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Vestments and Clericals

Vestment is the term for the special clothing worn by the people who conduct a worship service. Vestments have their origin in the ordinary street clothes of the first century, but have more or less remained the same as clothing fashions have changed. (Most Bible translations are not consistent with the names of articles of clothing, and in some translations, people go around wearing ‘garments.’ The original text is consistent and more specific.)

Today, vestments are designed to be worn over street clothes and serve a number of practical purposes: they conceal the distractions of fashionable street clothing, they remove any consideration of what constitutes appropriate attire, and they remind the congregation that the ministers are not acting on their own, but performing in their official capacities. Vestments are in almost universal use, although in some churches only the choir wears vestments. Common vestments include albs, chasubles, robes, and surplices. People commonly think that cassocks are vestments, but they are really just old-fashioned street clothes that are worn under vestments.

If you are ordained clergy, you can read my wardrobe recommendations.

Clerical is the term to describe the distinctive street clothing that clergy wear, such as black shirts with white collars. The shirt can be any color, but the public often does not perceive it as a clergy shirt unless it is black. There are two kinds, neckband shirts and tab-collar shirts.

You can learn about altar linens and paraments elsewhere.

Picture of an albAlb
An alb, called a sticharion in Orthodox churches, is a plain, lightweight, ankle-length tunic with long sleeves. It is generally worn with a rope cincture around the waist. The word alb is short for the Latin phrase tunica alba, which means white tunic; accordingly, albs are usually made of white or undyed fabric.

In the first century, the tunic was the first article of clothing that you put on in the morning. Working-class people wore knee-length tunics, while older people and people with less active occupations wore ankle-length tunics. It was possible to wear more than one tunic at a time for warmth, but it was considered gauche to wear a tunic without a cincture.

The tunic was originally sleeveless. Greeks and Romans thought sleeves were barbaric because barbarians wore them. (The barbarians lived in colder climates.) Tunics did not acquire sleeves until the third century, when a Roman Emperor came back from a military campaign wearing a tunic with sleeves—much to the horror of the fashion mavens of the day. A modern alb has sleeves because we need to cover street clothing that has sleeves.

In the first century, most people wore a himation over their tunics. The himation was a rectangular garment that was wrapped around the upper body. The designs on the himation, as well as its color and quality, varied depending on the wearer’s sex, occupation, and social status. Because of the relatively precarious way it was worn and the way it hindered movement, people had to remove it when they were engaged in certain physical activities. For example, when blind Bartimaeus ran to Jesus in Mark 10:46-52, he threw off his himation. Matthew 9:20-22 tells about a woman who was healed when she touched the hem of Jesus’ himation. In Revelation 3:5, 3:18, and 4:4 people are given white himatia. Perhaps the writer of Revelation wanted us to think of people who had received a white tunic at their baptism now receiving an elegant and triumphant white himation to wear over it. The himation never became a church vestment, probably because as servants, the clergy would have to remove it anyway.

Scripture tells us that Jesus wore a himation over a tunic (‘tunic’ is χιτων in Greek) to the crucifixion. The soldiers tore the himation in four pieces, but because the tunic was woven in one piece, they cast lots for it. Jesus’ tunic would have been sleeveless and ankle-length—it was the same kind of tunic that the high priest wore when he entered into the Holy of Holies to atone for the sins of the people. Ancient writings from that period refer to seamless tunics, but the technology for weaving them that way was lost in the fall of the Roman Empire.

In the first four centuries of the Church, people were baptized in the nude. For propriety, they were baptized in three groups: men, women, and children; and female deacons baptized the women. When they emerged from the water, they were immediately clothed in a white tunic (a tunica alba, or alb ). For this reason, the alb is a reminder of baptism and a symbol of the resurrection on the Last Day.

Anyone who has a leadership role in worship can wear an alb and cincture, whether they are clergy or lay people. Only clergy wear a stole over the alb. Albs are increasing in popularity not only because they are ecumenical, but also because congregations are increasingly eager to conform to the practices of the ancient Church. In addition, a person wearing an alb is dressed like Jesus.

You can see a larger picture of an alb.

Amice
An amice is a rectangular piece of cloth with religious symbols and two cords, one affixed to each front corner. It originated as a neck scarf, which was still its form and function in the first century. People sometimes also pulled it up to use it as a head covering. It became a vestment in the eighth century. Today, it is mainly in use in the Roman Catholic Church.

