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Catholic Origins

Evolution of Clerical Fashion: Formal, casual and everything in between

5th January 2023

The evolution of clerical garbs and dresses has been in constant motion and has continued to change and evolve alongside contemporary fashion. Looking back through the decades lets us see how clerical outfitting has changed and where we may expect it to go in the future…

At the end of the 18th century, the popularity of lay collars increased which were held in place by a cravat — a band of linen cloth wound around the neck. The modern clerical collar may well trace its origins to these fashions, but probably wasn’t invented by the Revd Donald McLeod, a minister in Scotland, as claimed in the late 1800s.

The staples of post-war 1950s clerical fashions had changed little from those of the late 19th century. For the day dress of the parish clergy, the frock coat had given way to the suit, tweeds, or sometimes the cassock, worn with a stock and full linen collar. During church service, clergymen wore a double-breasted cassock along with a knee-length surplice with black scarf, hood, and starched bands. This marked a change from the previous century, in which the surplice was worn at least at ankle length – a custom preserved in some Cambridge college chapels.

The 1960s may be the decade that introduced the mini-skirt but during this time, considerable changes in clerical fashion also took place. The traditional collar and stock over a formal tunic shirt gave way, for some, to black, grey, or purple shirts to which the collar could be attached directly or slipped into. Now commonly referred to as the ‘tunnel shirt’, this style of shirt was also referred to as the ‘Gleeson’ after Johanna Gleeson who first introduced and attempted to patent the shirt. Gleeson developed a strip of white plastic that could be inserted into the shirt, imitating a traditional collar and maintaining the historical clerical look to the shirt.

Originally available in black, grey, or purple, tunnel shirts are now seen in a wide variety of colours and patterns to accommodate any personal style or preference. A further development of this style featured a strip of white plastic which fastened to the stock of the shirt with press-studs; which are known as tonsure shirts. These shirts are considered a more formal style to the typical tunnel shirts and are adorned during conventional ceremonies.

The 1970s saw society accustomed to convenience foods and autonomous labour-saving devices such as washing machines and dishwashers. Life was generally becoming more informal, and this began to reflect in many areas of society. In church — influenced, perhaps, by the perceived relaxations of the Second Vatican Council — the cassock alb made an appearance.

Just as the tunnel shirt did away with collar studs, starching, and the need for a separate stock, the cassock alb was a versatile garment that could be worn with a stole (even, if the present vesture canon is followed, with the scarf). While undoubtedly saving time and expense, the cassock alb can be seen as a clerical expression of the drop in formal standards, or the welcome increase in comfort dress becoming commonplace in society more generally.

Clerical Fashion
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In 1992, the Church of England then approved the ordination of women to the priesthood, and the first were ordained on 12 March 1994, in Bristol Cathedral, by the Bishop. However, it wasn’t until the early 2000s which saw the Church of England vote in favour of removing the legal obstacles preventing women from becoming bishops.  The process did not progress quickly due to problems in providing appropriate mechanisms for the protection of those who could not accept this development. It was not until 2014 The first woman to be ordained as a bishop in the Church of England was Libby Lane, whose appointment as Bishop of Stockport was announced on 17 December 2014.

Clerical clothing options for women were limited, with many opting to wear the shirts that were made for men. Teri McDowell writes “20 years ago, there weren’t many styles or colours — tab or round collar, black or grey shirt in a cotton-poly blend. I measured my neck and ordered over the phone. When I received the shirt and tried it on, it was sized for a man’s body. It fit me like a big, black garbage bag cinched at the neck.”

As more and more women chose a life of service within the church, clothing options have diversified and tailored options are now readily available for women. Outfitters now design and produce tailored women’s products such as ladies shirts and blouses which provide a suitable feminine fit. Over the last 15 years, Hammond and Harper of London have remained committed to their women’s product range and designing unique products that provide a comfortable and flattering fit for both men and women.

As we have established throughout this article, clerical clothing trends appears to run concurrent with contemporary fashion styles. The shift from formal to casual over the years, both within the clergy and society in general, has saw more relaxed articles of clothing being introduced for priests and vicars.

The Hammond & Harper design team are constantly innovating and shaping clerical clothing in Britain. There are a number of new clothing options currently in the design pipeline, which includes a casual grandad collar style shirt for men. Subscribe at the bottom of the page to our newsletter to be notified of monthly sales, discounts codes and announcements of new products for men or women.

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