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Never knowingly underdressed

10 June 2016

The General Synod is preparing to debate the relaxation of rules governing clerical dress. In the first part of a new series, Robin Ward traces its origins

Chris Hellier / Alamy

Behold a Jewish high priest: ephod (originally the linen garment worn behind the breastplate) came to mean the breastplate itself, set with symbolic gemstones

Behold a Jewish high priest: ephod (originally the linen garment worn behind the breastplate) came to mean the breastplate itself, set with symbolic g...

THE history of Christian ecclesiastical dress is a story of social conservatism in fashion, livened up from time to time by furious ideological rows.

Priscillian of Ávila was accused of favouring naked nocturnal rites with his female followers, and, according to St Epiphanius of Salamis, the Barbelo gnostics were no better; but, on the whole, most Christian worship since the time of the Apostles has been conducted by officiants who were clothed (if not necessarily in their right mind).

What they wore is in some ways more interesting for what it wasn’t than for what it was. Western Christianity developed at a very early stage an understanding of ordination which saw the three-fold ministry of bishop, priest, and deacon as a fulfilment and continuation of the Jewish Temple hierarchy. But until Pope Paul VI went through a brief and unmissed phase of wearing an ephod in the late 1960s, no one ever suggested that Christian ministers should dress like their Old Testament counterparts.

What they did wear was essentially the smart public dress of the late Roman Empire — the dress that the upper classes adopted, possibly from an Ionian prototype, for use when doing things in an official capacity, after the inconvenient toga was left off towards the end of the second century AD.

This outfit was secular, and common to both men and women. It consisted of a long undergarment called the linea (rather like a nightshirt), over which were worn a tunica (a sleeved garment coming down to the knees), and a paenula or lacerna (a cloak-like poncho, mentioned by Paul in 2 Timothy 4.13 as having been left in Troas). An account of the martyrdom of St Cyprian in 258 movingly describes the way in which he removed his lacerna and knelt on it in prayer before being beheaded.

Although we begin to find references here and there to bishops’ being given particularly splendid versions of this clothing from the reign of Constantine onwards, it is apparent that it remained an official rather than an ecclesiastical form of dress, as is witnessed by the famous picture of St Gregory the Great portrayed with his parents Gordian and Sylvia, each wearing the linea, tunica, and paenula, Pope Gregory adding only the ceremonial scarf called the pallium.


BARBARIAN fashion for high-ranking officials was very different and much more military in character, quite unsuitable for conducting worship with decorum. As it began to prevail over the old Roman costume, so church councils started to legislate for the dress of the clergy, insisting on preserving the customary clothing, which became exclusively ecclesiastical.

At the same time, this ecclesiastical dress becomes more complicated, not for reasons of complex symbolism, but because of the natural human tendency to cram on extra bits and pieces to any sort of uniform as time passes. The linea, tunica, and paenula, known to us now as the alb, tunicle, and chasuble, remain important, and to them is added the amice or anagolaium — a neckscarf.

In the Middle Ages, the amice itself also underwent augmentation, acquiring interesting strips of embroidered fabric called apparels — a nightmare to launder. The maniple (a handkerchief used, among other things, by consuls to start horse races) took some time to find its eventual destination, fastened to the left wrist of the sacred ministers at mass. Archbishop Stigand can still be seen waving his around in his hand like a consul, on the Bayeux Tapestry.

The dalmatic — a fuller version of the tunicle — became the characteristic vestment of the deacon after its adoption by the powerful and somewhat secular-minded deacons of the church at Rome, although it took a long time for it to be thought suitable for use in church without a chasuble over it.

The stole, or orarium, is a scarf that can be called the first properly cultic vestment, being worn exclusively by bishops, priests, and deacons. This developed comparatively slowly as a vestment, and was worn in all sorts of different ways — over and under other vestments, and tied and crossed with some variety — of which only the practice of the deacon’s wearing it over the left shoulder and tied under the right arm now survives.

The popes at Rome, in particular, were not enthusiastic about this sort of elaboration: in the year 425, Celestine I scolded some French bishops for wearing stoles and girdles; but it was a losing battle. And it was still not the case that — with the partial exception of the stole — particular vestments were seen as indicative of a particular order or rank: the chasuble, far from being sacerdotal, was until the high Middle Ages the common vestment of all the principal ministers (something that in fact survived in the Roman rite during penitential seasons until 1960).


THE Middle Ages characteristically complicated all this in an intriguing way with the burgeoning of typology and symbolism, shown most typically in the writings of Durandus of Mende (1230-96). His Rationale Divinorum Officiorum deals in its third chapter with vestments, and imbues them with an individual religious significance that was to be fatally attractive, in particular to 19th-century Anglican Ritualists.

