Clerical Vesture Development
Over the Centuries

Clerical vesture development from the days of the earliest church to now.

When speaking of Vestments and or Clerical Vesture today, one must immediately describe the article or articles to which one is referring.

Since the liturgical reforms within the Western Church, and since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), there is one use which deals with the historical Vestments, those used for centuries and even millennia, and another which has to do with those being used in our present day and age.

Over the past 1,975 years since the birth of the Church on Pentecost, 33 A.D., the history of the Christian Church’s Ecclesiastic Vestments has changed in style and in numbers used. We know this by studying archeology as well as patient comparison of the works of authors and artists of prior centuries and/or millennia and by actual Vestments that have survived to our present day.

The Earliest Vestments

We know that clerical vesture development and the earliest Vestments of the Christian Church evolved by a natural process from the ordinary clothing of the common citizen of the first or second century Roman Empire. In the process of time those garments, which were universally worn by the people became peculiar to the Ministers and Servants of the Altar.

Better Garments for Mass

In times of peace (when there was no persecution) and under normal conditions better garments were probably used, and these were especially reserved for the celebration of the Sacraments, notably the Holy Eucharist – Mass.

It would undoubtedly have scandalized the faithful if they had seen the Clergy wearing dusty, dirty, or worn garments. The opinion which St. Jerome expresses is clear: "The Divine religion has one dress in the service of Sacred things, another in ordinary daily life."

It is probable that, as early as the close of the pre-Constantinian period, distinct liturgical Vestments as a part of clerical vesture development came into use among the Bishops, Priests and Deacons, such as the Stole (Orarion), and the Pallium (Omophorion).

Development Between The Fourth
To The Ninth Century

Around the end of the fourth and up to the ninth century, clerical vesture development increased in the Church. It is the most important epoch in the history of Liturgical Vestments, the epoch in which not merely a Priestly dress in a special sense was created, but one which at the same time determined the principle Vestments of the present Liturgical garb.

The process of development which was completed in this period includes five essential elements:

  1. Definitive separation of the Vestments worn at the Liturgical Offices from all non-Liturgical clothing, and especially from that used in secular life;
  2. Separation and definitive settlement of certain articles of dress;
  3. Introduction of the “sacrales distinctive” – distinctively sacred;
  4. Employment of the Vestments definitively assigned for use at the Divine Offices with retention of the ordinary clothing under these Vestments;
  5. Lastly, introduction of a Special Blessing for the Vestments intended for Liturgical use.

Eastern Versus Western Development

It cannot be decided positively how far clerical vesture development was carried out by means of mere custom, and how far by positive Ecclesiastical legislation.

However, it may be taken as certain that the growth of a Priestly clothing did not proceed everywhere at an equal pace, and it is very probable that clerical vesture development was completed earlier and more rapidly in the East than in Western Europe, and that the Ecclesiastical clothing worn in the Eastern half of the Church was the prototype for Western Europe, at least with regard to certain Vestments (Stole and Pallium).

Separation of Priestly and Daily Wear

It was of much importance for the forming of a special Priestly clothing differing from the garments ordinarily worn, that the “Poenula” (Cloak or Mantle) and the long Tunic, which came into universal use in the third century and were also worn in the Offices of the Church, were gradually replaced in daily life, from about the sixth century, by the shorter Tunic and the more convenient open mantle.

The Church did not join in this return to the former fashion, but retained the existing style, which was more suitable to the dignity of the Divine offices; this fact in itself was the beginning of a rubrically distinct Priestly dress.

As regards the influence of Rome Patriarchate upon the clerical vesture development of a Liturgical wear in other parts of Western Europe, such influence cannot have been of much importance outside of Italy before the eighth century.

The case, however, was different in the eighth century, and as early as the ninth century Roman custom was authoritative nearly everywhere in the West.

Timeline Of Liturgical Use

To demonstrate the extent of these changes in clerical vesture development, the following is given so that the reader may see at a glance the date of the various additions. The Pontifical (Bishop) use is given as the fullness of Liturgical use.

