What am I going to wear? Some history and meaning of clergy vestments

No this is not a question before the big dinner party.  It’s a question some clergy can be heard asking themselves Sunday morning.  As the tectonic shift in the mainline churches continues, every aspect of what it means to be the church is on shakier foundations then before, and is questioned.  Why do we do that again?  What does it mean?

And what clergy wear – from t-shirt and jeans of the disestablishment church pastor, to the tattooed arms of the incredibly authentic and cool pastor, to the bishop’s big hat – there is an amazing range of what’s on offer.

So, here is a very quick review of the history of clergy vestments, leading to the current Reformed tradition.


Aaron to Reformations

In the Hebrew Bible, the Aaronic priesthood had special vestments, set aside and consecrated for the priestly ministry.  These are created by artists and beautiful, which included an ephod (gown) woven with gold.  God says to Moses, “Make sacred garments for your brother Aaron to give him dignity and honour. Tell all the skilled workers to whom I have given wisdom in such matters that they are to make garments for Aaron, for his consecration, so he may serve me as priest. These are the garments they are to make: a breastpiece, an ephod,a robe, a woven tunic, a turban and a sash.”  Exodus 28:2-4

In Jesus’ time vestments still are used in the Temple (c.f. Mark 12:38-40a., and the ‘long robes’).  I find no evidence that Jesus wears a different set of vestments himself.  Some do call him, ‘Teacher’, suggesting rabbinic dress.   And the first churches have no distinction between what their leaders and congregations wear.

By 100 AD, however, at least one leader uses some kind of vestment – Justin Martyr wears his philosopher’s gown while teaching Christianity.  (This seems, however, to be less a vestment and more a continuation of something he had always done.)

By 428 AD, distinctions in dress between church leaders and non-leaders begin to arise.  And  are discouraged.  Pope Celestine rebukes certain bishops of Gaul for wearing attire which made them conspicuous.  The Pope lays down the rule that “we [the bishops and clergy] should be distinguished from the common people [plebe] by our learning, not by our clothes; by our conduct, not by our dress; by cleanness of mind, not by the care we spend upon our person” (Mansi, “Concilia”, IV, 465).

One of these first distinctions seems to be when the ordinary dress of the population – the long tunic – is shortened.  Clergy are wearing these, the same as everyone, but as  society goes to the shorter tunic, it may be the clergy hold on to their longer ones.  And so a distinction arises.

The stole, seen theologically as maybe a Jewish prayer shawl or a type of cloth that Jesus used to clean the disciples’ feet, most likely comes from the Roman sash.  Eventually it is used by only by dignitaries, but clergy soon adopt these as a vestments too.

The long robe and the stole may be the oldest clergy vestments.  But many others are added as the Church grows.  This continues in the Western Church in great ceremony, to the point of the Reformations, when each part of the priestly and bishopric vestments have a prayer as each piece is donned (*vesting prayer, see below).  This ceremony becomes optional in 1969, and up to then is mandatory.


Reformations Onward

The Reformations in Europe in the 1500s lead to other clergy vestments.

Most famous is Andreas Karlstadt, who announces publicly that on Christmas Day 1526 he will say the Mass in the language of the people.  He appears at Mass and officiates in his simple black University lecturing gown, discarding the intricate priestly vestments.  Martin Luther is appalled and wants slower change, but three years later is in the simple black robe.  By then Karlstadt identifies fully with the people and wears regular clothes when he leads worship.

John Calvin also dons the black academic robe and instructs his ministers to do the same.  One reason is that at one point he is not ordained but is preaching, so wears his legal lawyer’s robes from his study of law.

The clergy collar, like the long robe and stole, arises from common use in society, about 350 years after the Reformations.  In the 19th c. it becomes fashionable to turn your shirt collar down but make it go high up on the neck.  People have lace and design sown into the inside of the collar for decoration.  Priests take on the custom, and eventually develop their own decoration, a stiffed white tab.