When the priest is vesting (that is, putting on vestments), the amice goes on first. He puts the amice on his head, like a bonnet, then his alb. He pulls the cords around his torso, so they cross in the back, and ties them in the front. After he puts his chasuble on, he pulls the amice down around his neck so that it looks like a collar or a muffler.

Like all vestments, the amice has symbolic meaning as well as practical value. While it is temporarily on the priest's head, it symbolizes the helmut of salvation (Ephesians 6:17), and after it is pulled down, it symbolizes the burden he bears. Before Dr. John Breck invented Ph-balanced shampoo in the 1930s, people didn’t wash their hair very often, because washing your hair with soap doesn't produce happy results. As late as the 1950s, there were hair tonics and hair creams that made hair look fashionably greasy. Since the amice covers the priest’s hair while he is putting on his chasuble, it protects the chasuble from grease and hair-care products. After he pulls it down onto his shoulders, it serves as a neck scarf to protect his throat from the cold.

An amice is also known as a superhumeral, meaning “over the shoulders.”

Anglican Collar
A style of tab-collar shirt with a wide, rectangular tab.
Picture of a cassockCassock
A cassock is a plain, lightweight, ankle-length garment with long sleeves, but no hood. The cassock is a clerical, not a vestment. It serves as an undergarment for vestments, namely the surplice (a type of alb) and the stole.

If the cassock has buttons down the center of the front, from the neck to the ankles, it is called a Roman cassock. If it is double-breasted, it is called an Anglican cassock.

Cassocks are worn by both clergy and lay worship leaders, with or without a surplice. Only ordained clergy wear a stole over the surplice.

Cassocks are most common in Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches. The cassock-and-surplice combination is very common in Anglican churches. Some choirs wear cassocks with surplices instead of robes. John Wesley wore a cassock and surplice, because he was a priest in the Church of England.

You can see a larger picture of a cassock.

Picture of me in a chasuble.Chasuble
A chasuble, called a phelonion in Orthodox churches today, and a φελονης in 2 Timothy 4:13, is an ornate circular garment with a hole in the center for the wearer’s head. When worn, it reaches to the wearer’s wrists, so that if the wearer holds both arms straight out, the chasuble forms a semi-circle when viewed from the front or the back. The chasuble is the descendant of a first-century paenula that was worn as a coat by both sexes. Today it connotes solemnity and formality. The chasuble can be worn by the celebrant during a Eucharistic service. Sometimes the celebrant puts the chasuble on over other vestments as part of the Eucharistic ceremony. Chasubles are used in Lutheran churches, particularly outside the United States, as well as in Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. From the customs of the day, we can infer that Jesus most likely wore a chasuble at the Last Supper.

The chasuble is always worn with a stole. Generally, the stole is under the chasuble. For us, the stole and chasuble combination is the equivalent of wearing a necktie and jacket. It is not appropriate to wear a chasuble in a service that does not include Communion (except for Good Friday and Holy Saturday services).

The Roman Empire had two modes of execution: non-citizens were thrown to wild animals, but citizens were beheaded with the sword. Therefore when Paul says that he escaped the lion’s mouth in 2 Timothy 4:17, he means he had successfully proved his Roman citizenship. In 2 Timothy 4:13, most translations vaguely refer to a garment or a cloak, but in the Greek, Paul asks Timothy to bring him the chasuble he had left behind in Troas. The design of Paul’s chasuble would have made his status as a Roman citizen obvious to any witnesses to his execution.

Therefore, when the celebrant is dressed in a chasuble, he is dressed like a Christian martyr who is ready to have his head chopped off for Christ, or like Jesus presiding over the Last Supper.

Christus victor
Christus victor is Latin for Christ the Winner. It is similar to a crucifix, in that it consists of a figurine of Jesus imposed upon a cross, except that the figure of Jesus is fully clothed, usually wearing a red chasuble over a white tunic (that is, an alb), with uplifted and outstretched arms and a triumphant facial expression. It depicts the triumph of the Ascension over the suffering of the Crucifixion.
Cincture
A cincture, called a poias in Orthodox churches, is anything worn around the waist to gather or hold up clothing. Vestments often include cinctures made of cloth or rope. When a cincture is made of leather or plastic, or if it is used with street clothing, it is called a belt.

Here’s a tip: If you have a small paunch, and you put the cincture around your waist, it will make you look like you have an enormous beer belly. If you put it at the level of your navel, it will look much better.