In practical terms, the Middle Ages also give us three new developments that are important today. First, for bishops, the interest moves from foot to head: whereas before about the year 1000 it was special shoes or campagi, most notably the red papal ones, that designated episcopal status, at this point the mitre became important, initially as an individual privilege bestowed by the Pope, and then more generally as part of the standard episcopal outfit.

At about the same time in the West, the bishop’s staff and ring take on a crucial political significance in the “Investiture” controversy, during which the Emperor exerted himself against the Pope for the right to hand these insignia to new bishops — and lost. The ring also began to acquire a gem, usually an amethyst to ward off gluttony and reflect the episcopal sobriety mentioned in Acts 2.15.

Second, we see the beginning of the distinctively Western practice of liturgical colour sequences; although these are quite varied right up until the Reformation, the current pattern of green for the Ordinary portion of the year, violet for penitential seasons, red for martyrs and for Pentecost, and white for festal seasons and saints, is already apparent.

But there were all sorts of local variation: the Ambrosian rite, still used in Milan, allowed red as well as green for the Ordinary portion, as apparently did some of the English diocesan rites. The most common survival of this is the use of “Lent array” — unbleached linen vestments and hangings during Lent.

Third, so-called “choir dress” begins to emerge: the alb and chasuble cease to be worn at non-eucharistic services, and in their place we see the surplice, rochet, and almuce (from which derive the familiar surplice, scarf, and hood of our own time), and the cope, all archetypally medieval.

The almuce was usually made of fur, so as to keep out the cold during long hours in freezing-cold stalls; as a distinguishing mark for dignitaries and canons, it was abolished at the Reformation, but enjoyed a brief revival in the Church of England in the 20th century, worn in all its furry splendour by the prebendaries of some revived collegiate churches in Cornwall, and in a modified form (using blue silk to stand for the fur vair) by the numerous canons of Chelmsford.


THE status of bishops as secular lords in the Middle Ages influenced the way in which they dressed outside church services. The cardinals of the Roman court acquired their distinctive red hats at the first Council of Lyons in 1245; and Dante mentions with some asperity in the Paradiso the use of the great ceremonial cloak for cavalcades which became known as the cappa magna. This survives to this day in the wardrobes of some more flamboyant cardinals and bishops, and in the rather more staid parliamentary robe worn by prelates at the state opening of parliament.

Related to this is the cappa clausa, a form of dress that came to distinguish doctors in the new universities of the period, but which was also used by bishops. Bishops who were doctors as well were so touchy about this that they insisted on being portrayed with their mitres floating rather oddly above their heads, so as to reveal their doctoral skull caps.

The medieval taste for liveries also makes itself apparent in the dress of the religious orders. This takes on the character of a uniform, in which each monastic or religious family is distinguished by the colour of its habits: black for the Benedictines; white for the Cistercians; black over white for the Dominicans; grey for the Franciscans; and a red cross for the Crutched Friars, who survived the Reformation only in the name of a London pub.


THE fact that the symbolism of all this remained for a long time rather indeterminate is reflected in the equally elaborate, but rather different, practices of the Byzantine-rite Churches. Eastern bishops don’t wear rings; and in the Middle Ages the chasuble was gradually supplanted by a grand version of the dalmatic, a sakkos (which is not worn by Eastern deacons).

The Eastern mitre is also quite different: much closer in style and shape to the Imperial Byzantine diadem, except among the Armenians, who enthusiastically embraced enormous mitres in the Western style at some point in the 17th century. There is also no real Eastern equivalent of choir dress, at least for the secular clergy, although there is a very splendid coloured robe (rather like the cappa magna) called the mandyas for hierarchs.


BY THE close of the Middle Ages, the formal clothes of the Roman upper class of the late Empire had become a complex array of ecclesiastical vestments, freighted with the symbolism of priesthood and cult. This is not to say that, close up, they necessarily looked particularly pious: we know from Reformation inventories that they could be decorated with all sorts of dragons, lions, flowers, and birds. But they spoke of priesthood and sacrifice, and they were a flagrant example of conspicuous ecclesiastical consumption.

Luther didn’t object to the chasuble and alb, and for more conservative Scandinavians into modern times, it was the stole that really indicated lurking popery. The Reformed tradition dropped the whole lot in one go, opting for a more academic look to reflect sobriety and learning. The English Reformation resulted in much destruction and something of a score-draw between traditionalists and reformers, with exciting consequences to come when the Victorian Ritualists began to get into their stride.


Canon Robin Ward is Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford.

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