In the first centuries of Christianity, the clergy wore the same clothing as other people. It wasn't until around the sixth century that, as society changed to embrace more extravagant styles, clergy remained with more muted, conservative colors and styles of dress. This split of styles would be the first clerical dress the clergy wore.
As the Middle Ages gave rise to the universities, lay scholars began dressing more like the clergy. The Church responded to this trend at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 by decreeing that the cassock, a long flowing garment, would be the daily wear of the priest. This change distinguished clergy from lay scholars.
With the advent of the Reformation came a change in clergy dress. While Roman Catholic clergy kept the cassock, Protestant clergy began to change their dress to distinguish themselves. At first, Protestant clergy adopted the attire of university academics. Later, in the 17th century, they added wearing a cravat, a neck scarf tied around the neck to resemble a yoke.
The origins of the modern clerical shirt are in the 19th century. Before then, Protestant clergy tended to wear a higher collar and cravat. As it became fashionable to turn the collar down, so it became the trend in clergy wear as well.
While the cassock was the traditional wear of the priest since the Fourth Lateran Council, a change in priestly attire came in the United States in the 20th century. Priests began to limit wearing of the cassock, opting instead for clerical shirts similar to Protestant clergy with a black suit.
The priest traditionally wears a black shirt, symbolizing his choice for a simpler life. Black also symbolizes death: The priest is reminded and called by the very clothes he wears to die to self and seek to serve those around him.
For permanent deacons, it is left up to each diocesan bishop to choose the attire a deacon is to wear. In the Archdiocese of St. Louis, deacons are permitted to wear a gray clergy shirt with a black suit. This is primarily so that they may be identified quickly and easily as a permanent deacon.
The other major clergy shirt color is white. White is typically worn by clergy when ministering in areas where the weather is excessively warm, making wearing the color black excessively burdensome.
There are other colors of clergy shirts as well. A religious order may adopt a certain color of clergy shirt for their priests and brothers, or go with the default black. Otherwise, Catholic clergy normally wear the black shirt for the priest or the gray shirt for the deacon.
This column appeared in a previous edition of the Review.
Father Mayo is pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Warrenton.