You can see a picture of a cincture on an alb.

Clergy Shirt
A clergy shirt is a clerical, not a vestment. There are two types: neckband shirts and tab-collar shirts. Though many people associate clergy shirts with the Roman Catholic Church, that is only because the their sheer size makes their clergy conspicuous. Clergy shirts (black shirts with white tabs or collars) are actually of Protestant origin. The Rev. Dr. Donald McLeod of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) invented the neck-band shirt style. Protestant clergy had been wearing white preaching bands for quite some time; McLeod combined them with the detachable collar that was in use at the time. The Roman Catholic Church did not adopt them as streetwear for clergy until later. They modified Rev. McLeod’s design into the tab-collar style.
Clerical
The term ‘clericals’ refers to the clothing and accessories that clergy wear as street clothes, such as a tab-collar shirt, which make it evident that they are clergy. The difference between clericals and vestments is that clericals are street clothes, while vestments are only worn during worship.
Colors
You can read information about the colors that are used in worship.
Cope
A cope is an ornate cape-like garment worn by a bishop. In the ancient Church, bishops were generally elderly men who needed a cope to keep warm. The bishop removes the cope and puts on a chasuble to celebrate the Eucharist.
Cotta
A cotta is a type of surplice. In general, it is better to forego the cotta and just wear the surplice.
Cross (pectoral cross)
Many people wear crosses around their necks as jewelry. If the cross is large enough to be seen from a distance and the chain is long enough to position the cross over the center of the chest, it is called a pectoral cross. Pectoral crosses are quite often worn over albs or cassocks, but seldom if ever over robes. While they look quite nice with vestments, they are too dramatic for street clothes. If you want to wear a cross with street clothes, use a small cross on a neck chain. Christians did not wear crosses or hang them on their walls until after crucifixion was no longer the standard method of capital punishment. Instead, the earliest Christians used the gesture of the sign of the cross.

You can see a pectoral cross over an alb or over a cassock and surplice.

Cross (sign of the cross)
The sign of the cross is a pious gesture that must have originated in the first century, because it was a widespread practice in the second century. It is not a late innovation of the Roman Catholic Church, as many people imagine. It may be that early bishops applied chrism (anointing oil) by tracing a cross on the person’s forehead, and the gesture originated when people wanted to reaffirm their anointing afterwards by using their right thumb to trace the sign of the cross on their forehead. The gesture quickly developed into its modern form, where the right hand moves from the forehead to the chest, then from shoulder to shoulder. Eastern Christians cross themselves right to left, and Western Christians cross themselves left to right. It is customary to cross oneself at the beginning and ending of prayer (at the words “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” ), before receiving Communion, and at certain points in the liturgy. It is common for the clergy to make the sign of the cross over the elements of the Eucharist as they are being consecrated, and over people and objects as they are being blessed. I always make the sign of the cross over the congregation when I bless them in the benediction at the end of the service. The sign of the cross is also helpful at times when you are moved to pray but at a loss for words. You can find out how to cross yourself.
Picture of a crucifix
Crucifix
A crucifix is a cross with a superimposed figurine. Crucifixes originated before the sixth century, at which time the figurine depicted Jesus symbolically as a lamb. As Christian art gradually began to depict Jesus as a human being rather than as a lamb, the figurine changed from a lamb to a fully dressed triumphant Jesus. The crucifix with a suffering Jesus became very popular in the west during a time when so many people were dying of the plague that disposing of corpses was the most pressing issue for local authorities. In those days of unrelenting grief, suffering, and sorrow, pastors spent most of their time conducting funerals. (Reread the lyrics of the hymn, Now Thank We All Our God, and ponder the fact that it was written by a pastor who buried dozens of plague victims each day.) Many of the more gruesome crucifixes from that era show Jesus dying from the grotesque final symptoms of the bubonic plague, including the contorted, purple face. Today, in our more comfortable times, such crucifixes strike us as grotesque or horrible, which was of course the point. Crucifixes made sense of all that suffering and dying. They were an important expression of faith that Jesus does not ask us to do anything He is not willing to do, and that He can overcome even the most horrible death. Because the plagues were largely in the west, crucifixes are not as common in Orthodox churches, and because the plagues were largely over by the time of the Protestant Reformation, many Protestants associated them with Roman Catholicism and did not use them; however, they are still common among Anglicans and Lutherans.
Dalmatic
In the first century, a dalmatic was an garment that the upper classes wore over their tunics. It is very much like a surplice in shape, except that it is plain and not necessarily white. In the church, it is a garment sometimes worn by deacons. If the deacon is wearing a dalmatic, it can go either over or under the stole, but I think in most cases, it would look better with the stole on top.
Dog Collar
An Anglican nickname for the collar that accompanies a neckband shirt—it actually does look something like a flea collar, when you think about it!
Epitrachilion
See stole.
Incense
See thurible.
Mitre
A mitre is a distinctive hat worn by a bishop. The word mitre comes from the Greek word mitra (μιτρα), which means headband. In the ancient Church, bishops were generally elderly men who needed a hat to keep their heads warm. Today the mitre is symbolic of the bishop’s office and it generally matches the bishop’s cope.
Picture of me wearing a neckband shirt with collarNeckband Shirt
A neckband shirt is a clerical, not a vestment. It is a type of shirt (or blouse, for female clergy) that has no collar, just has a thin band of cloth around the neck; hence the name. The shirt has a fly front; that is, a flap of cloth that covers the buttons that go down the front. Where you would expect to find a top button—the one you’d fasten before putting on a necktie—the neckband has two buttonholes that line up. There is also another button hole in the neckband in the center of the back.

