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Catholic Origins

Clerical Garment Types and Care

26th January 2022

Vestment is the term for a formal article of clothing that is worn by the people who conduct a worship service. Vestments originated as ordinary street clothes of the first century, but have more or less remained the same as clothing fashions have changed. Clerical is the term to describe the distinctive street clothing that clergy wear, such as black shirts with white collars. The shirt can be any colour, but the more prominent and traditional colour is black. There are two kinds, full neckband shirts and tunnel collar shirts.

Today, vestments are designed to be worn over street clothes and serve a number of practical purposes: they conceal the distractions of fashionable street clothing, they remove any consideration of what constitutes appropriate attire, and they remind the congregation that the ministers are not acting on their own, but performing in their official capacities. The purpose of vestments is not to glorify the clergy as individuals but to draw attention to what they are doing, whether offering prayer, proclaiming the Gospel or re-enacting the Lord’s Supper.

In the UK, vestments are a popular form of attire for priests conducting formal service, however in some overseas churches, they are often only worn by church choirs. Common vestments include albs, chasubles, robes, and surplices. People commonly think that cassocks are vestments, but they are really just old-fashioned street clothes that are worn underneath vestments.


The ‘foundation garment’ of all sets of vestments is the alb (from Latin albus, meaning white). It derives ultimately from the under-tunic of Roman times. As the alb is put on, the priest or deacon prays to be made pure. It is fastened with a girdle round the waist and is topped off with a neckcloth called an amice. A wide linen robe reaching to the feet and covering the whole body.

The vesting prayer is: “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.”

Historical Origin: The alb, or tunic, was worn in ancient times by all who enjoyed any dignity. The lace alb is a 17th century development.

Symbolic Reference: (a) The garment with which Herod clothed Our Lord, (b) Signifies the purity of conscience demanded of God’s priest.


The priest also wears a stole around the neck. This is a long strip of coloured material which indicates the priestly calling. The stole is also worn at other times, such as weddings (white) or confessions (purple). A long band of silk of the same width as the maniple, but three times its length. It is worn around the neck and crossed on the breast.

The vesting prayer is: “Restore to me, O Lord, the state of immortality which I lost through the sin of my first parents and, although unworthy to approach Thy Sacred Mysteries, may I deserve nevertheless eternal joy.”

Historical Origin: A kind of neck-piece or kerchief; a part of the dress of the upper classes. It gradually became the distinctive mark of spiritual authority in the higher clerics, viz., the priest and deacon.

Symbolic Reference: (a) The cords with which Jesus was tied. Worn as it is over the shoulders, it reminds us, too, of the Cross Our Lord carried, (b) A reminder of the Yoke of Christ. The priest’s burden is a heavy one, which Christ nevertheless makes sweet and light.


On the left wrist is the maniple, originally a towel like the ones carried by French waiters. It has come to be a symbol of the ‘sheaf of tears’ which we must endure before entering into joy.

The vesting prayer is: “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.”

Historical Origin: Originally a strip of linen worn over the arm. During the long services, and in the intense heat of southern countries its use was frequently necessary to wipe the perspiration from the face and brow.

Symbolic Reference: (a) The rope whereby Our Lord was led, and the chains which bound His sacred hands, (b) An emblem of the tears of penance, the fatigue of the priestly penance and its joyful reward in Heaven.


The chasuble is the outer and chief vestment of the priest. It Is essentially the Mass vestment and is now exclusively reserved to the priest. The vestment is familiar to all by reason of the Cross usually embroidered on it. The word “chasuble” is derived from the Latin, casula, a little house. The ancient vestment completely enveloped the priest, and was somewhat like a tent.

The vesting prayer is: “O Lord, Who hast said, ‘My yoke is sweet and My burden light,’ grant that I may so carry it as to merit Thy grace.”

Historical Origin: Imagine a large circular cloth with a hole cut in the center for the head. This will help one to visualize the ancient chasuble, which was an immense cloak, without opening in front, and without sleeves. It was put on over the head and completely enveloped the body. When it was necessary to use the hands, the garment had to be folded up on each side over the arms. Because of its inconvenience (for two assistants were needed to manipulate it), the vestment was gradually cut and altered until it now has its present shape.

