Clerical Dress

We have had a number of observations about clerical dress, not liturgical vestments or choir dress, but what a priest or a bishop wears in the street.

In Catholic countries, priests would wear the cassock, usually with a cope or long coat that is very slightly shorter than the cassock or the same length. The custom of wearing the cassock all the time is fairly recent in Europe, from sometime in the nineteenth century. The most formal dress of the priest is a cassock and the feraiolo, a lightweight cape covering the shoulders or falling on the back and tied by a silk or satin ribbon. Less formally, the priest would go out in cassock, cape or coat and a clerical hat. French priests in the 1950’s tended to replace the hat by a beret – more practical when they had to cycle everywhere (they couldn’t afford cars in those days).

The world has changed, and tendencies are towards priests dressing as in Protestant countries – the modern equivalent of the eighteenth century frock coat and breeches. That means a black or dark grey suit with a “piece of the cassock” visible at the front. This is possible in three ways: the full waistcoat, a bib and a collar or simply the “visiting card” collar inserted into a specially made shirt collar, the third being the most comfortable and practical in modern urban use.

In the middle ages, and even in the eighteenth century, clergy were often in lay dress at court or when about town. There was one difference. They wore a black skull cap to cover their tonsures. The tonsure was the one thing that distinguished a cleric from a layman, and a cleric would be less tempted to do something sinful with his tonsure. The cassock can be taken off, not the tonsure.

How will we clerics dress in the Ordinariates? The answer is – the way we dress now. In some circumstances, I wear a Roman or French cassock. Other Anglican clerics wear the double-breasted so-called “Sarum” cassock. In other circumstances, I am more discreetly dressed in a clerical shirt and trousers. I’m not very keen on suits, and I am rarely in a truly urban environment. I am even more rarely in a courtly environment, where I need to be very “posh”.

I was married wearing a frock coat and full clerical waistcoat with buttons on the front and Roman collar.

The Roman collar itself is a recent invention – about mid nineteenth century. Its predecessor was a white cloth collar, a little like on a modern lay shirt, still worn by Redemptorists and Oratorians. I would like to see that back in use, but that means the cassock collar being completely closed at the front with no gap as for the Roman collar.

Clerical dress has tended to be neglected since the 1960’s, and there is considerable pressure on clerics to wear lay dress, especially when married and in secular employment. It might sometimes be possible for a priest to have a little marker like a lapel cross (as the clerical tonsure is no longer in use), but that means little to most people. In many places of work, especially public services, religious symbols are no longer allowed. The priest has to adapt to circumstances with intelligence and discernment.

I do not judge clerics for exercising this discretion when living their daily lives and doing their ministries in so many different circumstances and practical constraints.

Author: Fr. Anthony Chadwick

Father Anthony Chadwick was born in the north of England into an Anglican family. He was educated in one of the Church of England’s most well-known schools, St. Peter’s in York, at which he was nurtured in the Anglican musical tradition. After several years studying and working in London he studied theology at university level in Switzerland, Italy and France. Still living in France, he has been a priest of the Traditional Anglican Communion (under Archbishop Hepworth) since 2005. Fr. Chadwick is charged with chaplaincy work among dispersed Anglicans in the north of France, is married and lives in Normandy. His interests outside the Church and directly religious matters include classical music, DIY and sailing. As a non-stipendiary priest, he earns his living as a technical translator.

20 thoughts on “Clerical Dress”

  1. Parish priests ought to be wearing in my view a cassock as normal wear. The witness is akin to that of a religious in their habit, and is a clear witness of the Gospel and of their ministry. The contemporary Roman Catholic custom in the US and Australia in particular of priests wearing lay attire most of the time is appalling. Recently I went to visit the Blessed Sacrament in my local Roman parish church to see a priest in short-length shorts, t shirt and purple stole with flip flops emerge from the confessional. Most Roman priests in Australia do not even own a cassock these days.

    I also believe that Bishops should wear cassocks 100% of the time. Personally I favour the Anglican "Sarum" cut cassock, but that comes more from my time within the Russian Orthodox Church, whose under-cassock (riassa) is very much like an Anglican cassock, but with narrower sleeves, which I wore as a reader and subdeacon.

