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Platinum Jubilee: The way we wore

27 May 2022

Philip Goff, an accession-year baby, looks at changing clerical fashions since the year of his birth

The Bishop of Chelmsford, Falkner Allison, at the dedication of St Paul’s, Stratford, in 1954 (Click on gallery for more images)

The Bishop of Chelmsford, Falkner Allison, at the dedication of St Paul’s, Stratford, in 1954 (Click on gallery for more images)

CHRONICLING evolving fashions in clerical dress in the Church of England during the reign of our much loved monarch is fraught with pitfalls. The Church of England is, by its very nature, a sort of umbrella organisation for Christians of different outlooks and tastes. Moreover, the various items of dress signal fashions that have been preserved from different periods.

There are few directions on the dress of the clergy beyond the present anodyne vesture canons (B8 and C27) and the (fortunately for some) ambiguous Prayer Book ornaments rubric. Almost every dogmatic statement can be refuted, and for every perceived rule there are exceptions.

Writing about the clergy at the beginning of the last century in his snappily entitled The Cutter’s Practical Guide to the Cutting and Making All Kinds of Body Coats, Embracing Morning, Frock & Dress Coats, W. D. F. Vincent observes: “If you wish to succeed as a clerical tailor you must be possessed of unlimited patience. . . There can be no doubt that clergymen are amongst the most fastidious customers the tailor has to cater for. . . [He] has to find out not only whether his customer is rich or poor, but also whether he is High Church or Low Church, whether he is an ordinary clergyman or a dignitary. . .”


THE British monarch, although not strictly a cleric, is Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and was anointed to a kind of diaconate in the most solemn part of the Coronation service. For this purpose, the Queen was dressed in a white shift (reminiscent of an alb) and wore, at various points, garments resembling both dalmatic (supertunica) and cope (Imperial Mantle of State), as well as the stole traditionally presented to the Sovereign by the Girdlers’ Company. Moreover, the abundant images of the Coronation service illustrate very well the stately church dress of the prelates of the day.

For those of us who were alive then, the world of 70 years ago now seems to belong to a different epoch. We had an Empire; God was in his heaven; women served tea and arranged the flowers; a Mothers’ Union booklet showed a mum with a vacuum cleaner and a dad with a lawnmower; women wore hats in church, and men removed theirs.

THE staples of post-war 1950s clerical fashions had changed little from those of the late 19th century. For the day dress of the parish clergy, the frock coat had given way to the lounge suit, tweeds, or sometimes the cassock, worn with a stock and full “linen” or acetate collar, although a few diehards still favoured Percy Dearmer’s “walking dress” of cassock, gown, scarf, and his version of the square cap.

Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher in formal day dress

At the end of the 18th century, lay collars (such as those popularised by Beau Brummell) went decidedly up, and the points were held in place by a cravat — a band of linen cloth wound around the neck — or, more formally, by a stock (essentially a pre-tied cravat), which was stiffer and fastened at the back. These could be laundered more conveniently than the shirt.

The clerical collar may well have its origins in these fashions, but probably wasn’t invented by the Revd Donald McLeod, a minister in Scotland, as the Glasgow Herald of 6 December 1894 claimed and the Church of England Enquiry Centre recounted in 1976.

IN CHURCH, most of the parish clergy wore a cassock (usually double-breasted) along with a knee- or calf-length surplice with black scarf, hood, and, perhaps, starched bands. This marked a change from the previous century, in which the surplice was worn at least at ankle length, and usually covering ordinary day clothes rather than a cassock — a custom preserved in some Cambridge college chapels.

At the eucharist — rapidly then becoming the central Sunday service — and at other sacramental celebrations, thanks to the influence of the Oxford Movement, even middle-of-the-road clergy wore coloured stoles with cassock and surplice, although the badge of the true Evangelical remained the surplice and black scarf.

By this time, only a few of the clergy still changed into a gown for the sermon, and the academic hood was, increasingly, being left off at holy communion (demonstrating a lack of understanding of the origin of the garment). There were few left who followed an earlier Tractarian combination of cassock, surplice, stole, and hood. Copes, as now, tended to be uncontroversial garments worn at cathedrals and grander churches.

CLERGY higher up the candle had different ideas. From the 1920s, Anglo-Papalism had favoured Roman fashions, and many of the Catholic clergy wore Latin cassocks — with plain or lacy cottas, and birettas — for the Offices; and, eschewing the surplice, an amice and alb — usually with Latin vestments — for the eucharist. Those who favoured the Sarum (or English) style promoted by Dearmer enjoyed apparelled albs, Gothic vestments, flowing surplices, and the square cap.

A clerical catalogue

Meanwhile, the dignitaries of the Church continued to wear gaiters with aprons (short cassocks originating from their days travelling around on horseback), with the frock coat for day dress and the court coat for evening and other formal events. It was still a time when a bishop might remember buying his lawn rochet from the same Sackville Street supplier as his saddle, boots, and whip.