The wearer puts on the shirt, then sticks a collar stud through the button hole in the back of the neckband, then another collar stud through the buttonholes in the front to fasten the two ends of the neckband together under the throat. The white plastic collar has three small holes in it; one in the middle and one at each end. The wearer slips the center of the collar over the collar stud in the front, then wraps the two ends around the back and slips them over the collar stud in the back. The end effect is a circular collar that goes completely around the neck.

Clergy shirts are Protestant in origin. The Rev. Dr. Donald McLeod of the Church of Scotland invented the neck-band style. (The Church of Scotland is Presbyterian.) Protestant clergy had been wearing white preaching bands for quite some time; McLeod combined them with the detachable collar that was in use at the time. The Roman Catholic Church did not adopt them as streetwear for clergy until later. They modified Rev. McLeod’s design into the tab-collar style.

Neckband shirts come in all colors and fabrics, but the general public often does not immediately perceive them as clergy shirts if they are not black.

Phelonion
See chasuble.
Poias
See cincture.
Robe
Many people use the term robe as a synonym for vestment, but in actual fact, a robe is not a vestment at all. It is a ankle-length gown with long sleeves, designed to be worn without a cincture. There are four types of robes, all of which are modern forms of the academic robes that professors used to wear while on the job in medieval universities. The four types are choir robes, clergy robes, academic gowns, and judicial robes. Only the first three types are worn in church. All types of robes are designed to be worn over street clothing. The only vestment that can be worn over a robe is a stole.

Choir robes come in a large variety of styles and colors. They give the choir a unified appearance. (However, choirs can wear cassocks and surplices instead of robes.)

Academic gowns come in three forms corresponding to bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees. The doctoral robe sometimes appears in church. It has puffy sleeves with three stripes on the forearm, indicating that the wearer possesses a doctoral degree. When they are used in church, academic gowns are most often worn without the square cap or the long, decorative hood down the back that normally complete the outfit. If there is a hood, the colors indicate the wearer’s field of study and alma mater. (You can find out the color code for the fields of study in the United States.)

Clergy robes mark clergy who do not have a doctorate degree or who do not choose to wear their doctoral robes. Even though most clergy have a masters degree, clergy robes are a modified form of the baccalaureate robe, probably because contemporary masters robes have an odd appearance. Clergy robes are nearly identical to judicial robes, except that clergy robes often have a sort of built-in stole; a wide stripe running down both sides of the zipper in the front, often with decorated with Christian symbols.

Unlike vestments, robes are not worn by lay leaders. The original purpose of the robe was to indicate that the wearer had the authority of academic credentials. John Calvin started the tradition of wearing academic robes in church. He was not able to wear vestments because he was not ordained clergy, but he did have an academic law degree. For that reason, clergy robes are most common in churches that are in the Reformed tradition, such as Presbyterian churches, and in other groups with Calvinist roots, such as Baptists. Choir robes are nearly universal.

People in robes are dressed like Calvin. People in albs are dressed like Jesus.

