What Is The Meaning Of Clergy Vestments?

Sep 14th 2021

For many, the first image that comes to their mind when they think of  clergy vestments is a black robe with a white tab collar. It is the image most movies and television series show when they represent a servant of God, and most secular people only see priests wearing a black cassock or a tab collar shirt when they encounter them outside of the church. Additionally, popular culture typically pictures liturgical vestments as being pompous or to represent men of God gone astray.

But, as usual, reality is even more fascinating and complex than fiction.

Clerical attire and clergy vestments did not originate as a way of differentiating the members of the church from the laymen. On the contrary, they pretty much model modest garments worn by ordinary people from centuries past. Up until the 4th century, Christian officers and leaders wore the same clothes as ordinary people with the only condition of keeping them clean and pure during ceremonies or holy observances. However, as time passed, secular fashions changed as they often do, yet the church decided to keep their traditions alive.

This is not to mean that clergy vestments have remained unchanged. On the contrary, they also went through several yet gradual transformations as new materials and dyes became more readily available. However, it is still possible to trace the origins of each piece of garment and their meaning.

First, we must differentiate between clericals and vestments.

What Are Clericals?

Put simply, clerical is synonymous with streetwear. However, there is nothing ordinary about it other than the fact that the ordained use clericals every day. They are very formal and must be kept impeccable at all times. They must serve to make it easier for people to recognize a member of the church in their communities, multiplying the opportunities of talking about Jesus. Clericals normally include tab collar shirts or a rabbat over a white long sleeve neckband shirt.

Many associate clericals almost exclusively with black tones. However, collar shirts can be of any color, making priests more approachable while doing community work.

The use of clericals is not restricted to streetwear. While they are less formal than clergy vestments, they still emanate an aura of respect for the office and functions. You can notice that many bishops attend informal worship services, dinners, ecumenical councils, and public sessions of the church, wearing tab collar shirts with the distinctive purple colors of the office.

Depending on the denomination, there are certain rules to be observed when wearing clericals. For example, in the presence of the Presiding Bishop, other bishops are allowed to wear purple clericals only if the Chief Apostle is wearing red. Otherwise, they must wear black clericals. And wearing purple outside of their jurisdiction is frowned upon.

What Are Clergy Vestments?

The term vestment encompasses all the special clothing worn by those conducting a worship service. Despite their special appearance, their origins are very humble. Most pieces were worn by ordinary people during the 4th century in Greek and Roman cultures. Admittedly, there have been changes in quality and use of colors, but the style has remained the same while secular clothing fashions never cease to fluctuate.

In reality, clergy vestments are to be worn over regular clericals, meaning that a man of the cloth is not really elevated or separated from the rest. In fact, the purpose of vestments is to conceal fashionable or improper attire that might be distracting for churchgoers.

Many outside the spheres of the church might consider clergy vestments as pretentious or over-the-top. However, their long-term effect is precisely the opposite. They serve as equalizers as they diminish the distinctiveness of leaders and clergy members, giving them uniformity and indicating that they´re mere servants of a higher power.

Clergy Dress Code

There are very strict rules for wearing liturgic garments both during worship and while acting in official capacity. Clergy vestments have deeply spiritual meanings but, in general, they symbolize roles, functions, and order within the organization. As a consequence, no member can use vestments to voice personal opinions, political preferences, or favoritism towards any cause outside the one they represent. Additionally, all members are expected to be immaculate in dress from head to toes, as each represents the organization as a whole.

Bishopry is the highest denomination in the Christian sphere. For ages, they have always fulfilled the role of mentors to others who want to follow the path to priesthood. They hold an apostolic or representative role in our communities and over the globe and are in charge of overseeing the administrative and temporal duties of the church. In fact, the origins of the word “bishop” can be traced back to the Greek episkopos, which means “overseer”.

Many denominations have large dioceses or jurisdictions. They are presided by regional or state bishops who oversee the temporal, religious, and economic ministries of their organization. They are also the only ones who can ordain new members of the clergy such as pastors, elders, and ministers. They can be seen wearing clericals even when performing office functions. However, in many denominations, especially in the Church of God in Christ, bishops must follow a very strict dress code. Interestingly enough, according to many modern denominations, while it is necessary to maintain certain sober standards, it is also important to keep a balance between beauty and fervor or “Order with Ardour”. This approach makes it possible to see elaborate or more adorned clericals, or even vestments with beautiful patterns during liturgical services.

Elements of Clergy Vestments

The first element we notice among members of the clergy is the robe or Roman cassock. Technically, the cassock is not a vestment but a clerical or an undergarment for vestments. It´s the ankle-length robe we typically see religious people from most denominations wear. It is buttoned down the middle from the neck to the ankles. In most cases, the cassock must be plain and unadorned and there are two reasons for that. One is obviously to keep uniformity among clergymen as drawing attention to oneself during service is unbecoming. But the other reason is even more important: it conveys the idea that all members of the clergy are part of something bigger than themselves. One must remember that service and worship are not about individuals. It is about the office and place they have in their organizations.