THE 1960s introduced not only the mini-skirt, but changes in clerical fashions as well. The collar and stock over a formal tunic shirt gave way, for some, to black, grey, or purple shirts on to which the collar could be attached directly. The biggest change in clerical dress for perhaps a century, however, was the invention of what is commonly referred to as the tunnel shirt, but known widely then as the “Gleeson”, after Piccadilly-based Johanna Gleeson, who introduced this style of shirt, into which a strip of white plastic could be inserted by way of imitating a collar.

Despite her filing successfully on 26 April 1966 for a patent in the United States, the style soon became popular, and various clerical tailors began to produce the shirts. This led to a case in the High Court: Gleeson and Gleeson Shirt Co. Ltd v. HR Denne Ltd, which Miss Gleeson lost.

Originally available in black, grey, or purple, the Gleeson is now seen in a wide variety of colours and patterns; resourceful clergy were soon cutting replacement tabs from bottles of Fairy Liquid. A further development of this style featured a strip of white plastic which fastened to the stock of the shirt with press-studs; these are known as tonsure shirts. Other, later variations include the wearing of the plastic strip under a lay collar.

AT KING’S COLLEGE, Cambridge, in the 1960s, the Dean, Alec Vidler, favoured a black, lay-style shirt worn with a white tie, and this was popular for a time with certain Cambridge clerics. In 1969, a blue scarf for Readers (sometimes referred to as a tippet) was introduced as an alternative to the badge. This is curious, since Readers are not clerics, but the scarf is decidedly clerical.

Just over a century before this, in 1862, the Bishop of London licensed the first deaconesses in the Church of England. The colour blue was chosen for their cassocks — deriving, it has been said, from the association of the colour with the Virgin Mary. It is interesting that the colour and not the garment was used to indicate the rather ambivalent status of both Readers and deaconesses. Before Tudor times, the cassock was worn in a variety of colours.


BY THE 1970s, society was well used to convenience foods and labour-saving devices. Life generally was becoming more informal, and even the Queen had softened her received accent a little. In church — influenced, perhaps, by the perceived relaxations of the Second Vatican Council — the cassock alb made an appearance.

Just as the Gleeson shirt did away with collar studs, starching, and the need for a separate stock, the cassock alb was a versatile garment that could be worn with a stole (even, if the present vesture canon is followed, with the scarf); and as a replacement for amice and alb under eucharistic vestments. Even in its most egregious form of oatmeal polyester, it came to be a garment worn by the clergy across the spectrum of churchmanship and denomination, and could be donned in seconds, covering whatever might be worn underneath.

While undoubtedly saving time and expense, the cassock alb is a clerical expression of — depending on one’s point of view — the drop in standards, or the welcome increasing informality of dress taking place in society more generally. When worn as an alternative to traditional Anglican choir dress, however, which is distinctive and dignified, the cassock alb does seem a poor substitute.

By this time, eucharistic vestments were becoming less controversial, having been officially disconnected from doctrinal associations. Many of the clergy, often with the cure of several parishes of differing traditions, were content, when conducting services, to wear whatever chimed with local custom.


UNDER the Deacons (Ordination of Women) Measure 1986, women were admitted to the diaconate, and, for most women ministers, the familiar blue cassock of the deaconess gave way to the black, although there were arguments at the time for the latter’s retention. It is hard to imagine now, given its long use by choristers, the heated debates about whether it was legitimate for a deaconess (not deemed to be in Holy Orders) to wear the surplice.

Older readers may recall the maroon gown and Canterbury cap of Licensed Lady Workers. Despite its being unimaginable that we once referred to them as such, the colour lives on today in the cassocks and tippets of some Licensed Lay Ministers.

THE Queen herself, as befits the Supreme Governor, has also left a mark on clerical dress. It is said that, in the late 1980s, it came to her attention that several institutions not of royal foundation had adopted — both for clergy and choir members — the scarlet livery associated with the monarch. She not only let it be known that she was unamused by such practices, but also paid for a shift to mulberry, crimson, or another shade of red. (It is more likely that the Lord Chamberlain or the bishop who was Clerk of the Closet discreetly sorted out this matter, but the story has continued afresh in every succeeding generation.)

Later in her reign, some of the scarlet-cassocked clergy associated with royal institutions opted for the single-breasted, Latin-style cassock, particularly when HM was not looking. In the absence of firm directions on clerical costume, such as are found in the Roman Catholic Church, some even appear from time to time in the scarlet biretta — the preserve of cardinals. This combination of items of dress from different traditions is known among some of the clergy as “mixed bathing”.


IN 1992, the Church of England approved the ordination of women to the priesthood, and the first were ordained on 12 March 1994, in Bristol Cathedral, by the Bishop. Interestingly, they all seemed to have opted for the white or gold stole, in a rather rare example of congruence at such events, where the various traditions that exist in the Church are seen expressed in dress.


ON 14 July 2014, the Church of England approved the consecration of women as bishops, and the Revd Elizabeth Lane was appointed to the suffragan see of Stockport. Her rochet and chimere look​ed like those of any other Anglican bishop, but made now in more modern fabrics (the silk satin for the black habit, or chimere, is rapidly disappearing, along with the heavy, superfine wool for the scarlet Convocation habit. Polyester reigns supreme!).

