Clothing, Religious

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Clothing, Religious

Distinctive clothing, a common and easily recognized feature of most religious practice, has five functions:

  1. Clothing may serve to differentiate a religious group from the dominant culture in which it is found. The clothing worn by certain Amish communities or by Hasidic Jews serves this function. Often the clothing chosen by the group is self-consciously archaic or old-fashioned to distinguish it from current secular fashion.
  2. Certain items of clothing identify individuals as members of a particular religious community. A distinctive head covering, such as the yarmulke worn by observant Jews as they go about in the world outside their own religious community, is an example.
  3. Within a religious community, clothing often distinguishes those members who lead the community from those who are ordinary members. These articles of clothing function like the uniform of a secular official, such as the black robe of a judge. The use of clerical dress (such as the clerical, or Roman, collar) by Christian clergy apart from the assembly for worship exemplifies this use. The distinctive habit worn by members of religious orders of nuns and monks or friars is another example.
  4. Some items of religious clothing are associated specifically with devotional practice rather than office or position in the religious community. The prayer shawl (tallith) used by some Jews is an example of this use.
  5. Items of clothing that are associated specifically with the assembly gathered for worship and that identify its leaders are generally called vestments. Identifying officially designated leaders is emphasized and the particular identity of the individuals is minimized.

Secular Origins

Using clothing as a way of distinguishing one group from another and individuals within a particular group is not limited to religions. Throughout history the color purple has been used to distinguish aristocratic or royal individuals from common persons. The distinctive clothing associated with particular occupations is another way of communicating the authority of the wearer, such as the uniform of a police officer.

Within the Jewish and Christian traditions distinctive clothing came to be associated with the exercise of leadership in assemblies that gathered for the worship of God. These traditions can be traced to Exodus, chapters 25 and 28. Particular dress was prescribed for particular classes of persons as they exercised their functions associated with worship (examples: Levites and priests and high priests). In the case of Judaism, this use was closely associated with the tabernacle and the succession of temples in Jerusalem.

Contemporary Jewish Use

American Jewish practice today reflects little of the vestments described for use in tabernacle and temple. The clothing associated with teaching and the handing on of the tradition now shapes Jewish usage. The gown of the scholar distinguishes the rabbi from the congregation of the faithful, not the ephod and breastplate of Exodus. This dress marks the rabbi's role as teacher. Some items of religious clothing that are not designated only for rabbis include the yarmulke (skullcap) and the tallith (prayer shawl).

Contemporary Christian Use

Contemporary Christian vestment draws from two distinguishable sources: first from ancient Roman secular garb and later from the clothing of the academy—especially the medibeval university. The church's use of vestments to distinguish the ministers of the Eucharist is traceable to the Romans. The bishop or priest presiding at the Eucharist was distinguished from the people of the assembly by the conservative or even anachronistic use of a long white Roman tunic, the alb (from the Latin, alba). (The alb is an ankle-length long-sleeved white garment worn with the amice, a rectangle of fabric matching the alb, around the neck; the amice is secured with cloth tapes crossed over the chest and tied at the waist—but it is now seldom used. Other items of ceremonial attire include the cincture, a band of fabric or cord that secured the alb at the waist; a stole, a long narrow band of fabric worn over the alb or surplice; the maniple, a narrow band of fabric worn over the left forearm (its use was abandoned by the Roman church after the Second Vatican Council); and a chasuble, a sleeveless poncholike garment worn over the alb and stole by the minister presiding at the Eucharist. These garments designated the person wearing them as the leader of the assembly. They also functioned to identify the wearer as having authority to lead the community in this matter.

The vestments of the Orthodox Christian churches and Eastern Rite Catholic churches vary from those of the Roman Catholic church because of their differing point of origin—the Byzantine court dress influenced the Eastern church—and because subsequent patterns of development were careful to distinguish between East and West.

The second major source from which Christian vesture developed was the late medieval universities in the West. The mark of authority in this context was the robe worn by the professor, which marked the formal convocation of scholars and teachers. By the sixteenth century many Christian reformers made a decision to break with the Roman church's pattern of Eucharistic, or mass, vestments in favor of the professor's robe and the hood worn over it to indicate the degree held by the wearer. This was consistent with their emphasis on preaching and teaching.

Contemporary American Christian practice draws upon both of these traditions. The Roman Catholic practice today continues to honor the ancient tradition of Eucharistic vesture for the priest presiding at the mass and related vestments for those assisting. This practice is also common among Episcopal churches and in Lutheran churches. A recent trend is for presiding ministers to wear only the alb and stole in some settings (omitting the chasuble). For assemblies of worship that do not center on the Eucharist, these churches use the cassock and surplice, sometimes with added stole for ordained persons. This pattern of dress (without the stole) is used by choirs and lay servers as well as by the clergy in some congregations. Protestant churches drawing on the reformed tradition tend to prefer the academic gown of the doctor either with the academic hood (which now indicates the degree earned and the school granting the degree) or with a stole indicating authorized religious leadership. The use of the alb and stole is also gaining among American Protestants.

Clothing and Office

Distinctive vesture also pertains to some forms or offices of ministry within the Roman, Episcopal, and Lutheran communities. A stole worn over the left shoulder and fixed at the right waist is a mark of ordained deacons. The dalmatic can also be a sign of diaconal office. The alb worn without other additions distinguishes baptized lay assistants and servers. Bishops also have clothing indicative of their office. A pectoral cross, a bishop's ring, a shepherd's staff (crozier), and a miter are used in Roman and Episcopal churches in America. Episcopal bishops also use the cassock, rochet, and chimere as clothing that distinguishes them in the exercise of their office in settings other than the Eucharist. The cope (a form of cape), though not strictly limited even to ordained persons, is often associated with bishops in these churches. In America Lutheran bishops are identified primarily by the pectoral cross, though the use of the crozier is growing more common.

Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic vestments reflect the same basic patterns as those used by Catholics in the West, though the actual look of the vestments is quite distinct from the Roman. The head covering worn by bishops and priests apart from the liturgy (kamilaukion—worn by monks with a veil called the klobuk) is one distinctive feature.

Some American Protestant churches have abandoned the use of both these traditional forms of vestments in favor of clothing that mirrors secular use. Examples of this can be seen in individual congregations of many Protestant denominations. Such garments are also commonplace in distinctively American religions such as the various free church traditions and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

As a multicultural recovery and renaissance take place in American Christian churches, black robes trimmed with African cloth and other distinctive cultural features of Christian churches from around the globe can be expected to enrich American religious tradition.

See alsoKippah; Ministry; Priesthood; Rabbinate; Religious Communities.


Philippart, David, ed. Clothed in Glory. 1997.

Paul R. Nelson

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Clothing, Religious

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