Symbolic Reference: (a) The purple cloak worn by Our Lord when He stood before Pilate, (b) An emblem of love. When the ordaining bishop gives it to the new priest, he says: “Receive the priestly garment, for the Lord is powerful to increase in you love and perfection.”




High Mass (or Solemn Mass) is that which is celebrated by a priest, assisted by deacon and subdeacon, with all the solemnity of chant, incense and full ceremonial. The set of vestments shown right, is what is required for a High Mass ceremony. Three separate clergy do the work of the sub-deacon (reading the piece of Scripture from the Epistles, assisting the deacon), the deacon (reading the Gospel, preparing the Table) and the priest (offering the Mass).

The Solemn Mass builds further upon the vestments of the Missa Cantata, generally having the cope worn by the priest for the Asperges sprinkling rite, the chasuble for the priest of course, and then in addition the vestments worn by the deacon and subdeacon, namely the dalmatic and tunicle; the subdeacon also wears a large veil for part of the Mass (Offertory and Consecration) called the humeral veil. For High Mass, the vestments worn are predominantly gold.



White is the colour for the festal periods from Christmas Day to the Presentation and from Easter Day to the Eve of Pentecost, for Trinity Sunday, for Festivals of Our Lord and the Blessed Virgin Mary, for All Saints’ Day, and for the Festivals of those saints not venerated as martyrs, for the Feast of Dedication of a church, at Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday and in thanksgiving for Holy Communion and Holy Baptism. It is used for Marriages, and is suitable for Baptism, Confirmation and Ordination, though red may be preferred.

Red is used during Holy Week (except at Holy Communion on Maundy Thursday), on the Feast of Pentecost, may be used between All Saints’ Day and the First Sunday of Advent (except where other provision is made) and is used for the Feasts of those saints venerated as martyrs. It is appropriate for any services which focus on the gift of the Holy Spirit, and is therefore suitable for Baptism, Confirmation and Ordination. Coloured hangings are traditionally removed for Good Friday and Easter Eve, but red is the colour for the liturgy on Good Friday.

Purple  (which may vary from ‘Roman purple’ to violet, with blue as an alternative) is the colour for Advent and from Ash Wednesday until the day before Palm Sunday. It is recommended for Funerals and for the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, although either black or white may be preferred. A Lent array of unbleached linen is sometimes used as an alternative to purple, but only from Ash Wednesday until the day before Palm Sunday. Rose-colour is sometimes used as an alternative on the Third Sunday of Advent and the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

Green is used from the day after the Presentation until Shrove Tuesday, and from the day after Pentecost until the eve of All Saints’ Day, except when other provision is made. It may also be used, rather than red, between All Saints’ Day and the First Sunday of Advent.


Clergy clothing is a niche set of clothing that requires equally unique methods of care and maintenance. Because of its fabric, extra care is necessary to keep it free from wrinkles and stains. If you need to keep your clergy clothing clean and well maintained, use this short guide in to prevent the unique clothing from losing its colour and crispness.

Care labels: Care labels are not just uncomfortable tags on the inside of your robes’ neckline. Before you cut them out, make sure to read them as they contain important information regarding your robe. It tells you if it’s made from natural fibers such as cotton, wool, silk, linen, or synthetic materials such as polyester, rayon, or satin.

Use mesh washing bags: If your washing machine doesn’t have a gentle wash setting, you can use mesh laundry bags instead. Mesh laundry bags protect your robe from snags and rips. It can also help prevent wrinkles and the need for ironing later on.

Air dry: Air-drying is sufficient for clerical robes since dryer settings can contribute to its wear and tear. You can hang your clothes under the shed or in any area away from direct sunlight to keep them from fading.

Robe hangers: After wear, hang your clerical robe with a contoured robe hanger to preserve its shape. Make sure to fasten the hook and eye closure or close its zipper and align it on the hanger. You should also check that cuffs and buttons are closed. Allow body heat and odours to dissipate before storing them in your closet.

Professional dry-cleaning services: Of course, the best way to ensure the the longevity of your clerical vestments is to seek out professional washing services. They offer a vast array of services such as dry cleaning, hand or machine washing, and pressing that maintain the fabric’s quality. Professional laundry services provide the same benefits that they cater for special fabrics such as silk and vicuña. Without these services, clergy clothing may be prone to damage over time. It’s because special cleaning services such as bleaching use chemicals that could cause discoloration and other types of damage to the clothing.