In most Anglican denominations, bishops are the only priests who can wear colors other than black. For example, while holding or attending the Holy Communion, the installation of a bishop and other officers, ecumenical worship services, graduation ceremonies, and the solemnization of marriage, the highest-ranking bishop in the jurisdiction or worship service wears a purple cassock.

Purple is also the color of choice when participating in the dedication of secular facilities such as hospitals, when praying the benediction at political functions, such as the inauguration of a political office, and the formal and semi-formal solemnization of marriage.

Blue cassocks can be seen at lesser or solemn services such as the celebration of Good Friday Services, funerals, or chapel solemnization of marriage.

If you see a bishop wearing a scarlet red cassock, you might be in the presence of the Chief Apostle of the Church or Presiding Bishop, which is the highest rank in the denomination.

Most bishops wear the purple of the office when they preside services in their jurisdiction. However, in the presence of members of the General Board of Bishops or superiors, they can only wear the black habit, even during services presided by them.

A white rochet must be worn on top of the cassock. The Anglican rochet is modeled after the traditional albs worn by medieval priests to signify the purity of baptism and a symbol of resurrection. In Anglican churches, they are long-sleeved and ankle-length tunics that can be worn by any member of the clergy. They commonly show wrist-ruffs and bands that match the colors of the cassock.

Then comes the chimere or surplice. The chimere is a sleeveless robe that's used on top of the rochet and cassock. It is said to be a descendant of the medieval tabard, a piece of garment worn by ordinary people at the time However, it has changed a lot throughout the centuries. Today it is open down the front and is also ankle-length. Chimeres can be seen in certain academic circles, due to their association with knowledge. When used for liturgical purposes, chimeras must match the cassock and rochet´s band´s colors.

The zucchetto is also part of a complete sacred attire. It is the small skullcap we are familiar with if we attend church. Its origins go back to the middle ages where it was forbidden to wear headpieces during services (and it still is frowned upon). Due to discomfort caused by cold weather, aging clerics with thinning hair had to find a way to cover their scalps and keep their heads warm. So the zucchettos were adopted. The name comes from the word “Zucca” which means pumpkin, and it reflects the fact that zucchettos resemble a pumpkin cut in half. As usual, during official duties, their colors must match that of the cassock.

Lastly, bishops must wear a matching cincture around the waist. It is commonly made of silk but must always be identical in color and material of the cassock or robe.

Variations in Clergy Vestments

There are certain variations in vestment use according to rank and occasion. Jurisdictional bishops for example can only wear black cassocks and chimeres, yet must display a purple cincture to signify their jurisdiction during ceremonies where higher-ranking members are present. However, auxiliary bishops are not allowed to wear the purple as they have no jurisdiction. Pastors and elders are restricted to black vestments except for the chimere or surplice which must be white.

As mentioned earlier, cassocks are technically undergarments. During services, and while on official missions, people of the cloth must wear vestments to remind people that they are witnessing something sacred. Vestments also serve to point to the beauty of worshiping God, and they can give us clues about the position a clergy person occupies in the organization.

We also explained that cassocks can reveal the position of certain members of the organization depending on the color. But there are other elements that display the rank and office of ordained priests.

The long rectangular piece of cloth that hangs vertically from each shoulder is called a tippet or stole. However, they are not the same. The tippet simply symbolizes the yoke of office. It must be plain and unadorned and match the colors of the cassock. Like many of the other clergy vestments, the origins of the tippet come from practical medieval clothing. People used tippets for warmth, and they could be plain or even fur-lined. They were common among members of the church and the academy as well. Now that central heating has been widely adopted, tippets are generally made of silk or light fabrics. These can be worn by any member of the clergy.

On the other hand, we have stoles. They are worn in the same fashion as tippets. However, they do serve as signs of order and office. They carry the seal of the office or the symbol of the denomination. These can only be worn by ordained priests as a signal that they are acting in official capacity.

As you can see, there are many different elements within the Christian tradition that have long been misunderstood but possess a rich history and deep meanings.

If you want to talk to experts in clergy vestments, or even take your first steps into the priesthood, you can give us a call or visit our showroom in Hamilton, New Jersey. Divinity Clergy Wear not only sells clericals and clergy vestments online. We are more than happy to have you visit us in-store so you can get first-hand knowledge and feel of some of the liturgical garments and accessories. Give us a call at 877-453-3535 to set up a time to come see us. That way, you’ll know what you’re getting before you buy it!