Clothes fit for an archbishop

August 22, 2015

Ever wondered about the great variety of vestments that are worn during cathedral services – ranging from the plain and simple to the vividly coloured and embroidered?

Some of those garments have their origin in the very earliest days of the Christian church, and they incorporate a wealth of symbolism.

“Vestment” is the term for the special clothing worn by people who conduct a worship service. Today, vestments are designed to be worn over street clothes.

The significance of the colours is:

  • Cream/white: feasts of Our Lord, and many festivals of saints who were not martyred.
  • Red: flame and blood – Pentecost. Saints who were martyred – Palm Sunday and Good Friday.
  • Purple: Advent and Lent. Sign of penance (except on saints’ days).
  • Green: denotes growth, and hope generally after the season of Pentecost until Advent (except on saints’ days).

Common vestments are:

  • Alb: a survival of the Roman toga. A plain, lightweight, ankle-length tunic with long sleeves, usually of white or undyed fabric, and generally worn with a rope cincture around the waist. Can be worn by anyone who has a leadership role in worship, whether clergy or lay people.
  • Stole: long and narrow, worn around the neck and extending below the knees. Worn by ordained clergy.
  • Chasuble: once a circular mantle or cloak with an opening for the head; nowadays it connotes solemnity and formality, and can be worn by the celebrant during Eucharist.
  • Cope: ornate and cape-like, formerly a rain-cloak. Worn by a bishop.
  • Mitre: a distinctive hat, worn by a bishop.
  • Surplice: a lightweight blouse-like sleeved garment, usually white. Worn over the cassock for evensong and funerals; also sometimes worn by choir members.

Cassocks are not vestments, but old-fashioned street clothes that are worn under vestments; they are plain, lightweight, sleeved and ankle-length.

Robes are not vestments either; they are also sleeved and ankle-length. Those worn in church are choir robes, clergy robes and academic gowns.

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