Roman Collar
A tab-collar shirt with a narrow, square tab.
Soutane
See cassock.
Skull Cap
Occasionally you will see high-ranking Catholic clergy wearing a simple skull cap that looks like a beanie. For instance, the pope wears a white one while cardinals wear red ones.

Historically, men who were about to be ordained or received in monastic orders were required to have part of their head shaved. The process was called a tonsure. The purpose of the tonsure was to comply with 1 Corinthians 11:12-16, because during most of history, it was fashionable for men to have long hair. There are several different types of tonsures, most often it involved shaving the crown of the head. This requirement no longer exists in the Catholic Church, but it still does in Orthodox churches, though in some places the tonsure is minimal.

The tonsure caused a problem for higher-ranking clergy, who tend to be elderly, because it exposed their heads to the cold—those old medieval cathedrals were drafty, had no heat, and most often the doors stood open. However, the same passage from Paul implies that men shouldn’t wear head coverings in church. In the middle ages, headgear could be so complex that it was impractical for men to doff their hats, so they shoved them back to show respect.

The skull cap solves the impasse. It keeps the head warm without being large enough to cover the whole head.

Sticharion
See alb or cassock.
Picture of a stole over an albStole
A stole, called a epitrachilion in Orthodox churches, is a long, narrow rectangular garment that is worn around the neck so that it hangs down in front of the wearer’s legs, ending below the knees. The stole merges the functions of two different things. First, ancient government officials wore a stole, just as today a policeman wears a badge. Second, slaves used used to wear work cloth around their necks, for polishing things, and for wiping sweat from their faces. In the church, the stole functions as a badge of office to mark the wearer as ordained clergy. It can also function as a cloth that the celebrant uses to clean the Communionware as part of the service. For those reasons, the stole became a Eucharistic garment.

Modern stoles are usually the appropriate color for the season. Only ordained clergy wear a stole. A deacon can also wear a stole, but it is customary for a deacon to wear it over the left shoulder, tied at the waist on the right side, so that the stole hangs diagonally across the chest. A stole can be worn over a robe, an alb, or a cassock.

If an ordained minister combines a cassock, surplice, and stole, the cassock goes on first, then the surplice, then the stole on top.

If an ordained minister combines an alb, stole, and chasuble, the alb goes on first, then the stole, then the chasuble on top. (There are stoles that are designed to be worn over chasubles, but that is not common.)

If a deacon combines an alb, dalmatic, and stole, the alb goes on first, then the dalmatic, then the stole on top.

You can see a larger picture of a stole with an alb or a picture of a stole over a cassock and surplice.

Picture of a surplice over a cassockSurplice
A surplice is a very lightweight blouse-like garment with sleeves. It is almost invariably white and it often has lace trim. A surplice is only worn over a cassock, never by itself, and never over an alb or an academic gown. The surplice is actually a type of alb that is designed to be worn over a cassock. The cassock and surplice combination is very common in Anglican churches, where it is worn by both clergy and lay worship leaders.

You can see a larger picture of the surplice.

Tab-Collar Shirt
A tab-collar shirt is a clerical, not a vestment. It is a type of shirt (or blouse, for female clergy) that has a folded-down collar with an opening over the top button over the throat. The shirt has a fly front; that is, a flap of cloth that covers the buttons that go down the front. The shirt comes with a white tab that looks something like a tongue depressor. After putting on the shirt, the wearer slips the tab into place. The effect is a black collar with a white rectangle over the throat. If the white rectangle is wide, it is called an Anglican collar; if it is narrow, it is called a Roman collar.

The terms “Roman collar” or “Roman shirt” refer to style, not origin. Clergy shirts are Protestant in origin. The Roman Catholic Church did not adopt them as streetwear for clergy until the 19th century.

Tab-collar shirts come in all colors and fabrics, but the general public often does not immediately perceive them as clergy shirts if they are not black.

Thurible
A thurible is also called a censer. It is a metal holder for incense, usually suspended on chains. Either the celebrant or a thurifer swings it around in a predetermined pattern. It is used in Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran, and sometimes even Methodist services. (I listed them in order of frequency of use, from greatest to least.) Incense was universally a feature of ancient Christian worship, because it was used in the Jewish Temple during sacrifices. Thuribles give off a lot of smoke when they are in use. If it is high-quality incense, it won’t make people sneeze.
Zucchetto
If you go to Italy, do not order zucchetti in clam sauce! Zucchetto is Italian for skull cap.