    The ACCC photos with nuns in full habits was wonderful, and I would hope that all Ordinariate nuns will wear full habits. Again the custom of many Roman secular religious wearing lay clothes is both not befitting poverty or in some instances chastity.

    Of course ultimately laity need to dress in church more appropriately, especially women. In the Orthodox Church by and large, at least within Australia, women do not wear trousers and in the Russian tradition wear a head scarf, conforming with the instruction of St. Paul. But maybe I am betraying cultural bias, because I am still unused to clean-shaven Bishops and priests, something one never saw within Orthodoxy, although of course quite normal within the English and Latin traditions.

    In an age of endless compromises, typified by the mainstream Anglican and Episcopal churches, Anglicans in the continuing Churches and hopefully in the Ordinariate ought to not compromise – at all the best standards of clerical dress and etiquette.

    An eastern tradition that I believe should be one of the Universal Church is the custom of placing ones hands in a crossed position, palm upwards, and asking the blessing of a priest when one meets them with "Father bless". The priest makes the sign of the cross, and one then kisses his hand. It would also be nice to see the western custom restored of genuflecting and kissing the episcopal ring of the Bishop.

    1. Are you a stipendiary deacon or in secular employment? If the latter, what does your boss think about you wearing the cassock to the office, workshop or whatever? I hope you're not a motor mechanic!!! 😉

      1. No Father – non-stipendiary which means yes I wear secular clothes to my work: I generally wear black and often a clerical shirt minus the collar.

        I grew up with my parish priest in cassock and biretta and it was normal and respected in the streets and shops of our edge of country town. One Orthodox priest that i know I have never seen out of his cassock and even at home relaxing watching Mash with a cup of tea, that is what he wears.

    2. In many RC diocese in the us at least, "permanent deacons" are forbidden to wear clericals. I hope that our new ordinaries will at least allow and encourage the use of clerical dress while on church business.

  2. I'm just writing to clarify the situation about Australian Roman Catholic priests. I recall when I was attending confirmation class in the 1970s, the parish priest would wear a cassock while on the grounds of the church and its associated school, but never in public. That was never the custom – for instance, Bishops and priests attending Catholic dinners at the Irish Club would wear a black suit and a Roman collar. The 'street' dress for priests was relaxed in the 1970s, as a concession to the climate, with white open knecked shirts with a cross on the collar and black trousers. That was a decision of the Bishops' Conference, which is competent to regulate clerical dress according to canon law.

    The contemporary situation varies from diocese to diocese, and parish to parish. Younger priests tend to wear clerical shirts and collars more often, but they're pretty rare in the Brisbane archdiocese where I live. The Archbishop and Bishops appear in black suits, but other senior clergy don't do so consistently. Often, in winter, priests will wear a white business shirt with a black jumper. Seminarians dress as lay people. Cassocks are very rarely seen – I do recall a very old priest at the Cathedral who'd wear one in the confessional, and sometimes the MC at a Cathedral Mass will wear a cassock as part of choir dress.

    In some more conservative dioceses, conventional clerical street dress is much more common, and seminarians adopt clerical dress.

    If I see someone wearing clerical dress in the street, I tend to assume he's an Anglican priest.

  3. I cannot understand or see validity in dressing as laymen. laity cannot identify them as priests, losing the opportunity to ask to have their confessions heard or seek pastoral advice. I believe this is part of the dumbing down, the anti-clericalism of the modern(ist) Church, the relegation of priests to presiders of the Eucharist, rather than being the spiritual father of their parish.

    So yes, more often than not those in a clerical collar and shirt will be Anglican priests, while those in lay clothes may – or may not be Roman Catholic priests.

  4. You'll have to forgive me for this, but I thought I would introduce a secular observation just to back Father Chadwick's point. Our culture has fallen into complete ignorance now, thanks to the compromise of clerics over the last 30 to 40 years. In my immediate area of Southwest Missouri the population is overwhelmingly Protestant – Southern Baptists and Pentecostal to be exact. While Catholics are a minority it isn't like we are obscure. We are well known in the community, and especially the local hospitals.

