Many Priests break into a sweat the first time they shop for a clerical shirt. Rev. Brendan Busse had nine years to go before he would become a priest, and the idea of wearing the black collar and white tab that would prompt strangers to call him “father” unnerved him. He recognised that those “clothes are not just about me,” as he wrote in a 2012 Jesuit Post essay. “They are about my relationship with everyone out there. When I wear that black clerical shirt in public, when I pull that white tab across my throat, I am giving myself to them. The people I encounter then, they no longer see the ‘me’ I’d like them to see…Instead, they see ‘priest.’”
Many forget the heavy responsibility that donning the symbolic garb brings with it. It can be a daunting thought for many of the newly ordained to understand how to integrate their own personality with the encumbrance of their holy duty. For some priests, this can take months, if not years, to figure out exactly how to do this for themselves. When we discuss the sacrifice made for those taking up religious vocation, this is something that must be considered – the sacrificing of ones past self for a higher calling.
Since writing about his first visit to a clerical goods store, the Reverend has a “great sense of who I am in the vocation.” While he once worried that wearing cleric’s clothing might lead people to project their preconceptions about the church and the priesthood onto him, he now has a different view. “There’s always room for self-expression,” he says of wearing religious garb. “Sometimes a blank palate allows for self-expression. My personality might be accentuated.”
In the days of the early church, the clergy did not have a distinct dress code. But before long, local synods barred religious leaders from wearing fun stuff like bold colors, flashy jewelry, and flimsy priest clothing. When the Middle Ages arrived, the cassock, once widely worn by lay people, became distinctly associated with the clergy. In the 1600s and 1700s, the Catholic Church imposed more restrictions on clergy dress, and other liturgical denominations followed suit.
In recent years, the number of Catholic priests has declined whilst the number of female clergy from different denominations has risen. This trend has led religious apparel companies to adjust to meet women’s needs. Over the last 20 years, outfitters like Hammond & Harper have continued to adapt to the ever-changing needs of clerical clothing, introducing a more comprehensive selection of women’s clothing. While black remains the most popular clerical shirt colour, they can now be found in a rainbow of colours — from green to grape.
Today, clergy members typically wear the vestments specified in holy books for formal church services. But, depending on their denomination, they have a variety of options for leisurewear. But Rev. Busse isn’t as interested in the style, cut, or fabric of his apparel as he is in what his attire signifies, stating that “A lot of clothing is self-representation, particularly with uniforms of any kind or religious clothing. The clothing part of it is saying, ‘This is who I am and who I’ve chosen to be.’”
Hammond & Harper take the needs of the entire clerical community very seriously and as the landscape changes and apparel needs evolve, so do we. Increasingly, that may mean a cassock designed for a woman or a brighter clerical shirt for a church leader. In the past, the clergy have adhered to rigid dress codes and finally have more room to explore their creativity today, allowing for an easier transition when melding their own personality and self-expression with their holy duty.