Episco-Fact #40
April 2, 2017

Episco-fashion – fact: What are all the robes and other clothing items that people wear in our church services and why do we wear them?

Episcopalians, Lutherans, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics certainly wear clothes in worship that we do not normally see on the streets of the United States these days. And, it is a fashion statement that comes from the ancient church because the robes, stoles, and collars come from the normal fashions of previous fashion epochs, and thankfully, none of those fashion epochs include the 1970's expressions.

The oldest items come from the period of the Roman Empire, because these items were often worn by the average Roman citizen. Explanations below:

  1. Cassock Alb: An ankle length white robe worn by our presider, choir, LEMs, and acolytes. It was an "undergarment", though not underwear, in ancient Rome and was often covered by a cloak of some sort. It still serves as the base garment for Eucharistic settings in all the Church traditions noted above.
  2. Cassock: The ankle-length black robe worn by our assisting priests, Choir Director, and Organist. It was the true street garment for men in the Roman Empire. It has remained as part of the wardrobe of priests and bishops since. It is most prominently seen in the wardrobe of the Bishop of Rome (his version is white) and in movie and television series with Anglican Priests (see Grantchester on PBS or the dramatization of any Jane Austin novel). Because Morning Prayer dominated the Church of England and its off-shoots from the Restoration of 1662 through early Victorian England, this garment really evokes sentimental feelings in life-long (i.e. BCP 1928) Episcopalians.
  3. Surplice: The white robe worn over the Cassock. You see it on our Assisting Priests, the Choir Master, and the Organist and in the same movies I mentioned above. Originally a cut-off alb.
  4. Stole: Long thin cloth that hangs about the shoulders of the priest. It is most likely derived from the marks of office in the Roman Empire that identified the bureaucratic section or college that the wearer belonged to, as well as the rank in that section or college. In current usage, it is in the color of the liturgical season.
  5. Chasuble: The outermost garment worn by a priest while presiding at a Eucharist. In the Anglican tradition, it covers the stole. Like the stole, it is matched to the color of the season. Originally a conical poncho worn in the Roman Empire over the Alb, to protect the garment and the wearer from the weather.

Next week: BCP on Holy Week.

The Rev. David Lucey