Last night, I attended a scotch tasting dinner with a room full of Jesuit priests. I’m not religious but I do drink, and assuming this would be an opportunity that may never present itself again, I went. Between dinner courses, highland dancing, speeches, and four very different scotches, I noted the clothing of the Jesuit brothers and thought about their collars, why they exist, how they work, and what they’re made of.
Evolution of the clerical collar
The white collar worn by clerics of the Anglican, Methodist, Eastern Orthodox, Baptist, Lutheran, and the Roman Catholic church, speaks a visual language that everyone recognizes. Some say the white band is a symbol of a person’s holy calling, others that the clergy carry on the tradition of differentiating themselves from the laity – non-priests or clergy of a religious faith.
According to Dr. Timothy R. LeCroy in A Short History of the Wearing of Clerical Collars in the Presbyterian Tradition, the clergy adopted the dress of academics (i.e. black robes) during the Reformation, and after a while, added a distinctive white neck cloth (the cravat) to differentiate themselves. By the 17th and 18th centuries, clergy tied their cravats into bows or added “preaching bands”. These instantly recognizable pieces are still worn by some priests, pastors, and Canadian lawyers wear the same item with their court robes, but call them “tabs”.
In Vestments and Clericals, Reverend Kenneth W. Collins explains that “the Protestant clergy had been wearing white preaching bands for quite some time; [the clerical collar creator, Rev. Dr. Donald] McLeod combined them with the detachable collar that was in use at the time.”
McLeod was a 19th century Scottish Presbyterian who developed the stiff and narrow clerical collar we know it today. During the middle of the century, most men wore stiff, detachable linen collars, and McLeod used these as the base for the updated clerical collar. However, before the collar took its modern form, there was a Catholic influence to be mixed in.
After the Reformation, councils of the Catholic church deemed that priests wear cassocks. Cassocks, or vestis talaris in Latin, are black, ankle length robes with deep skirts. Cassocks derive from early “closed clothing” of ancient Rome and into the Byzantine and early Christian periods; the tunica tolaris was an ankle length garment, tube-like and closed up the sides.
In his very interesting article, Why Priests Wear Black, Father William Saunders explains that the sash, or cincture worn around the waist of the cassock represents chastity, the colour black, poverty, and the square Roman collar, obedience.
Wikipedia says that the white square of on the clergy’s collar is there to mimic the collar of a cassock, but I’m not sure this is true.
Reverend Collins says the Roman Catholic church adopted the clerical collars after McLeod’s creation, and themselves modified it into the tab-collar style. So there’s that.
In Clerical Dress and Insignia of the Roman Catholic Church, Reverend Henry McCloud states that the collar “was nothing else than the shirt collar turned down over the cleric’s everyday common dress in compliance with a fashion that began toward the end of the sixteenth century. For when the laity began to turn down their collars, the clergy also took up the mode.”
After the Second Vatican Council in 1967, the Catholic Church adopted a plain black suit and the clerical band collar, as the cassock waned in popularity. For some reason, the clerical collar is commonly (and mistakenly) associated with the Catholic clergy, though the collar is worn by Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and clergy of other faiths.
Modern clerical collars
Father Alex sat at my table at the scotch tasting, and I asked him about his shirt and collar. The collar was shallow and sturdy with the fronts stitched down in a “tunnel” fashion to hold the strip of white collar that he pulled out of his shirt to show me. Somehow I was disappointed to see that it was a piece of plastic, but the concept was interesting. He said the old collars were made of starched linen.
There are different styles of collars available, as shown here. Below is the tonsure collar that is a full band version of the slip in, and the Vicar’s or dog collar.
For more information about clerical garb, check out sites like this one in the UK that only sells fair trade clothing, and Hammond & Harper of London, a member of a reputable group of companies that has supplied shirts and collars to clergy for over 50 years, complete with a “30 day no quibble” guarantee replacement policy!