800 - 900 A.D

From the Writings of Maurus and Aleuin

  • Alb
  • Cincture
  • Amice
  • Stole
  • Maniple
  • Dalmatic
  • Tunic
  • Chasuble
  • Sandals
  • Pallium

1120 A.D.

From the Writings of Ivo of Chartres

  • Alb
  • Cincture
  • Amice
  • Stole
  • Maniple
  • Dalmatic
  • Tunic
  • Chasuble
  • Cope
  • Sandals
  • Stockings
  • Pallium
  • Pectoral Cross
  • Crosier

Vestments from the Ninth to
Thirteenth Century

The ninth to the thirteenth century, completed the clerical vesture development in Western Europe. It ceased to be customary for those serving at the Altar (the acolytes,) to wear the Chasuble, Stole, and Maniple of the celebrating Bishop or Priest.

The Tunicle became the customary Vestment of the Subdeacons; the Chasuble was the Vestment exclusively worn at the celebration of the Holy Eucharist - Mass, as the Cope, the liturgical caps, took its place at the other Liturgical functions.

Another, clerical vesture development, the Surplice, which, appearing in the course of the eleventh century, began in steadily increasing measure to replace the Alb. In this time period, above all, the Pontifical dress, the Vestments worn by the Bishop received its definitive form. This was the natural result of the enormous advance in the secular importance of the Bishops and of their position in public life, which occurred in the Carolingian era.

Episcopal and Protestant Developments

Vestments such as Sandals and Stockings became exclusively Episcopal ornaments. New Pontifical Vestments were the Gloves, Ring, Pectoral Cross, Mitre, and the Crosier, to which were added among the German bishops the smaller Stole called a “Rational,” an imitation of the Pallium.

Protestants have claimed that the clerical vesture development of Liturgical Priestly Vestments in the period between the ninth and thirteenth centuries was due to the formulation of the Western dogma of Transubstantiation.

However, this is entirely incorrect. As early as about 800, before the Scholastic discussions concerning the Holy Eucharist, the Liturgical dress was complete in all its essential parts.

The introduction of the Cope, and the Surplice arose from the desire to be more comfortable; but the clerical vesture development of the Episcopal-Bishops dress was based, as has been said, upon the important secular position which the Bishops enjoyed from the Carolingian era, which naturally brought about a corresponding enrichment of the Pontifical dress. The doctrine of Transubstantiation exerted no influence upon the clerical vesture development of the Liturgical Vestments.

In the Eastern half of the Church, particularly the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the development of the Liturgical dress cannot be traced in this period; 0nly the Pontifical-Bishops Vestments was enriched.

The New Episcopal Vestments

The new Episcopal Vestments were:

  1. The Sakkos, (an elaborately embroidered Dalmatic) still a Patriarchal Vestment;
  2. The Epimanikien, (much like the Roman Pontifical Fanon);
  3. The Epigonation, (rhombus-shaped portion of silk hanging to below the right knee), in so far as this Vestment had not already been introduced before the ninth century. The epigonation first had the form of a handkerchief and was called Enchirion (hand-cloth, handkerchief), it was not named Epigonation until the twelfth century.

Vestments From the Thirteenth Century
to the Present Time

From the thirteenth century to the present time, the history of the Liturgical Vestments is almost entirely the history of their “Rubrical” evolution, their adornment with embroidery and ornamental trimmings, and the nature of the material from which they are made.

In general, the tendency in the period from the thirteenth century until the middle to late 1960’s has been towards greater richness of material and ornamentation, but, at the same time, towards greater convenience.

Therefore, a constantly increasing shortening and fitting to the figure of the Vestments, (predominantly the Chasuble) naturally impairing the form and aesthetic effect of the Vestments.

The Mitre alone was permitted to grow into a tower disproportionate in shape from those more ancient use and style. Taking everything together, the clerical vesture development which Liturgical Vestments have experienced since the thirteenth century, and more especially since the sixteenth century, hardly appears to be a matter of satisfaction, notwithstanding all the richness and costliness of ornamentation, but rather a lamentable disfigurement caused by the taste of the time.

In the East there has been little or no development in the last five to six hundred year period. The one Vestment which has been added, in the 15th century, according to some authors, or modified from the original of the Eastern and Oriental traditions, is the Bishops-Episcopal Mitre. In the Byzantine tradition (those who use the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom & St. Basil) and adopted among some of the Oriental Churches is the late Byzatine Roman Imperial Crown.

After the fall of the Eastern Empire to the Ottoman Turks, in the middle 15th century, it appears that the Greek Patriarch somehow or another started to wear the ancient Imperial Crown in place of what had previously been worn as a Mitre in that tradition.

Visit Our New Store

Return from Clerical Vesture Development to the Home Page