Origins of Clergy Attire
By B. D. Kennedy, B.A., M.Div., Th.M., B.Ed.
Protodeacon, Eparchy of Toronto, UGCC

Historical Origins
No prescribed clerical attire existed in the early centuries of Christianity. The origins of clerical attire and vesture can be traced to the civilian dress of the late Roman Empire. It is certainly not derived from the priestly vesture of the Old Testament. In its origins there appears to be no connection with clothing and the Christian priestly office. Most of the clothing and insignia of Christian ministers, at least in their essentials, developed from the clothing of the laity as worn in antiquity. This development took place between the 4th and 9th centuries. As the laity abandoned the classical clothing of the late Roman Empire and adopted new fashions introduced by barbarian invaders, the clergy maintained the earlier fashions. (For a detailed account of the history of clerical attire and vesture refer to the bibliography.)
Canonical Prescriptions
From the 6th century onwards, beginning with the Council of Braga in Portugal in A.D. 572, the clergy were required to wear a vestis talaris, i.e. a tunic reaching to the feet. They were to avoid the secular fashions of the laity. The Quinisext Council or Council in Trullo of A.D. 692 stresses that the clergy shall wear suitable clothes either when travelling or when at home (can. 27). If the clergy refused to wear the appointed dress they were to be punished with an excommunication of one week.
The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches states that “particular law is to be observed in regard to the attire of clerics” (CCEC can. 387). This is in continuity with previous legislation. The point is that the general or universal law does not prescribe one particular form of attire for all clergy throughout the world. The particular Churches sui iuris are to prescribe their own laws. Obviously, the particular law must take into consideration the traditions and customs of each Church sui iuris. (A Church sui iuris is one of its own right with an acknowledged autonomy with regard to government and discipline.) Unlike the Code of Canon Law for the Roman Church that makes exemptions for permanent deacons but not transitional deacons in regards to clerical attire, the CCEC includes all clerics (deacons, presbyters and bishops) under the same prescription.
Thus the general law of the Eastern Catholic Churches does not exempt deacons from wearing clerical attire as is the case in the Roman rite (CIC can. 288).
Further clarification on the legislation is presented in the Instruction for Applying the Liturgical Prescriptions of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. The Congregation for the Eastern Churches on the 6th of January 1996 promulgated this instruction. Under No. 66, The liturgical vestments, we read “As for the non-liturgical dress of the clergy, it is appropriate that the individual Churches sui iuris return to the style of the traditional Eastern usage.” It should be noted that this is a call to reform and to return to the authentic tradition of each Church sui iuris in the matter of clerical attire. This same document in No. 21, The ecumenical value of the common liturgical heritage, states,
“In every effort of liturgical renewal, therefore, the practice of the Orthodox brethren should be taken into account, knowing it, respecting it and distancing from it as little as possible so as not to increase the existing separation, but rather intensifying efforts in view of eventual adaptations, maturing and working together. Thus will be manifested the unity that already subsists in daily receiving the same spiritual nourishment from practicing the same common heritage.26”
Footnote 26 reads: Cf. John Paul II, Discourse to participants of the meeting about the pastoral problems of the Catholic Church of the Byzantine rite in Romania (22 January 1994): L’Osservatore Romano, 22 January 1994, p5; see also in Servizio Informazioni per le Chiese Orintali 49 (1994) 2.
We also note that in a instruction focusing on the attire of prelates in the Roman rite in No. 30, it states “With regard to the dress and titles of cardinals and patriarchs of the Eastern rites, the traditional usages of their individual rite is to be followed.” (Instruction Ut sive sollicite, 31 March 1969.)
The spirit of recent legislation calls for a reform and return to the authentic traditions. This legislation implies there is to be no imitation of the Roman rite or hybridization, let alone the polemical approach of some who attire themselves in clothes that are different from the Orthodox in order to make a point about being Catholic. It is apparent that the mind of the legislator is directing all clerics in the Eastern Catholic Churches to adopt the traditional practice of the Orthodox clergy in regards to clerical attire.
The purpose of this material is to be descriptive in respective to the issues it addresses. While the material is accurate, because of the fluidity of the nature of the topics covered, it is not definitive. Neither is it legalistic in its intent not does it pretend to be normative. It is written in response to the queries posed to the author in regards to the “best practice”.
Select Bibliography:
J. Braun, Die Liturgische Gewandung im Occident und Orient nach Ursprung und Entwicklung, Verwandung und Symbolik, 1907.
Archimandrite Chrysostom. Orthodox Liturgical Dress. 1981.
N.F. Robinson. Monasticism in the Orthodox Churches. 1916.
Codex Canonum Ecclesiarum Orientalium, 1990.
Codex Iuris Canonici, 1983.
Instruction for applying the Liturgical Prescriptions of the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, 1996.
The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, 1991.