Ask 100 priests and ministers why they decided to pursue their vocations and you just might get 100 different answers, not a single one of which will be “Because I wanted to spiff up my wardrobe.”
Still, clerical haberdashery has come a long way since the Bing Crosby days, when one could still get a nasty glare from the pastor for wearing a St. Louis Browns sweatshirt (remember “Going My Way”?). True, the clerics of the ‘90s must resign themselves to a daily professional wardrobe that isn’t exactly going to burn up the pages of GQ or Vogue, but it’s no one-note samba either. And Henry Ford’s dictum--any color as long as it’s black--doesn’t necessarily apply.
Collectively, the day-to-day duds of Catholic priests, as well as Anglican and Episcopal priests and Lutheran ministers, are known as “clericals.” Other faiths wear ceremonial garb during services, but those four denominations, say clerical haberdashers, make up the great majority of their everyday customers. And, they say, individual tastes vary as widely as any layman’s.
“It’s as true of clergy as anyone else,” said Stephen Fendler, president of C.M. Almy & Son, a large clerical haberdashery company based in Greenwich, Conn. “Many of them regard their clothing as just the uniform of the trade . . . and there are others who are very fastidious about the way they dress.”
Patrick Cotter, co-owner of Cotter Church Supplies in Los Angeles, the largest local supplier of clerical clothing, said the variety of clerical wear affords clergy a rare chance to personalize their appearance.
“Some guys couldn’t care less,” he said, “but there are quite a few who are really concerned that everything they’ve got is correct and looks nice.”
The item around which a priest’s or minister’s everyday outfit is built is the clerical shirt. Made of cotton or a cotton-poly blend and usually fitted with a placket to cover the buttons, it accommodates the distinctive clerical collar. Cotter’s catalog offers shirt fabrics in eight colors, including navy and wine, and Almy sells three styles of pinstripes.
While Catholic priests are more likely to choose black than their Protestant colleagues, Msgr. Lawrence Baird, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, said some priests have opted for a sportier look. Catholic canon law, he said, requires the wearing of ecclesiastical garb, but some priests have chosen colors since the Second Vatican Council in the early ‘60s relaxed some of the rules governing clericals. Cotter sells a golf shirt called the “sport cleric” that accommodates a clerical collar. And Almy sells a tropical-weight, long-waisted “Panama” shirt.
Clerical dress is far more colorful for female Anglican and Episcopal priests. Whereas the look of ceremonial vestments is prescribed by church tradition and their drape is unisex, clerical blouses attempt feminine touches like frontal pleats.
“Women are making up a larger share of our business,” Fendler said. “They’re experiencing the same thing many women did in the secular business world a few years ago. They don’t just want a man-tailored shirt.”
The ordination of women “was a blessing for many reasons,” said Father Peter D. Haynes, the rector of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Corona del Mar. “One of those reasons was that it expanded the styles of clerical wear. Many of us started being more fashion-conscious around that time.”
Judy Turberg of Corona del Mar, a student at the Episcopal School of Theology at Claremont, said she plans a basic but feminine wardrobe after she is ordained.
“It used to be you had to make do with small men’s sizes,” she said. “But now there are cuts specifically for women. I can’t really say the style is more feminine, but it’s the clothes you wear with it that makes the difference and reflects your personality, mostly a skirt and jacket.”
Haynes’ wardrobe, like the one Turberg plans, is modest but serviceable. “The only part of my wardrobe that’s real clerical wear,” he said, “is a black shirt and collar. Otherwise, I wear Dockers and Rockports and a Nordstrom blazer.”
Like Haynes, Father Olin Mayfield, an associate pastor at St. Denis Catholic Church in Diamond Bar, keeps it simple. He owns, like Haynes, a formal vest for dressy occasions. But he doesn’t like the French cuffs offered on formal clerical shirts, so he had a conventional white shirt modified for a clerical collar. He buys his black slacks and jackets at JCPenney “because they sell suits by the piece.”
These are, mostly, purchases that fit a cleric’s limited budget. But ceremonial vestments can wound the pocketbook. Most Protestant and Catholic churches supply the majority of their priests’ and ministers’ vestments, but each cleric usually purchases a few items as well. Most own their own alb, a cassock-like garment, usually white, that can cost anywhere from about $50 to hundreds of dollars. Stoles run from about $50 to $150, and chasubles, the colorful and often ornate outer garments, start at about $80 and top out at about $1,500. The price hinges on the fabric and workmanship, Fendler said.
Much of that workmanship is done by large companies such as Almy. But in Los Angeles, an order of nuns, the Sister Disciples of the Divine Master--known jokingly among clerics as the Sisters of the Divine Needle--operate a vestment tailoring business as part of the mission of their order. Seven nuns sew in the order’s workshop, near their convent in downtown Los Angeles, and their handiwork winds up in Protestant as well as Catholic churches.
“If people have their own designs for something they want, we try to do that,” said Sister de la Paz. “We make more albs than anything--about 12 a month--and sometimes six or seven chasubles. We’re reasonable; we charge a little less than some others.”
Occasionally, though, only the best will do.
“I sell, believe it or not, a lot of zucchettos [a Catholic bishop’s or cardinal’s skull cap; the pope’s is white],” Cotter said. “Quite a few bishops come in from the Pacific Rim and South America and these types of items are things they just don’t have in stock in their stores.”
But Cotter doesn’t make them. He said he deals directly with the No. 1 manufacturer of top-of-the-line zucchettos worldwide: Ditta, Annibale and Gammarelli of Rome, tailors to Pope John Paul II.