    However, just to give you an idea of how far our culture has fallen into ignorance of all things Catholic I'll give you an example pertaining to clerical attire. We have a local priest who serves as a chaplin to the local hospitals. He has just recently discovered tradition and has decided to dress in a cassock. While many of the older Catholics like this, some of the younger Catholics are a little unsure, while some of the local Protestants are actually confused and frightened by it. They complain that he reminds them of the Matrix movie.

    Now this is not his fault. It's actually the fault of other priests over the decades who have refused to use traditional attire. It has resulted in a culture that is totally ignorant of proper clerical dress, to the point that they actually are a little frightened when they finally see it, having nothing to compare it to other than a science fiction movie.

    I think this is an indictment of our clerical establishment in the United States. I fully support Fr. Chadwick's observations and suggestions.

  5. In the NY and DC Archdioceses from the 30s-60s, maybe Baltimore and Philly as well, priests were required to wear a hat along with the clerical suit. I believe the hats were the standard hat that all men wore in the mid-Atlantic at the time. Archbishop, later Cardinal, O'Boyle would explode with rage anytime he found out that one of his priests was walking the streets without hats. In fact, when some of his priests were leading civil rights marches in the South he berated them for appearing on television marching without their hats! (As opposed to berating them for marching…he supported civil rights marches). By the mid60s, O'Boyle angrily gave into clerical pressure to drop the hat requirement since no other men wore them anymore. Now, of course, thanks to Mad Men, some of these hats are coming back.

  6. It's hard to imagine the looks I would get if I wore a cassock in my neighborhood, especially the Venice boardwalk! I'm still processing the experience of going to Whole Foods wearing a collar. There is some obvious disdain, some curiosity, and people that want to talk/make a connection. In the Latino neighborhood where my wife worked and where my kids went to school I was asked for a blessing nearly every time I entered the grocery store wearing a collar. In both places I was of course taken to be a Catholic priest by most folks, another reminder of the derivative nature of Anglicanism.

    Actually, I look forward — God willing– to being out and about as a Catholic priest. It will be very different to represent a church and a faith that means something rather than representing a church that means whatever one wants it to be. I will also feel a lot better about inviting someone to come to my new church, rather than the pretty little building with the big yoga studio sign in front that also has something called "choral eucharist" on Sunday.

    1. Now that's more like it!

      I was taught by Brothers. The older among them wore the cassock. That's how we knew they were the 'real thing'.

      By the way, I wonder if someone could post a picture of the Anglican double-breasted cassock.


  7. Once I noticed a teen aged parishioner of mine looking at me in a most interesting way. I had just finished cleaning one of the toilet rooms during a, "Get the church Building Clean Day." I asked if all was well. His response, "Father, I have never seen you in street clothes." Another time I was visiting a hospital whilst in clericals. A young person in the elevator asked with a startled look oh her face, "Are you a priest?" I said, "Yes." What I really wanted to say was, "No. I am a fireman." Christian charity did not allow me to do so. lol

  8. Can anyone else confirm that clerical dress will remain unchanged in the Ordainariates, particularly with respect to permanent deacons?

    Mike Noble's comment above is a good one, and this has not been without controversy in the Latin Rite, especially in the USA. Permanent deacons are heavily restricted in when and where they may dress as clerics, but it is left to each bishop ordinary to make his own policies in this regard.

    Permanent deacons were restored in the Anglican patrimony long before they were restored in the Roman Catholic Church. Such deacons have always dressed as clerics within this patrimony, so hopefully the Anglican ordinaries will allow and even encourage the continuance of this patrimony in the Ordinariates.

    Can anyone comment further on this?

  9. No gaiters? No clerical apron? Not even a Canterbury cap? I suppose we shall have to resign ourselves to the fact that some things are gone never to return.

    The late Archbishop Dwyer wrote a column many years ago in his own inimitable way on exactly when it was that episcopal wigs fell out of use. . . and why the Lords Spiritual lost them but the judiciary kept them. I wish I'd saved that one.

    1. I had mine made by a tailor, who went by a photo I gave him, and of course my dimensions. The basic construction is like any waistcoat except for the collar part. If your tailor doesn't have cloth buttons, you can order them from Euroclero, Gamarelli's or other places in Rome. Of course, made-to-measure has to be paid for…

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