The rise of the tunnel-collar shirt makes the wearing of clerical bands rather awkward, and they are often pinned on, or tucked under or over the clerical collar, or over the cassock-opening. The cassock collar is usually still made to fit snugly around a full linen or plastic collar, with an opening to accommodate the bands, but these days few of the clergy or clerical tailors seem to realise this.

Bands evolved from the line of neckwear that includes the broad linen collar worn in the 17th century over garments less easy to launder. Sometimes inaccurately referred to as “preaching bands”, they have been retained in England as the mark of a clerk, and the clergy share this item of dress with those in the legal profession, and certain university graduates and officials.

Traditional vestments, choir dress, cope and mitre, or episcopal habit in church, and even the court coat at formal dinners — women clergy seem to have readily adopted what has been male dress for centuries. The sartorial efforts of some women clergy are to be applauded, however, and the Bishop of Gloucester stands out as one who has clearly thought about the issue. Seen here with her tailor, Julie Mortimer, her court coat has a softer look than the traditional cut.

IN THE early decades of the Queen’s reign, clergy attire was largely sober and predictable, with a street-and-study-dress palette of black, grey, or purple; choir dress of black and white with, perhaps, a flash of colour or fur from an academic hood; scarlet for a bishop or royal chaplain; and coloured stoles or vestments of sensible furnishing brocades.

A notable exception was the soft grey shade of the clergy cassocks at Coventry Cathedral, introduced in the early 1960s. Whatever one might think about the choice of mushroom as a colour, it was a rare attempt to see vesture as part of the overall architecture of a building and liturgy, as well as a nod to medieval times, when the clergy wore a wider range of colours.

Nowadays, clergy gatherings are once again riots of colour. There are scarlet cummerbunds galore (“deeply unappreciated” by the former Bishop of London); almuces for canons of some of our cathedrals; mozzettas for the shrine priests at Willesden Parish Church, or the Order of St Lazarus; purple belly-bands for rural and area deans; red buttons for archdeacons and canons; and a rainbow of coloured pom-poms on birettas.

Many of the cathedrals have adopted an in-house colour for their clergy cassocks, but it is interesting to note that Church of England clergy do not appear to have followed the American practice of cathedral deans’ wearing the purple cassock; nor have British canons — however Ultramontane — adopted the purple choir cassock worn by RC canons, although many have assumed the abito piano, or undress version, with purple or amaranth buttons.

These days, the ecclesiastical furnishers employ a huge range of fabrics and designs for making vestments, and even the black scarf, which, in its silk form, was once a sober garment reserved to chaplains to the nobility and Doctors of Divinity, has become home to a range of badges, motifs, slogans, and texts.

Post-Papa Ratzinger (2005-13) and the reform of the reforms in the Roman Catholic Church, the ripples have already reached these shores. Many of the younger clergy, in particular, view the cassock alb with disdain, and have embraced the return of fine fabrics and well-tailored garments. Polyester is out, linen and lace are back; and the starched linen (or cotton) collar is de rigueur for those ordained much later in Her Majesty’s reign.

FOLLOWING the longstanding principle in Canon Law that all restrictions shall be interpreted as narrowly as possible, and all permissions as generously as possible, there is, in this new millennium, a palpable sense of pride in clerical dress. We see tailored cassocks, rich silk stocks, long cathedral-style surplices, broad scarves, and a tendency to have the academic hood made in the faux-medieval shape (promoted by the Warham Guild) that would gladden the heart of Dr Dearmer.

The frock coat has made a spectacular come-back for smart day events, and eBay is alive with clerical watchers waiting for the rare opportunity to bag a court coat for formal evening wear. In the wider world, fashion designers are increasingly drawing inspiration from clerical dress, and, from time to time, magazines feature the clergy in their columns.

THE clergy of the royal institutions, as so often with those in close proximity to the Sovereign and in keeping with many of the splendid buildings in which they serve, appear relatively immune to many of the changes of these past seven decades. There is very little to offend the eye, and the watchwords are taste and dignity.

The pendulum has swung, however, and, in the evening of this glorious Elizabethan reign, while some have attempted to abandon clerical costume altogether (and clerical vesture can now be canonically set aside), many of the younger clergy thoroughly enjoy the costumes of their caste. Instead of shabby and short we now see elegant and flowing. Instead of the message, “Oh, don’t mind this fancy dress — it’s really me, Bob, under all this,” we now see clergy who take pride in the apparel of their vocation.

Of course, there will be clergy who, from their youth up, have always dressed like this; but others such as myself, who, as a curate in the ’70s, regularly wore jeans and clerical collar to the parish skateboard club, and had my first mass vestments tie-dyed in an old washing machine, have been shamed into dressing properly by a new generation.

During his school holidays, Philip Goff worked at the outfitters J. Wippell and William Northam, and was later a consultant to Ede & Ravenscroft. He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, a founder of the Burgon Society (www.Burgon.org.uk), and owner of the Facebook Clerical Dress Group.


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