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Article Info:
published: 3/17/04
updated: 8/14/14

Ecclesiastical Vestments: What Priests and Bishops Wear

What are vestments?


Roman Catholic clerical vestments and adornments are almost entirely of ancient secular origin.

The Church before the age of Constantine knew no distinction between secular and religious dress, although drawings in the catacombs show that the latter was dignified and rich.

But the growth of the authority of the clergy both within and without the Church, the increasing esteem for the liturgy and its progressive development, and, not least, the continuous specialization of official dress, all combined to favor the use of richer and more varied materials and the marking of differences of rank among the clergy as was done among secular officials; still, there was no question of a class distinction.

History and use

The ecclesiastical garb first became peculiar in a strict sense when, under the influence of the migration of the Germanic tribes, the costumes as well as the forms of the ancient world passed away and the more convenient medieval dress was substituted, while the Church (and for a longer or shorter period, the upper classes and the higher officials also) clung to Roman or Greek fashions.

Under the influence of the discovery by the liturgists of a supposed connection of the liturgical costume with that of Old Testament worship, and then through the effect of custom and of the fashions of the beginning of the Middle Ages, a development was initiated, which did not indeed do away with the traditional usage, but transformed it more or less.

Nevertheless, the history of ecclesiastical vestments in the Middle Ages shows no sharp divisions. The Renaissance and rococo periods, on the other hand, strongly asserted their peculiar taste.

In the Greek Orthodox Church the movement was much less marked. The Evangelical churches broke with the mode of dress which expressed the priestly and hierarchic character of the clergy, and found a modest substitute.

Monuments are in this investigation a safer guide than literary sources. Yet a positive chronology cannot generally be fixed for the historical evolution because this evolution did not everywhere follow along the same lines.

More detailed information on vestments worn in Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches is provided in the articles listed below.

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  1. Victor Schultze, "Vestments." New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (Baker Book House, 1950).

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