The full band appears to have developed independently, as apart of the Anglican church, first formalized by a Scottish anglican Rev. Dr. MacCleod.  It too is thought to have come from a societal trend, this time of tying a white tie around one’s neck.  The upper class clergy eventually develop their own version, a full white high neck band.


What I am going to wear?

Although the tunic/cassock, stole and collar therefore seem to have little theological import or significance in their beginning (except say for Calvin and Karlstadt’s robes of teachers), they have come to mean something – especially the collar as the identifier, the uniform, the widely accepted outward sign that this person is a Minister in the Christian church.

In deciding what to wear as clergy, both the history and the current meaning, matter.   The church gives meaning to things over the ages that at don’t first have or find meaning their in Scripture.  

And so pastors are faced with choices.

C. S. Lewis said, “The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the worshiper’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for everyone else the proper place of ritual.”

Vestments are often considered adiaphom, things, in different in the reformed tradition.  But when choosing what to wear remember that vestments do something in the community of faith – you’re recognized as there as one with a particular vocation, new comers can see you, there’s a measure of authority with the vestments.  They can add a measure of liturgical drama, can be a connection to the ancient and can point to worship as something different and other.

Colleen Caroll writes in The New Faithful about young adults, new ministers and priests going into the ministry.  And they’re in full liturgical dress!

Finally remember that whatever you wear, Paul’s direction to the early churches matters more than anything you wear – Clothe yourself with love.  Colossians 3:12-17



*Vesting Prayer


Vesting Prayers in Latin and English

Dominus, pars hereditatis meae et calicis mei, tu es qui restitues hereditatem meam.

O Lord, the portion of my inheritance and my chalice, You are He who will restore my inheritance.


Praecinge me, Domine, cingulo puritatis, et exstingue in lumbis meis humorem libidinis; ut maneat in me virtus continentia et castitatis.

Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity, and quench in my heart the fire of concupiscence, that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide in me.

Washing Hands

Da, Domine, virtutem manibus meis ad abstergendum omnem maculam ut sine pollutione mentis et corporis valeam tibi servire.

Give strength to my hands, Lord, to wipe away all stain, so that I may be able to serve Thee in purity of mind and body. Amice
Impone, Domine, capiti meo galeam salutis, ad expugnandos diabolicos incursus.
Lord, set the helmet of salvation on my head to fend off all the assaults of the devil.


Dealba me, Domine, et munda cor meum; ut, in sanguine Agni dealbatus, gaudiis perfruare sempiternis.

Make me white, O Lord, and cleanse my heart; that being made white in the Blood of the Lamb I may deserve an eternal reward.


Praecinge me, Domine, cingulo puritatis, et exstingue in lumbis meis humorem libidinis; ut maneat in me virtus continentia et castitatis.

Gird me, O Lord, with the cincture of purity, and quench in my heart the fire of concupiscence, that the virtue of continence and chastity may abide in me.


Merear, Domine, portare manipulum fletus et doloris; ut cum exsultatione recipiam mercedem laboris.

May I deserve, O Lord, to bear the maniple of weeping and sorrow in order that I may joyfully reap the reward of my labors.


Redde mihi, Domine, stolam immortalitatis, quam perdidi in praevaricatione primi parentis: et, quamvis indignus accedo ad tuum sacrum mysterium, merear tamen gaudium sempiternum.

Lord, restore the stole of immortality, which I lost through the collusion of our first parents, and, unworthy as I am to approach Thy sacred mysteries, may I yet gain eternal joy.

Dalmatic (Deacons and Bishops)

Lord, endow me with the garment of salvation, the vestment of joy, and with the dalmatic of justice ever encompass me.


Domine, qui dixisti: Iugum meam suave est et onus meum leve: fac, ut istud portare sic valeam, quod consequar tuam gratiam. Amen.

O Lord, who has said, ‘My yoke is sweet and My burden light,’ grant that I may so carry it as to merit Thy grace.

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