folden,
Of double-worstede y-dyght, doun to the hele.

It would seem that the closed cope has a modern representative in the cappa magna of cardinals and bishops, and also in the chimere (etymologically descended from the Italian zimarra ), the loose mantle now worn by the Anglican episcopate to which the well known lawn sleeves are attached. The wearing of a separate head-dress, or "coif", seems to have been prohibited to the inferior orders of the clergy except when on a journey; but of course doctors of theology and some other graduates had their caps of honour. Besides these we hear of the "liripipe", a sort of broad tippet or scarf sometimes drawn over the head, sometimes worn hanging loose on the shoulders. The dress of the clergy in other countries did not probably differ very greatly from that of medieval England. As already said, innumerable decrees were everywhere passed in provincial synods restraining extravagances, for every eccentric fashion — the peaked shoes, the parti-coloured dress, the headgear of flowers, the inordinately tight hose, etc. — was liable to find imitators among the clergy. One article of costume which occurs repeatedly on brasses and other funeral monuments, both in England and abroad, is the "almuce", a fur-lined tippet and hood, still retained at Rome and elsewhere by the canons of cathedral and collegiate churches, and now practically confined to them. Formerly the almuce was worn by university graduates, and many other orders of the clergy. It is probably only a warmer variant of the hood, which almost everywhere survives as part of a university academical costume, and which is the familiar adjunct of the surplice for Anglican clergymen when, officiating in the sanctuary. It will be readily understood that the indescribably cold and draughty condition of our old cathedrals rendered some such furred protection for the head and neck almost a necessity during the long hours of the night Offices. Naturally, the richness and amplitude of the fur lining varied in some measure with the dignity of the wearer. In funeral monuments the almuce is found constantly associated with the cope, also primarily a choir vestment.

Modern Usage

The modern and more centralized legislation regarding clerical costume may be considered to begin with a constitution of Sixtus V, in 1589, insisting under the severest penalties that all clerics, even those in minor orders, should uniformly wear the vestis talaris and go tonsured. Offenders were to lose all title to their benefices or any other emolument which they held. Another edict issued under Urban VIII, in 1624, goes into greater detail. It directs that the cassock should be confined with a cincture, and that the cloak worn over it should normally, like the cassock, fall as low as the ankles. The under-dress, the hose included, should be modest, and dark in colour. All embroidery and lace upon collar or cuffs is forbidden. The hat shall be of approved shape, and a simple cord or ribbon shall form its only ornament. Infringements of these regulations are to be punished with a pecuniary fine. Another important Roman decree, issued in 1708, forbade clerics to wear a perruque covering any part of the forehead or ears and, while admitting the use of shorter garments when on a journey, required such garments in all cases to extend below the knees and to exhibit no eccentricities, such as large buttons and huge pockets. In 1725 Pope Benedict XIII made the wearing of lay costume by an ecclesiastic an offence of the most serious kind, which not only, according to the Bull of Sixtus V , entailed the forfeiture of all emoluments, but denied absolution to those delinquents who did not spontaneously surrender their benefices if they had been guilty of this offence. It would seem that this extreme rigour has never been upheld in practice by the Roman Congregations with whom the execution of such decrees ultimately lies. Mgr. Barbier de Montault, for example, remarks that, although infractions of the law of ecclesiastical costume are by no means allowed to pass with impunity, and though "the Sacred Congregation of the Council is wont to support the decrees of bishops which insist upon the wearing of the cassock, still so far as concerns the question of punishment it answers 'Let the bishop proceed with moderation" (B. de Montault, "Le Costume" etc., I, 45). In English-speaking countries where the wearing of the tonsure is not obligatory, the rules affecting the costume of ecclesiastics are less rigid. The decrees on the subject of the First Synod of Westminster and the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore are in practical agreement. The latter says (§ 77), "We wish therefore and enjoin that all keep the law of the Church, and that when at home or when engaged in the sanctuary they should always wear the cassock [ vestis talaris ] which is proper to the clergy. When they go abroad for duty or relaxation, or when upon a journey, they may use a shorter dress, but still one that is black in colour, and which reaches to the knees, so as to distinguish it from lay costume. We enjoin upon our priests as a matter of strict precept, that both at home and abroad, and whether they are residing in their own diocese or outside of it, they should wear the Roman collar." The general introduction of the use of bicycles among the clergy has brought about a somewhat laxer practice regarding the length of the upper garments worn out of doors and the Second Synod of Maynooth (1900) has recently found it necessary to insist, for Ireland, upon certain restrictions in this matter.


More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Second Thessalonians 3:6-10, 16-18
6 In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we urge you, ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 128:1-2, 4-5
1 [Song of Ascents] How blessed are all who fear ... Read More

Gospel, Matthew 23:27-32
27 'Alas for you, scribes and Pharisees, you ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for August 27th, 2014 Image

St. Monica
August 27: St. Monica was married by arrangement to a pagan official in ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter